Walking the tightrope that is reporting rape in Syria

By — May 29, 2012

On May 19, Sen. Joseph Lieberman wrote a piece in The Washington Post exhorting the U.S. to “step up” efforts to provide the Syrian resistance with the “means to defend themselves against Assad.” Among his calls to “support the anti-Assad fighters with weapons, tactical intelligence and other lethal aid,” Lieberman labels what is happening in Syria a “humanitarian catastrophe” based on 10,000 dead, more than 1 million displaced, and “horrific human rights abuses perpetrated daily, including the widespread and deliberate use of rape and other sexual violence as weapons of war.”

That’s where we paused. The words “widespread” and “deliberate” next to “rape” and “sexual violence” were not new to us, but coming from a senator—a man with potential power to change U.S. foreign policy—we were curious what sources he was using to make such a sweeping statement. So we tracked them down.

A Syrian flag outside a military barrack in the Bab Amro neighborhood Homs, Syria, on May 2, 2012. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Lieberman’s office told Women Under Siege to take a look at a report from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. From November 23, 2011, the report has been logged on our crowdmap since the website launched at the end of March. It details a series of horrific incidents of rape of boys and men in custody at Syrian detention centers, as well as a number of sexual threats made against women.

The office also instructed us to look at a recent State Department report that refers to the same report. That led us to read the notes of the press conference that launched the original November UN report, at which commission member Karen Koning AbuZayd said that the commission “had been unable to substantiate rumors that the use of rape against women had been used by Syrian forces. Thus, the report had not been built on those claims.”

So two out of three sources Lieberman’s office cites are the same source, one that is easily understood to contain information on the rape of men in detention in Syria but no substantiation of “widespread” rape and sexualized violence.

Okay, so with that clarified, here’s why we thought it was important to comb through his sourcing.

In our daily work of putting together reports of rape and other kinds of sexualized violence for our Syria crowdmap we have become very conscious of an echo chamber. It’s a concept all reporters know (or should): that information gets repeated from source to source until it begins to sound like fact—it’s just the thing that happened, everybody knows that. But when it comes to something as sensitive as rape in war, we have to be particularly mindful of the delicate propaganda war being played by all sides. As atrocities stack up against one force or another, how women are treated can cause the international community to back one side in particular. And as politicians, including Lieberman and Sen. John McCain, begin to name sexualized violence as a systematic or widespread part of Syria’s war, we want to take a close look at what we’re up against.  

Let’s just pull back here for a second, and make clear that we believe that there is rape going on in Syria. We can say that definitively because there is rape going on in every country in the world. We can also say that definitively because, in our research at Women Under Siege, no modern conflict has been free of rape. From the Holocaust to Bangladesh to Bosnia, we know now that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of women, have been sexually violated in war. With that now on the table, let’s continue.  

Lieberman’s office also pointed us to reports from “various NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International,” which have cautiously told various stories of rape in Syria. (We have also reported these on our crowdmap since its onset.) And his spokeswoman says that Lieberman “met earlier this year with Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon, who spoke with him about the sexual violence being perpetrated by the regime.”  

We too have spoken with many, many people—journalists, aid workers, doctors—who are working with refugees in the countries surrounding Syria. And we have no doubt that refugees told Lieberman stories similar to what we’ve heard. Terrible stories like this one, reported by a social worker aiding female refugees in Lebanon: Because of cultural norms and shame surrounding rape, some women impregnated through rape are committing suicide, while others choose abortion, she said. Likewise, a nurse at a Turkish refugee camp reports treating two girls who begged to die after being raped and badly injured.

The thing is, rape is nearly impossible to confirm. First, you have to get beyond the fact that very few women come forward (whether through fear of ridicule or re-rape or being shunned) so you’re working with a very small population in any conflict who actually talks about what happened to them, and often they speak out long enough after the attack that the immediate trauma has faded and medical evidence is far in the past. For instance, these elderly women in Guatemala told us they were some of the 100,000 women who were raped in that country’s civil war. They will not testify; they will not show their faces. We take their word for it, because we know that they lived in a certain place in a certain time in which mass sexualized violence occurred, and that they have nothing to gain from talking about their pain. Rape carries these particular women’s lives in its mangled grasp—they may be cast out from their own homes should their husbands ever know, even 30 years after the fact.

When documenting rape, as in anything, you have to evaluate your source: Is this coming directly from the woman who was violated? From her cousin? Her cousin’s friend? In the case of Syria, many stories are coming from that cousin’s friend. Or from the cousin’s friend who “heard about” a friend of his brother’s sister…etc. Right now, Syria is a convoluted black hole of second- and third-hand reporting that few conflict zones can rival in recent history.

The sources reporting rape directly to our crowdmap or via news outlets vary: Fathers speak out for their daughters, doctors for their patients, and, perhaps most surprisingly, many of our reports are sourced from former Syrian army soldiers admitting (forcibly? We can’t know) the crimes they have committed. It’s a sinkhole of fact-checking. But, for the sake of our humanity, we believe we have to mark all of this down and try.  

This is why we’ve chosen to post all our reports on WomenUnderSiegeSyria.crowdmap.com as “unverified.” Because until we are able to figure out whether this report and this one are actually not the same incident being told in two different ways, we do not want to overstate what’s happening to women in Syria. Ideally, verifying a report would mean that we could triangulate its details, as well as confirm with and authenticate the original source. As we state in every crowdmap report, we can’t do that—at least not yet. Until journalists, aid workers, and researchers are allowed access to Syria, confirming the veracity of reports of sexualized violence is a frustrating challenge.  

With all that said, the basic problem of reporting rape in conflict is under-telling, as we have seen throughout the world and time. That shame and stigma and fear mentioned earlier—that’s what keeps women’s suffering hidden.

In one of our crowdmap reports, a Syrian woman shares the details of her alleged rape on YouTube, saying: “This is my message to the world: Let all the world hear what is happening to us. And I might not be the first one nor the last who was treated in this way.” We are documenting that this woman is not alone, and we commend Lieberman for pointing to the fact that sexualized violence might be a scourge of the conflict in Syria.

It’s a very, very delicate tightrope we’re on as people who are trying to paint a graphic image of what women are enduring in Syria’s war. And it’s one that politicians must realize they tread alongside us. We all need to pay attention to the validity of the information we are repeating before we all tumble off the wire, landing sprawled in the wrong directions—paying attention to the wrong incidents or the wrong places, while in the meantime, others are being targeted sexually or otherwise in ways we have not yet acknowledged.