Everybody, it seemed, had heard the stories, and could relay the same horrific details about Syrian soldiers allegedly raping women and girls with cruel impunity. There were ugly accounts, told by many refugees from the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour, some of whom had crossed into nearby Turkey, and by others who remained in a strip of Syrian territory hugging the Turkish border.
Soldiers had abducted several beautiful young women from the town, they said, enslaved them in the sugar refinery, raped them and forced them to remain naked and serve them tea and coffee. There were other, uglier stories of several women reportedly mutilated after being gang-raped by soldiers, their breasts sliced off in a final sadistic act. But few had encountered any of the alleged victims, and fewer still knew their names.
That's hardly surprising. Sexual assault is a difficult subject to raise in any society, but especially so in conservative rural Arab communities like those of northern Syria where a family's honor is often tied to the virtue of its women. The mere suggestion of compromised chastity, even if it was stolen, is a shameful stain, one that can make the victim and her entire family outcasts. The refugees on the Syrian side who spoke of these acts said they heard the victims had been taken to a particular Turkish camp. Calls to several camp residents seemed to confirm the claims. They had heard that there were raped women among them.
It's not usually that difficult to get into a refugee camp, but these days, there is nothing about covering the Syria story that is not difficult. Barred from the tightly controlled country, foreign journalists have been forced to rely on telephone calls, tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos and stray secondhand testimony in a bid to piece together what has been happening since antigovernment protests first erupted in mid-March.
So when thousands of Syrian refugees started streaming into southern Turkey recently, the opportunity to conduct face-to-face interviews, to hear firsthand testimony and see how it was conveyed was just what we had been waiting for. Turkish authorities, however, have different ideas. They have blocked media from entering the refugee camps in southern Turkey's Hatay province on grounds of protecting the privacy of the more than 9,500 Syrians quartered there.
On June 16, a female Arabic-speaking colleague and I sneaked into the camp, posing as the relatives of a particular male refugee who had been shot. The Turkish guards at the gate bought the story. They knew the young man and his wife we were asking for and called them over to the fence. We were let in. The ruse was just to help us enter. We were hoping to speak with alleged rape victims.
Although the Turks manning the gates left us alone with our "relatives" once we entered, the Syrians were another thing altogether. Perhaps it was because Syria is a society raised on fear, a country where mukhabarat, or secret police, are on every corner, and emotions like paranoia and suspicion can be just as lifesaving as the body's fight-or-flight response. Or perhaps it was because the camps contain mukhabarat posing as refugees. Either way, old suspicions died hard.
At least eight men stood within earshot of us. They weren't the harmless, inquisitive types wondering who the new girls in the camp were. They showed no shame and didn't look away, even when directly asked to. They were like the not-so-secret police all over the Syrian capital Damascus, the men who don't even pretend to be doing anything except standing there, trying to watch and listen to you. After 10 minutes or so, one of the men, who had white hair and a bushy beard, went up to our male "relative" and warned him that he knew the rules: nobody was allowed to speak with anyone, unless this particular gentleman agreed to it. We were going to be searched, he said, to make sure we weren't journalists or spies. That was our cue to leave, and fast. Although we had emptied our bags of notebooks, hotel keys, business cards, passports anything that may suggest that we were journalists we had smuggled in small digital recorders and a camera in our clothing.
We wished our "relatives" well, told them we didn't want to cause them any trouble, and quickly made for the gate but not before slipping a small Flip video camera into our female "relative's" purse and asking the couple to find the raped or mutilated women. Relatively speaking, it's not a large camp, with just several thousand residents. Still, after days of searching, the Syrians told us they had nothing. Everybody, it seemed, had heard the stories, but nobody knew who the victims were. Not even those in the hospitals of the Turkish city of Antakya, where some 70 wounded Syrians are being treated, could aid our investigations.
I headed back down the difficult, mountainous smuggling route across the Turkish border into Syria. The plum orchard where a week ago I had spent a chilly night with thousands of men, women and children huddled together in makeshift shelters or out in the open was nearly empty. Most of the families had crossed over into Turkey. But those who remained said they knew of a man from the village of al-Serminiyye, a few kilometers away from Jisr al-Shughour, whose four teenage daughters were all raped by Syrian soldiers.
"Yes, it's true, but I don't know the family's name," said Mohammad Merhi, a 30-year-old pharmacist who has become the makeshift clinic's de facto physician, dispensing pills for children with diarrhea and treating gunshot wounds with whatever he can find in the few boxes of medicinal products scattered around his open tent. "You know, we are an Eastern society, we don't speak openly about such things," he said, trying to explain why nobody knew who these girls were.
The strikingly handsome young man was one of four men in this makeshift camp who had offered to marry the teenage rape victims, even though they had never met any of them. In this traditional culture of shame where virginity is prized, rape victims cannot easily (if ever) marry. The 32-year-old Bassam al-Masry, whose younger brother Basil was shot dead by security forces in Jisr al-Shughour on June 3 (his funeral the following day reportedly ended in a massacre by security forces), was another of the young men who had heard the story. "I hope that I will have the honor of marrying one of these girls," he said, as Merhi treated an almost healed gunshot wound in al-Masry's upper right thigh. "I know that these girls suffered, they were taken against their will. I don't care what they look like, the point is to stand by them, and I do with all of my heart."
The family was likely in another informal encampment of refugees, several kilometers away from this one, the young men said. And so, we trekked over there. But there too, nobody, it seemed, knew the family.
"We are all hearing the stories of rape," said one woman, Em Mustafa, a 34-year-old from the Syrian border village of Khirbet al-Jouz, who despite the fact that her home was just a few kilometers away, was staying in a tent closer to the Turkish border. Hundreds of residents of Khirbet al-Jouz were doing the same, abandoning their homes and sleeping out in the fields, for fear that the Syrian army might sweep through their town at night. "Most of all, we fear rape," the mother of three young daughters, all under 10, said. "We have heard a lot of stories."
Everybody, it seemed, had heard the stories, but nobody knew any victims. Separating fact from fiction is only one hurdle to telling the Syria story. Overcoming the people's fears, suspicions and feelings of shame is perhaps an even bigger obstacle.