Inside Assad's hellholes: No daylight for Syrian women

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Today, world leaders are talking about finding a political solution to the never-ending war in Syria, but it looks like the people in Assad's jails, including civilians, women and children, have been forgotten, except by some humanitarian groups

Twenty-five-year-old Ummu Ala has finally found shelter with her two children in Reyhanlı, a town bordering Syria in southeastern Turkey's Hatay. Ummu Ala fled Syria three years ago. She left her hometown, Homs, in tears; but there was nothing else she could do. First, the Bashar Assad regime officers killed her husband and father in 2012. Then, her 9-year-old brother was shot by a regime sniper while playing on the street in front of their house. At the end of 2012, Ummu Ala was arrested by regime forces and imprisoned for three and a half months after her older brother joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

I was curious about her story. I asked her, "Did they imprison you just because your brother joined FSA?" She said, "Yes … It was for revenge. I was just a housekeeper in Homs." I was overwhelmed and wanted to learn more. I asked her if she had participated in the protests. She responded, "I didn't go out to join the protests even for a day."

I kept asking and tried to learn about the place that she was held in and what happened to her there. She told me that she was held in a 25 square meter room with 45 or 50 other women. Showing me her teeth, she said they were all broken when they struck her with metal rods.

"They were torturing us according to a schedule. My turn was on Fridays," Ummu Ala said, "I still hate Fridays." Her toenails were hammered one by one; she was beaten over and over again. Bursting into tears, she said that she was raped many times and all the women there were treated the same way she was. Some of them died as their bodies couldn't withstand the torture anymore.

Ummu Ala's elder brother managed to find money to get her out of the prison. He gave a $1,300 bribe to one of the guards. As we know, the infamous regime is also known for its corrupt officers and bribe-taking. If you're a lucky person to know a regime officer, it is often a chance to save your family or friends from prison by giving a bribe of anywhere between a thousand to millions of dollars. Ummu Ala was finally out of prison, but her elder brother was going to be arrested soon. She said that she has not heard from him ever since.

Until she found a way to escape to Turkey to save her children and herself, Ummu Ala was trapped in Homs, which was under a long and heavy siege for months. I asked her, "How were your days in Homs?" It felt like I had opened another page of a memory she would rather forget. She said that one day her cousin shot a cat and a dog, brought them to the house and skinned them; that was supper. They ate wood chips, leaves, grass and so on for a very long time.

I was overwhelmed with her tragic story but I was ashamed to cry or show my shock, as it was nothing compared to her struggle. There were no words on earth to make her feel better. I know that talking about Syrians and their struggles is not a hot topic anymore. If you talk "too much" about Syria in the media, you can easily hurt your reputation. After all that has happened, the number of the people who say, "We must compromise with Assad," is growing. Assad is acting like the Hitler of this decade, but there are many who want to bow down in front of him.

Assad's victims were not only men who decided to fight against his brutal, bloody regime. There were also women and children. Estimates of the number of the deaths in the Syrian civil war, per opposition activist groups, vary between 366,792 and 522,000. However, it is believed that the number is much higher than those as there are many missing and their relatives have not heard from them for a long time.

By mid-September 2018, the activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 20,616, while 12,964 women were also killed at the same time. In 2017, a total of 10,204 civilians were killed including 2,298 children and 1,536 women.

In addition, over 600 detainees and prisoners died under torture in Assad's prisons starting from 2012. According to Amnesty International, between 5,000 and 13,000 people have been executed in the Syrian regime's prisons. In August 2013, a military defector, code-named "Caesar," smuggled 53,275 photographs out of Syria. Human Rights Watch received the full set of images from the Syrian National Movement, a Syrian anti-government political group that received them from Caesar. The report focused on 28,707 of the photographs that, based on all available information, show at least 6,786 detainees who died in detention under severe torture. There is no doubt that the numbers are still growing since no one is doing anything to stop this tragedy.

Today, world leaders are talking about defeating Daesh, finding a political solution to the never-ending war, and even working on a new constitution. But, it looks like the people in Assad's jails, including civilians, women and children are no one's problem except for some humanitarian groups. According to Amnesty International, the majority of female prisoners are held in Adra prison in Damascus. 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; just like Ummu Ala.

Recent estimates from the activist groups show that 13,581 women have been put into Assad's prisons starting from March 2011 to the end of 2017. At least 6,736 of them are still in jail and 417 of them are teenage girls. Also, at least 55 women were killed during torture. Under non-stop humiliation, horror, beating, torture and rape, I can't imagine how long someone can survive. And disgracefully, it looks like the whole world left them to their fate in Assad's hellholes.

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