Tortured and abused: hidden horror of 'disappeared' women in Syrian prisons
It was after travelling to Damascus to seek treatment for her sick baby that Rima Mulla Othman was arrested and incarcerated in one of Syria’s prisons.
In the underground cell where she was tortured, she begged security guards to take her three-month-old son, Omar, to hospital for the medical attention he desperately needed.
But her pleas were ignored and the pair went on to spend the next two years and four months behind bars. Omar’s first words were “prison” and “I want to get out of here”. His mother’s crime, according to President Assad’s regime, had been tending to the injured in Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria where she worked as a nurse.
Seven months ago, Othman was released after help from a lawyer. However, such was the trauma she suffered physically and psychologically that she was forced to put her son, now three, in an orphanage until she was fit enough to care for him.
They have since been reunited but thousands of families across war-torn Syria remain separated, waiting desperately for news of loved ones who have disappeared and are believed to be languishing in Assad’s jails
Othman’s story is among those set to feature in an exhibition on 8 September to raise awareness of the hardships faced by Syrian women in detention. It is one of a number of events being organised to mark International Day for the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
To raise awareness of the plight of detainees, Amnesty International is calling on the UN to do more to get the issue on the international agenda, and has accused the organisation of paying lip service to the concern.
“It is well-known there is a huge humanitarian crisis in Syria, but while we hear about the sieges, the civilians displaced by conflict and the refugees, people know very little about the hidden horrors those in detention are facing,” said Amnesty’s Syria campaigns manager, Kristyan Benedict.
He said monitors are desperately needed to investigate the conditions in prisons run by the government and opposition forces. “So far the regime has blocked the UN from allowing monitors in. However, UN war crimes investigators entered Syria in the wake of the chemical weapons attack in April, so we’ve seen them break that precedent when there has been the political will from the international community.”
Benedict added: “We could be seeing more activity from the UN department of political affairs. When they want to make a noise they can. But on detainees they are paying lip service to this issue. It is not seen as a pressing political issue but Syrians are telling us [that], for them, it is a priority.
“There are thousands of people suffering every day inside these hellholes without help or legal support. Their families don’t know where they are or what is happening to them, and that is causing a huge amount of trauma.”
In February, Amnesty published a report (pdf) about one of Syria’s most notorious prisons, where as many as 13,000 of Assad’s opponents were secretly hanged during the first five years of the civil war.
It found the Syrian government ordered the killings at Saydnaya prison as part of a wider extermination policy. Many thousands more died through torture and starvation at the death camp.
The majority of female prisoners are held in Adra prison in Damascus, according to Amnesty. In the early days of the uprising female detainees were mainly political activists or humanitarian workers. But as the crisis escalated it became more common for other women, often relatives of opposition fighters, to be arrested and used as bargaining chips, sometimes for prisoner swaps.
One former detainee who has since fled Syria and is living in Manchester, where the exhibition will be staged, has told how she feared for her life and was regularly tortured. Before the uprising in 2011, Asmaa, then 27, was studying childhood development and living in Daraa, the first city that started protesting against the government. She undertook training to become a first aid responder and started attending the demonstrations regularly.
Her name was eventually referred to the regime. In March 2012 she was arrested when she was caught trying to help a friend who had defected from Assad’s army after refusing to open fire on peaceful protesters.
She told the Guardian: “It was a terrifying experience. I was put in a small cramped cell and then my friend was tortured in front of me. They used electric cables and hit him with a wooden board. To this day I don’t know if he is still detained or whether he is dead or alive.”
During her time in prison Asmaa, who did not want her surname to be published, said she was frequently beaten and tortured. “They would hit us and electrocute us. They could take you for interrogation at any time. One thing that kept me going was that I didn’t want to give the names of my friends [also involved in activism] so I tried to withstand the abuse.”
Asmaa was taken to military court four times but on each occasion the judge would refuse to hear her case. There were people on the outside campaigning for her release but without success. One friend who went to the prison to ask about her was detained for seven months.
Asmaa was released a year and seven months from her arrest, after a group of opposition fighters in the city of Al-Zabadani negotiated a prisoner swap with officials in Daraa.
“When they came to my cell and said, ‘Get out!’, I couldn’t believe it and I started kicking and screaming. I was scared I would be executed or taken to an unknown location. There are many women who are transferred, and we never hear from them again.”
After her release Asmaa fled to Jordan where she continued her activism before she applied for refugee status in the UK.
Now 33 and the mother of two young daughters, Asmaa says she is determined to keep fighting for justice for Syria’s lost detainees. She said: “I want to do anything I can to help other women, to make their voices heard and to expose the abuses they go through … My brother is also detained and I have had no news of him since 2014.”
Asmaa has been working with Rethink Rebuild Society, a Manchester-based group that works towards improving the lives of Syrians in Britain. She has been instrumental in preparing the exhibition featuring the stories of female detainees.
Yasmine Nahlawi, a research coordinator for the organisation, said she hoped the event would help work towards justice and closure for the featured detainees and their families.
“Unfortunately, the detainee issue is being played as a political card by the regime. However, to Syrians, this is a humanitarian issue that cannot be subject to negotiation or compromise,” she said.