The door kept opening. In would come young men, sometimes hobbling a bit. They’d speak to the man behind the desk in Arabic and step back out. I was sitting in a sweaty, brightly painted room in southern Turkey. The man behind the desk was a hospital administrator who was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. The men coming in and out were either employees of the hospital or injured patients from Syria. We were in the middle of a conversation that was difficult enough without all the stops and starts, but here we were.
We were discussing the rape and torture of a 14-year-old Syrian girl. I had a feeling she was in the building, somewhere upstairs, but the administrator, whose eyes darted nervously back and forth, wouldn’t say.
Eight shabiha (plainclothes militia) members had held the girl in the basement of a private house in the northern city of Idlib for seven or eight days in retribution for an alleged family connection to the Free Syrian Army, according to the administrator. Signs of sexual assault on her were “very clear,” he said, and she had lesions on her vagina. He said men had ejaculated on her and that she’d been raped; she had cigarette burns on her body and black eyes when she arrived at the hospital. The men, the girl had told her doctors, had used hot metal rods to burn her arms, legs and thighs. She also said she was forced to witness the execution of two people.
But I wasn’t going to meet her, not that day or any other. “She gets very agitated every time she tells her story,” the administrator said. Another source told me she has “fallen apart completely.”
I didn’t need to meet her; asking her to go through her experience one more time would only compound her trauma, and the details had already been recorded by the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria. This is a case that has many solid sources—hospital records, firsthand interviews, corroborations from doctors and family friends. It’s one of the strongest cases on record of sexualized violence in Syria, according to investigators.
In my two years of documenting this phenomenon on a live map for Women Under Siege at the Women’s Media Center, I have reported dozens of stories at the Syrian border personally. I have also aggregated hundreds of stories that involve potentially thousands of women, men and children from sources like the UN, international and local NGOs, and media outlets. Together, we currently have 236 individual reports of varying kinds of attacks on the map, with sources clearly marked and alleged perpetrators—the majority of which are government or government-aligned forces—named. The strength of these cases varies; much of the information is second- or third-hand. But some of it is as solid as the story of the 14-year-old girl, with multiple strong sources, medical evidence or survivor testimony.
After so much documentation and speculation, the question becomes, Is this case—or any other of sexualized violence in Syria—strong enough to prosecute? Even if it is, where and how will that prosecution take place? Who will be prosecuted, and how high will the investigation go? Will it go beyond the immediate perpetrators to include anyone who masterminded or enabled these crimes? And what will that mean for survivors?