Syrian activists say regime forces have abducted and raped women in rebellious parts of the country, possibly using sexual violence as a means of quelling dissent.
An opposition campaigner has supplied The Globe and Mail with details about six previously unknown cases of violence against women in recent months, saying that more such incidents remain hidden as Damascus struggles to contain the uprising.
The allegations could not be confirmed. Major human rights organizations have so far refrained from accusing the Syrian authorities of widespread attacks against women; nearly all of those named as victims of government crackdowns in the past six months have been men and boys.
Syria's information ministry did not respond to requests for comment, but state-controlled media have previously accused activists of lying and fabricating evidence.
If accurate, the stories would be sensational: women dumped naked and bloody in the fields; Syrian units forcing girls to strip and act as servants in a so-called "rape house;" a young mother so traumatized that she loses her mind.
Human rights investigators say they have heard similar stories, but the cases have proved difficult to confirm. Syria restricts media access and monitors communications. Arab families often feel shamed into silence about attacks on female relatives.
None of the victims or their families could be reached directly, but information transmitted out of the country via encrypted chat messages and secret online message boards suggests that the attacks on women may go beyond the case of Zainab al-Hosni, the 18-year-old whose beheaded and mutilated corpse was discovered last week. Plainclothes security agents arrested her in July, and the possibility that she died in custody prompted outraged statements from Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
At the time, Ms. al-Hosni was believed to be the first woman targeted by Syrian security forces since the beginning of the uprising in mid-March.
But an activist who calls herself Rose Alhomsi, a 21-year-old who runs a charity for Syrian women, says she has gathered several other examples.
"The purpose of these rapes, if we confirm them to be by security officers … is a systemic buildup in the regime's game to suppress protests by playing on a very, very sensitive string in Syrian culture," Ms. Alhomsi said.
One piece of information that deepens the concern about sexual violence becoming a part of the strategy of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Ms. Alhomsi says, was passed along from opposition sympathizers in Syrian military hospitals: They said that packages of condoms were distributed to security forces before sweeps into restive areas.
The activists described several separate attacks on women around the northern city of Jisr al-Shughour and the western governorate of Homs, two hotbeds of rebellion in recent months.
The victims appear to have been suspected of having links to opposition groups. In the case of Hiba Bazirkaan, 26, of Homs, activists say she was fingered by the owner of a hair salon who was later revealed as a snitch for the government.
Ms. Bazirkaan was headed to a pharmacy on May 13 to buy medicine for her infant daughter, almost two years old. As mother and daughter walked past an ice-cream shop, activists say, a van with black-tinted windows pulled up to the curb and men forced them inside. Ms. Bazirkaan was released from custody about a week later, activists say.
"She was in a state of shock," a person close to the family said, according to an activist. "We understood from her that it was not just one person who abused her. Every time we would ask her [a question] or feed her, or even come near her, she would scream in fright."
Ms. Bazirkaan's daughter was drowsy and had soiled herself, activists say, and later died of kidney failure; they believe she had been heavily sedated in custody.
The young mother is now receiving treatment for mental trauma, activists say.
In other cases, activists claim that women have disappeared altogether. A woman named Abeer Alsharbootli was last seen on Sept. 21, climbing into a taxi with her two sons, five and three years old. Lina Sabbagh, 22, vanished in August; Doha Abdulghafar Alshawa, 30, went missing last week. It's rumoured locally that the families of Ms. Sabbagh and Ms. Alshawa were instructed by authorities in Homs to sign documents saying that the young women ran away with boyfriends.
Activists say their research has led to indications that 16 to 18 women have recently been abducted in and around Homs. No further details have emerged. Residents in a suburb of the city have told activists that they woke one morning to find five young women in a field, naked, bleeding and terrified. Relatives collected the women and refuse to speak about what happened.
Ms. Alhomsi said that her sister interviewed women at refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian border. Two girls, in separate camps, described security forces rounding up young women at a university near Jisr al-Shughour and holding them captive in a house.
"The security forces had forced these girls to remove their clothes and serve them all day long, at the end of each day they were raped by numerous security members," Ms. Alhomsi said.
Nadim Houry, senior researcher for Syria for Human Rights Watch, said attempts to substantiate such unproven allegations have proven frustrating.
"Rape is always very sensational, and the claims take a life of their own," Mr. Houry said. "Do we have evidence that the security services have been using rape as a tool of war? The short answer is 'No.' We have received reports of incidents, but it's very hard to verify."
A SYRIAN WOMAN SPEAKS
A young woman named Nora, from the rebellious Syrian city of Homs, has been collecting stories about female victims in her part of the country. After gathering anecdotes about rape and abduction for The Globe and Mail, she took a moment to reflect on her work.
You must be very brave to investigate women's issues in Syria right now. How do you keep yourself safe?
Most of the time we have to hide our names, or use fake names, and we work through a series of relatives to find information about a person. I work with a group, but I only know one of the members personally.
Do you know if any regime member has ordered these rapes? Or is there any regime group, or regiment, that is particularly notorious?
We do not have 100-per-cent evidence that the regime is responsible for such events, but this is not surprising or far from their [previous]actions. The regime uses rape as a playing card with activists' families because it knows – a woman, especially in a Middle Eastern culture – her dignity is the most important thing to her, and she will kill to protect this. Thus the regime uses this tactic to deter activists from carrying out their activities in protection of their wives, daughters, and mothers.
Approximately how many women have been abducted, if you had to guess?
We don't have exact numbers or documented cases. Families remain silent and secretive in giving any kind of information out, and most of the time they don't even report their daughters missing.
You have spent time with the families and victims. Can you describe the psychological effect on them?
Despite the pain, their determination was overwhelming. Not only their enthusiasm, but their faith in the revolution.