Syrian Army Accused of Vicious, Systematic Rape

She speaks haltingly. Telling the story isn’t easy for the 38-year-old Syrian Sunni Muslim, and she won’t be explicit about the physical details that suggest her friend had been raped before dying. Coaxed by her husband, and with her 4-year-old daughter fidgeting by her side, Saima talks quietly of the slaughter of her husband’s first wife, of her own near-death, and of the rape of a friend in their hometown of Homs in west Syria.

Her story adds to mounting allegations that Syrian forces—most especially the pro-government Shabiha civilian militia, the ultraloyal enforcers of embattled President Bashar al-Assad’s regime—are using sexual violence and rape to terrify and punish rebels, adding to the cruelty of an 18-month-long conflict that has seen the government shoot unarmed civilians, including children, and shell populated areas, and has seen the rebels torture and execute captured Shabiha militiamen.

“Syrian government forces have used sexual violence to torture men, women, and boys,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Soldiers and pro-government armed militias have sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas.”

The stigma of sexual assault runs deep in Syrian culture as it does across the Middle East; rape is shaming and casts dishonor, and it is especially difficult for Salma to speak of such things with a male stranger, making her testimony that much more significant and plausible. Dressed in black, her head covered by a hijab, Saima displays her scarred hand. She’d raised it instinctively as bullets were flying to shield her daughter when the Shabiha stormed their home and started shooting randomly.

In a house just north of the city of Aleppo where the family has taken refuge, Saima grimaces as she recalls Feb. 11, the day that regular Syrian Army soldiers had come to their pro-rebel neighborhood in Homs. The soldiers searched the houses, smashing furniture and beating the men with rifle butts. That was merely a prelude for the raid an hour later when the Shabiha arrived.

Drawn mostly from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, the thuggish militia has been blamed for many of the worst excesses in the conflict. “I recognized some of them. They were from Alawi districts nearby. They were our neighbors, too,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief. “I was sitting with my ‘sister-wife’ and a friend and our children. The Shabiha ordered us to stand, screamed at us and started to fire wildly.” The assault left the sister-wife dead, as well as all of her four young children. Saima survived along with her own three children (who range from 4 to 10 years old) thanks in part to a militiaman who was sent back to kill them, but who instead rattled off rounds harmlessly into the ceiling.

For human-rights organizations, rape allegations during a bitter conflict always pose a challenge. Combatants—from rebels to governments—often accuse opponents of rape, seeking to demonize their adversaries and gain a propaganda edge. Assessing rape allegations gets even more challenging in the Middle East, where women won’t come forward because of the dishonor it brings to their families. They suffer in silence, handling the trauma of rape alone. Human-rights workers are still trying to understand the scale of rape as a weapon of war during the Libyan conflict that saw Col. Muammar Gaddafi toppled last year. Sorting out fact from fiction, working out how many women—and men—suffered sexual violence and whether the rapes were systematic and ordered by the Gaddafi regime bosses, or were more opportunistic and spur-of-the-moment, is proving challenging there.

In Libya, too, rebels were eager to “cry rape” when it served their propaganda purposes but denied vehemently any rebels were involved in sexual violence—something Libyan women activists say happened, although to a lesser degree. As in Libya, investigators in Syria are likely to have to rely on the evidence coming from rapists themselves or from their fellow combatants who refused to abuse. Or they will have to base their assessment on the testimony of medical staff to understand the scale and nature of the sexual violence in Syria.

“In this region this is one of the most difficult crimes to document,” says Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch. “So it is possible that cases that come to our attention are just a tip of the iceberg. We are also being very careful when documenting rape allegations, especially the ones coming from third parties rather than victims themselves or medical professionals who treated them.”

The watchdog group is investigating allegations currently of at least two cases of rape in Aleppo, which resulted in pregnancies and the evacuation of the women to Turkey. The group has currently documented another 20 incidents of sexual violence.

Army defectors claim that officers encourage rape. Mohamed, a 23-year-old who served in the Syrian Army in a special forces unit as a sergeant, says he decided to join the rebellion several months ago after being ordered to rape teenage girls in Homs at the end of last year. “Some of my friends who refused to rape were shot,” he says. “I managed to disobey, and fortunately the officers got distracted,” he adds.

“The officers were mostly Alawite, and they would target the houses of [opposition] activists in Homs and gather the younger girls and rape them. After they’d finished they’d tell the soldiers outside to come in and rape the girls, too. The girls would generally be shot when everyone had finished. They wanted it to be known in the neighborhoods that the girls had been raped, but they didn’t want the girls to survive and be able to identify them later.”

The scale of sexual violence in Syria—and whether it is being done systematically under the direction of government superiors—remains unclear and will be for some time. Nonetheless, the allegations are too persistent and widespread to dismiss, and they are adding to a seething fury on the rebel side, justifying, as far as many rebels are concerned, brutal treatment of Army soldiers and Shabiha who fall into their hands. Sexual violence will also likely make reconciliation between the Sunni majority and their minority Alawite neighbors that much harder to pull off in the future. Asked whether he could live close to Alawites again, Saima’s husband doesn’t hesitate to say no. “How can I? How can anyone ask me to live with Alawites again?”

The daily Beast

  • bs244846

    Lol it seems alawites have rape of sunnites in their genotype and that the sunnah are genotypically predestined to be raped by alawis…well if that is the case you are propagating by publishing such a rubbish article which brings down this website then to answer to it is…let it be then…lol you are really funny

    • 5thDrawer

      No-one said anything about genes here …. although they might have mentioned education which begins in the home.

    • 5thDrawer

      No-one said anything about genes here …. although they might have mentioned education which begins in the home.

  • bs244846

    Lol it seems alawites have rape of sunnites in their genotype and that the sunnah are genotypically predestined to be raped by alawis…well if that is the case you are propagating by publishing such a rubbish article which brings down this website then to answer to it is…let it be then…lol you are really funny

    • 5thDrawer

      No-one said anything about genes here …. although they might have mentioned education which begins in the home.

  • dateam

    How can anyone ask me to live with Alawites again…..this is what the end game of all this will be….it was never a sectarian issue in syria before but it has been turned into one….

  • dateam

    How can anyone ask me to live with Alawites again…..this is what the end game of all this will be….it was never a sectarian issue in syria before but it has been turned into one….

  • 5thDrawer

    I think we need to admit that the relationships between women and men have never been ones of equality. Basically because if they were equal, there would be no progeny. 🙂
    We will admit that only relatively recent history has allowed for the thinking that women should have all the same rights and freedoms that men enjoy. Generally speaking, we learned this is a good thing for all of human society.
    It is the men who enjoy that ‘fight’ instinct too well – and that includes fighting for our women – those we hold dear, anyway. To damage the enemy’s woman is to damage the enemy – some weird proof of superiority.
    Atrocities visited on the enemy’s women has gone out of vogue in the ‘educated world’ . True – although there are brief occurrences still, it is a learned and modern response to say ‘Shame’.
    In societies where the woman is blamed for having ‘the shame’ put upon her – upheld by a religious precept – there can be no logical reason a man can see to not to rape an enemy’s woman. And when even ‘the enemy’ views the woman as basically a possession, what can you say?
    Of course, the slaughter of the woman and her kids after the one atrocity of ‘shaming’ is seen more widely as an atrocity in it’s own right. These days.

  • 5thDrawer

    I think we need to admit that the relationships between women and men have never been ones of equality. Basically because if they were equal, there would be no progeny. 🙂
    We will admit that only relatively recent history has allowed for the thinking that women should have all the same rights and freedoms that men enjoy. Generally speaking, we learned this is a good thing for all of human society.
    It is the men who enjoy that ‘fight’ instinct too well – and that includes fighting for our women – those we hold dear, anyway. To damage the enemy’s woman is to damage the enemy – some weird proof of superiority.
    Atrocities visited on the enemy’s women has gone out of vogue in the ‘educated world’ . True – although there are brief occurrences still, it is a learned and modern response to say ‘Shame’.
    In societies where the woman is blamed for having ‘the shame’ put upon her – upheld by a religious precept – there can be no logical reason a man can see to not to rape an enemy’s woman. And when even ‘the enemy’ views the woman as basically a possession, what can you say?
    Of course, the slaughter of the woman and her kids after the one atrocity of ‘shaming’ is seen more widely as an atrocity in it’s own right. These days.