By Arnaud Mafille
While statesmen are embroiled in geostrategic discussions over Syria; and media is focused on detained families of western IS members, the plight and the voices of ordinary Syrian women and children who have survived the horror of Syria’s jails are emerging through efforts such as the Conscience Convoy, an international movement advocating for the release of 7000 women and children currently being brutally tortured there. CAGE lent its support to their calls for justice.
“They forced my two kids to watch their grandparents being tortured”, Majed Sharbajy, says.
This is just one of the many torments the young lady suffered during her six-month detention in Assad’s dungeons.
Majed was once hopeful to see a positive change in her country. Like many Syrians, she supported the peaceful protests in 2011.
It wasn’t long before Assad’s brutal crackdown put an end to these aspirations to peaceful reforms.
Soon after, Majed was arrested. She disappeared into the regime’s network of torture centres.
“In Syria, prison means destruction. You don’t have a name, only a number. Mine was 291”, she remembers with tears in her voice.
Unable to wash for three months, she shared her minuscule cell with heavily pregnant women and cancer patients. She prayed that she would not be infected with cholera, which ravaged the detention centre.
Infectious diseases might have been one of her least worries however, as humiliations and torture took place often.
“They removed my hijab, beat me, electrocuted me and threatened to rape me,” she says.
While she survived the abuse, many didn’t.
“They would force us to remove the bodies of prisoners who had been tortured to death. To this day, no one knows where they are buried”, she recounts.
A network of terror, met by Western silence
The precise number and location of Syria’s network of torture dungeons is unknown, although Human Rights Watch in 2012 documented several in Damascus, Homs, Idlib, Aleppo, Daraa, and Latakia.
The documentation and re-enactment of torture methods by Assad’s regime, using the traumatic was recently the basis for a marcarbe architectural study by Forensic Architecture, which reconstructed a model using ‘ear-witness’ testimony, of the notorious Saydnaya military prison north of Damascus.
While firms and human rights organisations provide ever more clearer evidence of crimes against humanity by the Assad regime, and as the voices of women like Majed grow in intensity, the question of Western silence becomes glaring.
Certainly, there are accounts by detainees in Guantanamo who were threatened by UK and US agents, with transport to Syria, suggesting a level of complicity and communication at state levels.
Currently, as the voices of brave Syrian women are emerging more widely and in greater detail, survivors like Majed want to see justice. They want to see accountability of the perpetrators.
While the major powers including the United States and Britain remain glaringly silent as these testimonies emerge, legal efforts are few and far between and Syria enjoys international protection.
Through adoption of the Rome Statute, and establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, international criminal justice was enabled to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide before the Hague.
However, Syria enjoys absolute impunity outside of this framework. The ICC is not authorized to start an investigation into the crimes, as Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute. At the same time, a referral to the court by the UN Security Council is currently blocked by veto powers Russia and China.
In 2017, two attempts to hold high level Syrian officials accountable, were mounted in Germany in May and in Spain in March. Both efforts featured detailed witness testimonies, and attempted to achieve justice through European human rights organisations.
However, both cases ended inconclusively. This seems to illustrate the weakness of our current international law – a notion that only gives fuel to violent groups – while reducing the existence of survivors to one of constant witnessing.
Becoming a voice for the voiceless
The effects of torture on individuals cannot by understated, and studies testify to long term psychological damage, that have a lasting effect on relationships, identity and mental health.
Majed was eventually released through a prisoner swap, and she fled to Turkey. Yet, in many ways, her ordeal did not end, as she continues to live through the effects, both through her advocacy and in her everyday life.
She is also now left with her trauma and the guilt of being free while knowing thousands of her sisters are still detained, many with their children.
But none of this pain has prevented her from becoming a voice for them, and she has traveled widely to advocate for their release.
She spoke at the International Conscience Movement conference, attended by CAGE in Istanbul on the 20th February 2019, alongside representatives from 55 nations to demand the release of the the 7000 women and children detained by Assad..
“The regime can imprison our bodies, but it cannot imprison the voice of our conscience”, she said.
For the first time perhaps, she found the wider support she has sought for so many years.
While dignitaries, politicians, academics and activists were present, it was the voice of the brave Syrian women that had a lasting impact.
Two other former prisoners spontaneously spoke, leaving many in tears.
One had been raped by Assad’s men in front of her husband to extract a false confession from him. He eventually passed away in prison. She was released after three years of torment.
The other, Mona Baraka, was an aid worker, who was tortured for seven months. Her husband hasn’t been seen since 2012, and her children have forgotten the meaning of the word “father”.
“Women and children are only used as bargaining tools by the regime. Assad detains and tortures them to put pressure on their male relatives”.
She had one request: “We must raise the voice of the captives”.
This call did not fall in deaf ears. As one of those invited to witness their harrowing stories and their remarkable fortitude, CAGE is grateful and honoured to be part of a movement charged with calling for the release of these women and children.
Certainly in the face of government inaction and state paralysis, it is up to groups of ordinary people to acknowledge the pain and courage of these survivors, and use this as an impetus for justice and change.
The task might seem monumental, but the words of Nelson Mandela’s grandson at the conference were an apt reminder that international mobilisation and pressure can help in ending even the toughest regimes:
“We have our freedom because of your efforts and voices”, he said about the international movement that supported the anti-apartheid liberation groups in South Africa.
During an international conference, Majed Sharbajy addressed powerful words to Obama, but which echoed with us all: “Will you make history or will you turn a blind eye?”
You can sign the petition demanding the immediate and unconditional release of all Syrian women and children detained in Assad’s prisons:
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)