BEIRUT – In a new report for the London School of Economics’ Centre for Women, Peace and Security, journalist Marie Forestier has documented the patterns of sexual violence against women by pro-government forces in Syria between 2011-2014.
Based on more than 70 interviews with 20 survivors of rape, former detainees in government prisons, doctors, lawyers and defectors from the government security apparatus, the findings point to a systematic use of rape by Syrian authorities to repress women perceived to be allied to the opposition, Forestier told Syria Deeply.
Syria Deeply: Were there any patterns in your research that showed sexual violence against women was being perpetrated by pro-government forces?
Marie Forestier: Clear patterns about the victims, the perpetrators and the context have emerged from survivors’ testimonies. They indicate that rape in the Syrian conflict has not been an opportunistic or isolated crime but a part of the government’s repression policy.
In the vast majority of people I interviewed, pro-government forces targeted women who were perceived to be associated with the opposition. Being a relief worker or having a picture of the Syrian opposition’s flag on a phone was enough to be considered as such – or even being a relative of an activist or a member of an armed group. Women who were not involved in any kind of political activity but who lived in opposition neighborhoods were also considered pro-opposition.
Rapes occurred during offensives on opposition strongholds, in between interrogations in prison and at checkpoints. From my research, sexual crimes appeared to have been more frequent in coastal areas and the central provinces of Homs and Hama.
Testimony I collected pointed to some degree of organization when it comes to sexual violence in prisons. Survivors interviewed recounted that security agents distributed contraceptive pills every day in three different detention centers run by Syrian intelligence. In some cases, doctors treated survivors during their detention. According to testimonies, one doctor suggested he had previously treated similar cases and another performed an abortion on a detainee after she had been raped.
Syria Deeply: What were the main obstacles in collecting and corroborating the research?
Forestier: Identifying and interviewing survivors of sexual violence is extremely challenging due to the sensitivity of the topic and the taboo it is often associated with. Some survivors told me that they didn’t even dare to tell their gynecologist. The stigma surrounding sexual abuse is tremendous, and some women run the risk of being rejected by their families. Sexual violations are often associated with an assault on a woman’s “honor” in conservative societies, making it more difficult for women to speak out.
Research is made more difficult within the current context. The six-year conflict continues, and journalists have little to no access to report inside the Syria. Nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the violence and are dispersed in various countries. In addition, after years of daily atrocities, there is widespread disillusion with the use of documenting and reporting violations. Many women asked me, “What’s the benefit of talking?” This was probably the most difficult question to answer.
Corroborating accounts of sexual violence is also very challenging. In some cases, witnesses refused to go on record to confirm an account because they feared their families still inside Syria would face retribution. In other instances, medical records had been destroyed when houses were bombed. That’s why the main way to assess a testimony is to compare it to patterns that arise from other testimonies. And patterns have shown consistency.
Syria Deeply: The focus of your research was on pro-government forces. What is the profile of perpetrators?
Forestier: The majority of women who testified were raped in intelligence detention centers. Most perpetrators were security officials, from low-level officers to the director of an intelligence branch. Often, several agents assaulted a detainee at the same time. Sexual violence was certainly not a secret inside the facilities: Agents were present during rapes and, in some cases, the director ordered subordinates to rape a detainee.
Rapes also occurred during military operations and kidnappings. From the testimonies I collected, there were perpetrators from both the military as well as paramilitary forces. For instance, rapes reportedly took place during the notorious massacre of al-Houla in Homs in May 2012. Plain-clothes pro-government forces known as “shabiha” raided the village, raping women and killing more than a hundred people, nearly half of them children.
Given the strong hierarchy in the Syrian security apparatus, it is highly unlikely that commanders would have tolerated a practice that high officials would have disapproved of. Since the beginning of the uprising, a climate of impunity has prevailed and has been conducive to such horrific crimes.
Syria Deeply: Could you explain why you think there is a link between the spike in the number of cases and the government feeling threatened in 2012-2013? Have cases decreased since, or has it just become more difficult to report them?
Forestier: In 2012-2013, the opposition strengthened, gathered increasing support and gained ground throughout the country. Meanwhile, the regime faced defections and lost cities or large areas in some provinces. The government realized that it was fighting for its survival and resorted to any available weapons and tactics in order not to lose the country. Several defectors recounted that they received orders from Damascus to do “whatever it takes” to defeat the opposition. I think rape, since it is unfortunately a very effective weapon, was used to achieve this goal. After 2013, the situation stabilized and the regime received significant support from foreign backers. This is why it probably felt less under threat.
It is extremely difficult to say if cases have since decreased. They have probably decreased at checkpoints, since areas under the control of each party have stabilized. But it is impossible to assess the prevalence of sexual violence currently taking place in government-run prisons. Survivors may still be detained or remain inside Syria, which is why obtaining recent testimonies is challenging.
Syria Deeply: What kind of support is available for survivors?
Forestier: Support is extremely limited and doesn’t even exist in many places. Some women saw a doctor, but long-term treatment is inaccessible most of the time. Psycho-social support is very rare. What’s more, most women don’t dare ask for treatment, so they keep their pain quiet.
Many survivors face a double punishment. Not only have they been assaulted, but many have also been rejected by their families. Several women told me that their husbands divorced them after finding out they had been assaulted. Another lost custody of her children.
Syria Deeply: What is the outlook for justice?
Forestier: It is essential that survivors get justice and that perpetrators are held accountable, no matter the mechanism. Rape should not be treated as a secondary crime nor as an unavoidable feature of war. Unfortunately, in the short term, the outlook for justice looks bleak. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is not a likely possibility; Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, and Russia has already used its veto privilege seven times in the U.N. Security Council to block prosecutions.
Last December, the U.N. created a new mechanism to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in order to prepare files for future criminal proceedings. This is an encouraging development, but currently, the possibility that these crimes are brought before an international court seems very remote. At the moment, the best hope for justice rests on European courts. According to the universal jurisdiction principle, the most serious crimes can be prosecuted regardless of where the alleged crime was committed or of the accused’s nationality.
Survivors I’ve interviewed seem split on the issue. Some do not have faith in an justice mechanism and have no expectation, while others are optimistic that perpetrators will be held accountable at an international level.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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