Soon after the young woman was released by the Syrian government in a prisoner exchange, activists began noticing the signs.
The woman’s husband immediately divorced her. She rarely ventured outside her parents’ house. Not long after, she left for Turkey.
Activist Kareem Saleh, who knew the woman from their work within Syria’s peaceful opposition, called her at her new home, hoping to document the suspected sexual crimes. But the woman resisted, asking why her story was important and how it would benefit the antigovernment cause. Saleh spoke to her over the course of several days, but even when the woman relented, she would describe the conditions of her captivity only in general terms.
“She said, ‘There was a lot, a lot of torture,’ and I said, ‘What kind of torture?’ She kept repeating, ‘A lot, a lot of torture,’ and I kept pressing until I wore her down and she finally began telling me specifically about the rape.”
The woman said that she and six other women were abducted and held at the local state security headquarters. Over the course of 22 days, she said, they were raped on a rotating basis, with the head security officer inviting soldiers and others for what he termed “a party.”
More than two years later, none of the other victims has spoken about what happened.
Saleh and his wife, Noor Khateeb, are among the few activists who continue to document the human rights violations in the Syrian civil war. Since the early days of the uprising in 2011, activists have tried to account for every death and injury, every rocket and bomb, even as the world seems to have lost interest in the daily carnage.
Documenting sexual violence has been the biggest challenge, because of Syrian cultural norms that regard rape as a source of shame and dishonor. Terrified women and unwilling families are more concerned about not tarnishing familial honor than in seeking legal justice, especially since there is no foreseeable avenue for prosecutions while the conflict rages on.
Instead, the victims have fled to neighboring nations, divorced or been forced to marry older men, ending up as second or third wives. In the worst cases, they have been killed by their own relatives, in what the families see as a way of restoring honor.
“This is a topic as a society it is forbidden to talk about, but we need to document it,” Saleh said.
Allegations of mass rapes have circulated since Syrian soldiers and militiamen began storming opposition-held neighborhoods and towns. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 4,850 cases of sexual violence, more than half of them rape. Of those, only 40 were based on victims’ statements; the rest relied on witnesses.
The actual number of attacks, however, is estimated to be far greater.
Lack of transparency and a dearth of accurate data are a component of any war, but particularly so in Syria, where the fighting has been waged largely out of view of international monitors and journalists.
“They say, ‘What’s the point of documenting. Are you going to return my daughter like she was before?’” said Sema Nassar, author of a report last year for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.
With millions living in insecure and ramshackle refugee camps in Syria and elsewhere, the threat of sexual violence is inescapable.
Khateeb and Saleh have also documented several cases of sexual assault by members of the opposition Free Syrian Army, but have not publicized them for fear of retaliation in opposition-controlled areas.
As the fighting became more brutal, sexual violence increased as a weapon of war both in prisons and areas where government forces regained control.
Khateeb was arrested in March 2012 in the central Syrian city of Hama for organizing protests and delivering medical aid to the opposition.
She spent months in the central jail in Homs, along with a growing number of young women arrested for antigovernment activity. The cell was next to the interrogation room, and all day they heard the sounds of prisoners being tortured.
Fearing they would never be released, the activists decided to document their own cases, starting with the names of the officers who interrogated them, the military and intelligence branches they passed through and the torture and sexual abuse they endured. They hid the papers and passed them along to relatives who came to visit.
In each prison she was transferred to, Khateeb would collect accounts from cellmates. Since her release in December 2012, she has devoted her time to documenting the cases of female detainees.
“Rape is the most important violation to document because its effects last forever,” Khateeb said. “Torture scars can heal.”
In July 2012, prison guards brought Salma, the 25-year-old wife of a media activist, into Khateeb’s cell. She was hysterical, with fresh bruises and scars on her body and her hair sloppily shorn. For more than two weeks, her behavior remained erratic. At times she ranted or begged for sedatives. The other women in the cell tried to treat her wounds and calm her.
Three weeks after the woman arrived, Khateeb sat down with her and told her about her own experiences being arrested and interrogated, hoping to gain her trust. Slowly Salma began describing what had happened to her. It took about 15 days to piece together her full account.
Two months earlier, Salma had been kidnapped by the so-called shabiha, militiamen who support the government, she said, and repeatedly gang-raped and tortured.
Eventually, the shabiha turned her over to the central security branch.
“According to her witness statement, when they knew she had been raped before, they raped her again, figuring once or twice more wouldn’t matter,” Khateeb said.
After she was freed months later, Salma’s parents had her killed.
“The parents spoke of it openly, saying this was part of the honor code,” Khateeb said. “And in these cases our society doesn’t hold people accountable. It regards matters of honor [as] not prosecutable.”
Communities have sought to keep such incidents secret, further shrouding the issue.
Nassar said she tried to document an incident of mass rape by the Syrian army in a small village. At least eight women who were hiding in a basement were found by the soldiers and attacked — people nearby heard screams — and women in other basements are believed to have been sexually assaulted as well.
Nassar was never allowed to verify any of the reports. Residents were terrified of the consequences if news got out and “it would forever be described that this village is where all the women were raped,” she said.
One resident even threatened her, saying, “If you mention this incident I’ll cut out your tongue.”
Often, documentation is secondary to assisting in the limited ways available, Nassar said, such as connecting the victim with a psychiatrist or even a doctor willing to perform abortions, which are illegal in Syria. Sometimes victims will give their account only in exchange for medical or psychological help.
Activists are regularly challenged about what benefit will come from recording incidents of sexual violence. For at least the first two years of the conflict, Syrians believed that if the international community realized what was happening in the country, it would intervene. But thousands of videos, photos and interviews later, such hope is gone.
Earlier this year at failed peace talks in Geneva, the Syrian opposition was asked to submit files on all those alleged to be detained in government prisons. The opposition groups were ready, having detailed their accusations against the government from Day 1.
Though it didn’t lead to any tangible outcome, it encouraged activists to continue detailing human rights violations, Khateeb said, “in the hope that there will be prosecutions.”