Thousands of Syrian women are believed to be incarcerated in the Assad regime's prisons. Little is known about their fate, but those who manage to escape tell tales of horror. DW's Julia Hahn reports.
Torture in Syrian prisons
Muna Muhammad remembers every tiny detail. The stench in the cells, the pain, her torturers. "He pulled a black plastic bag over my head and then he hung me from the ceiling, head down," the 30-year-old says. The memory still haunts her. The guard said he was going to leave her hanging from the ceiling until all her "evil thoughts land in this bag," she remembers.
Muna was a music teacher before she was arrested in 2012 for participating in protests against President Bashar Assad in Deir ez-Zor. She was released, then rearrested and taken to the infamous Military Intelligence Branch 215 facility in Damascus — inmates call it "hell branch" because torture is a daily occurrence.
One day, her torturer showed up with a stun gun. "He said, 'Muna, where is your heart?'" she recalls. "I pointed at my heart, and that's where he zapped me."
For months, Muna was locked up in solitary confinement or packed together with other inmates. "One day they interrogated a 16-year-old," she says. "I heard her scream. It was so loud. I thought they must be killing her."
Many women were sexually abused, Muna says, adding that she also faced the threat of rape if she didn't confess.
Hygiene conditions at the prison were a disaster, says Muna, explaining that the inmates were not always allowed access to toilets or showers. There were children, too. "I remember a woman and her daughter," Muna says. "Her cell was very small and dark, the girl cried all the time, and again and again, she tried to peer underneath the door, hoping for a bit of daylight."
Muna was eventually granted amnesty and released. In 2016, she managed to flee to Turkey, where she still lives today — in Gaziantep, a city that has become a haven for half a million Syrians.
No one knows exactly how many women are imprisoned in Syria. "More than 7,000," estimates Fadel Abdul Ghani, head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group that documents human rights violations in the Syrian war.
Ghani's statistics on armed groups show that most of them also involve cases of violence against women — and the Syrian government heads that list. Women are deliberately targeted, he says, because they always played an important role in the opposition against Assad. The regime sees torture and sexual abuse of women as a war strategy, Ghani argues. "Break the women, and you break the family — and with it opposition in society. That's the goal."
'Systematic torture and abuse'
In 2017, Amnesty International reported that more than 17,000 people have died since 2011 as a result of torture, abuse and disastrous conditions in prisons run by the Syrian intelligence services and the Syrian government. Up to 13,000 people were executed at the infamous Saydnaya Military Prison north of Damascus, according to the human rights organization, which says the "systematic, widespread attack by the government on civilians" amounts to "crimes against humanity."
The Syrian president rejected the report, which is based on statements made by former prisoners, as "fake news."
The 'cure project'
Muna wants the world to know what is going on in Syrian prisons. Humiliation was part of the torture, too, she says, recalling an incident where a guard asked a man about his profession. The man said he was a doctor, and the guard ordered him to hop on one leg and say, "I am a rabbit." "At first the doctor spoke very quietly, so they beat him, and then all of us heard him yell: 'I am a rabbit, I am a rabbit.'"
Muna has written down her story, and she collects other victims' accounts, too. She has started a support group for Syrian women, she calls it "project recovery."
"Some women refuse to talk about what happened to them in prison, and others break down and can't stop crying when they talk about it," Muna says. "I try to show them they are strong, that the terrible things that happened to them aren't their fault."
"I tell them, start a new life."
Muna's new life is in Turkey. But she hopes that one day, she can help bring her torturers in Syria to justice.