Crimes of War

Teen Activist Speaks Out On Rape In Syria’s Prisons

Khetam Bneyan says that government forces used rape as an interrogation technique.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

At two in the morning in a Syrian prison, teen detainee Khetam Bneyan woke to the sound of summons from President Bashar al-Assad’s security guards. But they had not come for her. Instead, they led away a fellow prisoner whose subsequent treatment, Bneyan said, embodied her worst nightmare: Rape.

Bneyan’s fellow prisoner was tied down and forcibly penetrated during questioning that night, according to the 19-year-old, whose “biggest fear” during detainment was, she later said, exactly that.

It is not clear how often rape occurs behind bars or elsewhere in Syria, but Bneyan’s story testifies to its use. Bneyan was paranoid about it herself but had become “less worried” after surviving nearly three weeks in jail without being threatened or seeing anyone else threatened, she said -- that is, until she glimpsed the “yellow” face of her fellow prisoner, a young woman believed married to a man working for the anti-government rebel forces.

“You could tell that something had happened to her,” Bneyan told me through an interpreter over Skype, saying the woman came back from questioning wearing different clothing and then spent hours in the bathroom, which she said was against protocol. The woman told Bneyan she was raped by a Syrian army military captain, who forced her onto a bed and tied her arms and legs to keep her down. “When he started to rape her, she started to scream,” Bneyan said, detailing the conversation she said she had with the woman and one other detainee hours after the alleged crime:

“He said, ‘no one will help you.’ And then he opened the door, so everyone [other prison guards] could hear. He said, ‘See? No one's going to help you.’ He then said, ‘let the FSA [rebel Free Syria Army] help you.’ He then said, ‘you must confess and you must help us. Confess.’ This was after the first time." Bneyan said the 25-year-old described being raped twice, but “when she got to this point [in describing the first rape] in the story, the girl broke down."

The brutality of the account, which has not been independently verified, comes amid mounting concern over the human cost of the conflict in Syria, where the UN says nearly 70,000 people have died in Assad’s fight against an armed uprising.

World attention is riveted on the violence raging between the rebels and the regime, but their conflict can distract from non-violent activity there – movement of which Bneyan is a part. The young protester said she “prefers” the non-violent path of resistance. Such activity ignited the rebellion in the first place and continues amid daily clashes between the rebels and the regime forces, violence that tends to dominate the Syrian narrative.

Inside the country, President Bashar al-Assad has his own narrative, blaming the revolt on outside extremists or Salafists, a conservative branch of Islam viewed with suspicion by many mainstream Sunnis, i.e., the majority of the Syrian population. But Mohja Kahf, a Damascus-born author who knows Bneyan through her work with Syria’s non-violent resistance movement, said people like her challenge the state’s story.

Bneyan identifies as a non-violent protester – hardly extremist material. She is Muslim, but she’s no Salafist.

But if you’re married to the enemy like the young rape victim was, according to Bneyan, there’s presumably much less confusion for state authorities. The woman was known to be the wife of a man working for the FSA. The regime wanted information from her, Bneyan told me. They sought FSA locations, positions, brigade names, plans. The most effective way to get her to talk, it seems to have been thought, was to give her "special, provocative treatment,” as Bneyan put it.

“Probably the thought of God is the thing that kept me going [in prison, the idea] that God is near,” she said, identifying as an observant Muslim with a “strong” personality.

“The interrogator was making fun of religion and trying to get me to blaspheme and so on, to give up on God,” she recalled. He even made fun of her headscarf, she said. The bright law student didn’t fall for it, though. This was a girl who took to the streets with sign reading, “Only in Syria, the thinking mind is imprisoned.” Her subsequent arrest saw her living out her own slogan.

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As for the FSA, Bneyan viewed them with caution even though their forces can protect civilians and activists like herself. The FSA, after all, had nothing to do with why she risked her life in political protest – that came about, she said, because “it’s the right thing to do, because you don’t feel like your country is your country.” That’s what inspired her to, as she said, start “going out” last July, using a phrase that Kahf said has become synonymous with protesting since the unrest. She was drawn to the non-violent resistance movement in Syria, a pluralistic grassroots group that reportedly helped start the anti-Assad uprising in the first place.

“What we want after the revolution is something that can be simply described in three words, freedom, equality, dignity,” Bneyan said. She was willing to put herself in great danger for that very reason. Her detainment seems to have strengthened her determination. “When I think about what I saw in there [prison], it makes my outrage at the regime increase,” she said.

But now the teen anti-government protester finds herself haunted by memories of her fellow female prisoners, their fates unknown. Bneyan told me the woman who said she was raped kept repeating “no oppression stays forever” over and over in prison. As soon as Bneyan was released she bore witness to those she left behind in a moving Facebook post, which was later made public.

“I will not forget these women,” the post concludes. “They are in a living death behind bars. Be with them, God.”