Forty-five-year-old Zahira* was arrested at her workplace in the suburbs of Damascus in 2013. Her first 15 days in captivity, at Al Mezzeh Military Airport, stretch the meaning of the word "nightmare" to its outermost limits.
On arrival, Zahira was tied to a bed and repeatedly gang-raped—orally and vaginally—by five men. She was later anally, orally, and vaginally raped and her interrogator, filming her ordeal, threatened to show the footage to people in her community.
In addition to the sexual violence Zahira endured, she was also physically tortured: electrocuted; beaten with a plastic water hose on her back and soles of her feet; had her back bent; held in solitary confinement; and denied access to sanitation, medical care, or toilet facilities.
After a months-long ordeal across multiple illegal detention facilities, she was eventually released because her captors mistakenly thought their abuse had killed her. By this point, she'd become incontinent as a result of the multiple rapes she'd endured, and spent months in the hospital undergoing reconstructive surgeries.
Zahira is not the only woman who has experienced such profound abuse under Assad. A new report from Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights, "Voices from the Dark: Torture and Sexual Violence Against Women In Assad's Detention Centers," lays bare the scale of torture and sexual abuse endured by women in Syrian detention facilities, and includes the harrowing stories of eight women who survived the regime's illegal detention centers. All suffered torture and illegal treatment; many were sexually assaulted and raped. Three women attempted to kill themselves while being detained; one of these women, Ayda*, was raped under a photo of President Assad and later left in a windowless cell for six days with a dead body.
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All of the accounts in the report have been independently verified by a team of lawyers and doctors working to achieve justice for Ayda, and Zahira, and all of Syria's other victims, male and female. Tens of thousands individuals are believed to still remain in illegal detention in Syria; many of them are women.
"Most of the girls and women reported rape during their detention but not to satisfy sexual desire, but only as a subjugation weapon," explains a LDHR spokesperson. "Each raped women was told that she deserves this because she is a terrorist."
Whereas initially many of the women arrested at the outbreak of civil unrest were political activists or humanitarian workers, many women now appear to be arrested for the alleged or suspected crimes of their male relatives, or to be used as bargaining chips, says LDHR. Neither Ayda nor Zahira were told the reasons they were being detained.
While the women in the LDHR report have escaped with their lives, social and psychological scars remain. "We have to support them reach and get the services they need especially for the psychological impact," the spokesperson goes on. "We should advocate for their stories and for the similar experiences of other Syrian women to prevent the sexual violence and mitigate the stigma. There should be also strong advocacy on sparing no efforts to turn the light on the systematic torture and sexual violence being committed in prisons, and to investigate for the names of perpetrators to be held accountable."
Advocates are hopeful that women like Ayda and Zahira will one day receive justice for the crimes committed against them. By sharing their stories, they aim to draw attention to the plight of the other women who languish in jails like Adra prison, in Damascus, where Amnesty International reports that the many Syrian female prisoners are currently held. And in the UK, a group of escaped Syrian detainees prepare an exhibition next month to highlight these women's stories. But advocates say the arc of justice may be long.
"Our faith comes from reading the history of other countries and learn from their experiences," the spokesperson continued. "Because of the enormity of the phenomenon of torture and degrading treatment, we believe that there will be a huge volume of pressure from the humanitarian activists all over the world."
*Names have been changed.