Twenty years ago the world looked on as rape was used as a weapon in Bosnia. Today, the world does the same in Syria, writes Wasim Mir.
“Dramatic beyond description” – that is how the UN describes the humanitarian crisis in Syria. We have all been exposed to the harrowing news and figures that have come out from aid agencies and on the news regarding fatalities approaching six figures, but there is a deeper, more disturbing crisis that is spanning across generations in the troubled Middle-Eastern nation. Whilst the endemics of water-borne diseases and refugee camps have had a massive impact on the physical health burden on Syrians of all ages, I would like to bring to attention another crisis that is currently growing at an ever-rapid rate across the country: rape.
The estimated figures must be taken with a giant pinch of salt when understanding the true scale of rape used since the civil war began over two years ago. Victims have been reluctant to come out and tell their story or disclose that they have been raped. Women struggle with the stigma of sex outside of marriage, yet this brutal act has come from a different angle – there have been a wave of broken marriages and families are torn apart as a result of children born of rape. Additionally, many victims are subjected to being raped in front of their family members, multiple times.
And it must be emphasised; women are by no means the only victims of rape. Men have been said to be routinely subjected to rape in prisons and in the public setting. Some recent surveys have put the figure as high as 20% of victims being male. Of course, it is impossible to know the true extent and proportionality with such a topic. Often when asked about the rape situation victims prefer to talk about a neighbour who has been raped or a story they have heard in the community. Such vivid descriptions are likely to indicate they themselves have been the victims.
Whilst the news coverage focuses on fighting and political instability, there is a generation of traumatized survivors living a broken life. Many suffer nightmares and symptoms of Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder from their ordeals. I recently read an interview under the Women Under Siege in Syria Campaign, headed admirably by Lauren Wolfe. They spoke with a group of women who described scenarios of being raped by military personnel and the Shabiha (plain clothes militia) and then subjected to cigarette burns to the vagina to further torture them. There have even been reports of rats being used to torture women through the vagina, leaving them with serious physical as well as mental trauma.
With limited access for journalists many reports are left unverified but one that stands out in particular from Women Under Siege is another interview with a psychiatrist, Yasser Kanawati. An 18-year-old Free Syrian Army fighter who was imprisoned by the regime stated that military personnel brought his mother, sisters, fiancée, and female neighbours to his prison and raped them one by one in front of him. They then raped his fellow male prisoners and he was left with a spinal injury from torture. When asked if he himself was raped, he remained silent. This is just one drop in an ocean of stories unreported.
Rape has been a tool of war for years and many commentators have drawn parallels with Rwanda and Bosnia. Having spent a month volunteering in Bosnia in 2011, I have a special attachment to the nation and the conflict that tore the region apart 20 years ago. Living with a family in eastern Bosnia, in the province of Republika Srpska (Bosnian-Serb ruled), I heard stories from young and old Bosnian Muslims about their experiences during that conflict. Stories of mass execution and torture were commonplace but once in a while there would be a brief and subtle mention of “how our women suffered”. Explicit stories relating to rape were understandably not disclosed but the underlying pain of the conflict could still be felt beneath the brave faces these people exhibit.
We, as the world, stood by as thousands of women were assaulted and said “never again”. Twenty years on mass rape is being used again and the scars will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Is this the legacy of another generation of innocent civilians? Al Jazeera labelled Syria as the “Kingdom of Silence” back in 2011 when protests began. It seems the world itself struggles to find a common voice of disapproval after two years of a people being annihilated.
“With every war and major conflict, as an international community we say ‘never again’ to mass rape…Yet, in Syria, as countless women are again finding the war waged on their bodies–we are again standing by and wringing our hands.”
Nobel Laureate Jody Williams, co-chair of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict
Organisations such as Medicines Sans Frontieres (Doctors Beyond Borders) have people on the ground in Syria – medical staff, aid workers and those specialising in mental health. The psychological trauma of the war, not least rape, cannot be underestimated. Men, women, families, children have been subjected to what may well be lifelong sequelae of these heinous acts. Anxiety and depression, as well as PTSD, unwanted pregnancies and chronic physical disease as a result of the trauma are just some of these lasting issues.
Of course victims will not openly come forward and it is organisations such as MSF and Women under Siege that seek out to help the most vulnerable. Our support for them must not waver, even when this war comes to an end. The struggle of rebuilding an entire nation is a gargantuan task, one that requires money for infrastructure and political stability. However, in my opinion, the greater struggle lies in the emotional rehabilitation of a people we can not simply leave to suffer the consequences of criminal brutality.
Only time will tell whether Syria will be free from the blood shed and oppression that has torn this great nation to shreds. Lets hope it is on our watch.
Wasim Mir, 23, is a 5th year medical student at University College London. He has an interest in Global Health and Conflict, and has previously worked with MADE in Europe in Bosnia for projects to help displaced victims of war.
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