Two Syrian women, hoping to leave the shame of detention behind, start new lives in Turkey

“Our society doesn’t accept a woman who’s been detained,” explains Reema Barakat, 26, originally from Syria’s coastal Latakia province.  Reema spent 19 months detained by the Syrian regime because her husband was a member of the Free Syrian Army.

“I used to think that when I got out of prison my torturous journey would be over. Instead, my suffering began after I got out.” Upon her release, Reema faced stigma and rejection from her family and society as a result of her imprisonment and rape.

Speaking from Turkey and using pseudonyms, Reema and Hala Muhammad, another former detainee, describe their journeys through imprisonment, torture, rape, loss and ultimately survival to Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.

“I know I won’t be able to forget what happened to me,” says 30-year-old Hala, who spent two years in regime prison for anti-regime activism. “But I hope I’ll be able to go back to living a normal life like any other woman.”

[For Syria Direct’s full report on the challenges faced by women formerly detained by the regime, see here.]

Reema Barakat, 26, arrested from her Latakia home in 2013 because her husband was a member of the Free Syrian Army. She spent 19 months in prison and is now living in Turkey:

“Our society doesn’t accept a woman who’s been detained. I’ve internalized this rejection, I feel as though I’m incomplete and worthless. I often wish that I had died in detention.

I was raped three times in detention. Despite all that was broken inside of me, and my own self-rejection, when I got out I faced another injustice, through no fault of my own: My husband divorced me and my society rejected me.

From the way that people looked at me, I knew I was finished. I felt as though I was being raped again with every look of pity and contempt.

I live on sedatives and I reject all the men in the world. I often consider suicide.

I used to think that when I got out of prison my torturous journey would be over. Instead, my suffering began after I was released.

Since my husband at the time was a defector, I got out of prison without any form of ID or official documents, and was forbidden from all civil and legal rights. My legal situation didn’t allow me stay in Syria.

[Ed.: Reema says she signed a document while in prison that stripped her of civil and legal rights, and that her ID and passport were taken upon her arrest and not returned to her upon her release.]

All these matters and the pressures surrounding me turned the world black. My husband rejected me, even though I was arrested because of him. Because I was stripped of any ID or documents I couldn’t even complete the divorce at first. It took three years before I was able to get a divorce certificate by the skin of my teeth.

My husband rejected me, and he was the closest person to me. The rape made me hate myself and hate all men. Our society sentences a girl to death just for being detained.

When I left to Turkey, my relatives there imposed a bunch of conditions just to allow me into their home. They stipulated that I couldn’t leave the house. The curse of imprisonment followed me out of Syria. I was to become a hostage to the ideas of a narrow-minded, patriarchal society. So I didn’t stay with them.

My main concern was to find honorable work, even for a paltry salary, so I wouldn’t end up on the street. During that time, I met a woman who agreed to let me live with her until I could find suitable work, but I found out that she meant to exploit my weakness and need for money. She stipulated that I had to work as a prostitute in exchange for money.

I ultimately found work in a travel agency. I’ve forbidden myself from every luxury just to save up the money to treat the effects of the torture. Whenever I stood in front of a mirror and saw the marks here and there, it would bring back the memories of the torture and rape that destroyed my life.

I run away from people because I don’t want to tell my story. I don’t want anybody to ask me ‘what happened to you?’ I want people to forget my story. I want to know who I am and what my identity is now.

We’ll keep being perfect victims of both war and society.

My dream is to go on with my life, to go back to my studies and to forget the past.”

**

Hala Muhammad, 30. In 2012, regime security forces raided Hala’s Jableh home before dawn and arrested her for participating in anti-regime protests. She spent two years in prison before being released in 2014 as part of a prisoner exchange with rebels in the Latakia countryside. She has four brothers in Syria currently detained by the regime. She is from Jablehin Latakia, but now lives in Turkey:

“In prison, they used to give us painkillers. At first, I would throw them out because I thought they were drugs. But after months of beatings and systematic torture your body gets worn out. Your injuries become infected, you’re in searing pain day and night. You’re covered in filth, and scabies and mange make you tear at your body until you draw blood. When you get to that point, you’re forced to take the pills of salvation, to quiet the pain.

I didn’t know the day I took them that the pain from the wounds that tore my body was nothing compared to the pain you see in the eyes of your father, mother, friends as they throw looks at you that make you hate yourself and wish you could die all the time.

Before I got out, I hid away some of the pills so that I could find out what they were, what they’d been giving me. The hardest thing that has happened to me was when I went to the doctor with my father to find out what kind of pills these were. I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face when the doctor said: they’re drugs, we can’t stop them right away. So the doctor prescribed them for me, and my father would give them to me with his hands and I saw his tears falling to the ground. With them fell all his humanity.

“I’m not an addict, it’s not my fault.” That was that last thing I told my father when he left me at the Syrian-Turkish border to face my fate. He didn’t wait, he just said: “Go, you’re the cause of all our misfortunes. We’ll forget you soon.”

When I left Syria, I lived with Turkish women, not other Syrians. I refuse to live with Syrians because I don’t want anybody to ask me about my story. I don’t want to be reminded, to so I try to forget and start over. I’ve stayed away from anybody who knows me.

I haven’t given up. I tried to learn Turkish through classes and the people I lived with. I learned the language and I decided to begin my life again.

Since participating in the revolution, I’ve continued on that path. Though I realize there’s a high price, I’ll be strong until the end of my life.

At first, I couldn’t find work because of the language barrier and my injury. I suffer from pain in my spine—I have a broken vertebra from being hit in the back with a Kalashnikov while in detention, and it’s affected my ability to walk. I used to receive treatment, support and assistance from charitable organizations. Since learning to speak Turkish, I’ve been working in a women’s salon since hairstyling used to be one of my hobbies.

I know I won’t be able to forget what happened to me, but I hope I’ll be able to go back to living a normal life like any other woman.” 

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.