As the world looks on while a Srebrenica-style massacre unfolds in eastern Ghouta, news of another dark side to the brutality of the Syrian regime is also beginning to emerge; the imprisonment and torture of women. The stories of rape and inhuman treatment in Syria’s prisons have now prompted a number of high-profile women to launch a global movement to send an all-female peace convoy to the Syrian border to shine a light on these war crimes.
Despite being hidden away in the dungeons and prisons of the Assad regime, eyewitness accounts are beginning to emerge, providing details of the plight of thousands of women. They are, by all accounts, being tortured, raped and summarily executed.
Since the war in Syria began in March 2011, nearly 14,000 women have been arrested by the regime. Around half are still being held, along with more than 400 of their children. There are fears that the numbers are much higher, with rumours of hidden and ghost prisons across the country.
The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria admitted recently that because of stigmatisation and trauma, few women or their families are prepared to lodge official complaints about the sexual violence to which have been subjected, or have witnessed. However, the inaction of the UN is also causing frustration among female peace activists, and now some have come together as the “Conscience Convoy for Women” in order to highlight the plight of their sisters and children imprisoned and tortured in Syria. I should declare an interest at this stage and say that I am honoured to be among the women behind this campaign.
I have previous form in such activism. Years ago, I visited the Syrian Embassy in London to highlight the plight of a ghost prisoner who was being held in a Damascus prison. Rather than confirm his whereabouts, the regime was more interested in finding out who had told me about his plight. Ten years down the line it chills me to the bone to think that even women and children are now being subjected to “the treatment” dished out in President Bashar Al-Assad’s dungeons.
Our journey will begin in Istanbul on 6 March when we will head for the Turkish-Syrian border. Once there — it should take a couple of days — we will raise our banner and voices on behalf of the women who are suffering in such a brutal way: torture, rape and summary execution are no joke. If there is any humanity left in the hearts of those running what must be the most brutal regime on earth at the moment, they will release all of the women and girls into our care at the border.
Travelling in a convoy of buses, women from all backgrounds and professions will take part, including lawyers, academics, journalists, housewives, businesswomen, athletes, artists, dozens of Turkish NGO representatives, social workers, teachers, doctors and politicians. It has become quite clear to all of us that we cannot rely on the UN or its “Security Council” to stand up for thousands of voiceless Syrian women and girls, so we women on the convoy will do so instead; we will be their voice.
I have been told that some of the Syrian women were arrested or abducted during pregnancy and were forced to give birth behind bars; some were impregnated by their gaolers after being raped repeatedly. That’s what we know about the women in the official regime-run prisons; we have no verifiable information about those being held in the many anonymous buildings used as unofficial detention centres.
“The number of people who are kept in different buildings and facilities used as prisons is still unknown,” admits convoy organiser Fatima Zahraa Alaoui. “According to the last statistics issued by Syrian human rights organisations, though, the number of women detained by the Syrian regime between 2011 and 2017 stands at 13,581.” Of that number, she adds, more than 6,700 are still being held by the regime, including 417 children. “The Conscience Convoy will reach the Syrian border on World Women’s Day on 8 March to make a call to the world.”
Anyone interested in joining the Convoy can make contact on Twitter with either Fatima or Gulden Sonmez @Conscience_conv . Further details will be published soon.
Setting off from Istanbul, the Convoy will pass through Izmit, Sakarya, Ankara, Konya and Adana. Women are expected to be joining the group from within Turkey, while a global contingent will be taking part from the start.
Meanwhile, the focus tonight is on eastern Ghouta, which is being likened to Srebrenica, the site of the worst war crimes committed on European soil since 1945. As was the case with the Bosnian Muslim enclave in 1995, eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, has been besieged by regime forces since the early stages of the war. Despite years of bombardment, siege and brutality, though, the regime has failed to dislodge rebel factions. And just like Srebrenica, vital medical supplies, food and other aid have been cut off, even though Russian forces declared eastern Ghouta to be one of the agreed “de-escalation zones”. Tragically, as happened in Bosnia, the civilian population is being exposed to the full brutality of the regime; its military offensives escalated in December and talks have broken down.
The UN has called for an immediate ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, and has pleaded with coalition forces — including the pro-regime Iranian-backed militias and Russians — to stop their bombardments. Relief agencies have made similar appeals but have been ignored so far. Record numbers of locals have been killed in the past 48 hours — “It’s not a war. It’s a massacre…” said one headline —and for those who are still alive there is simply no escape or relief.
Women and children being brutalised behind closed doors; women, children and men being massacred in full view of the world’s media. It looks like business as usual for the Assad regime, but perhaps the women of the world can shame the Syrian President and his cohorts in Damascus into putting an end to this barbaric behaviour.