Syrian women: Bereaved, widowed, detained

Syrian women: Bereaved, widowed, detained
Women are often the forgotten victims of conflict. Syria is no exception. Here are some of their stories.
6 min read
15 November, 2014
Women are often the forgotten victims [AFP/Getty].

For months, Rami al-Nasser would wake to the wailing of a woman outside his window.


At first, he would rush to the window whenever he heard it and try to calm the bereaved women. After a while, he would only go when the crying got especially bad. Eventually, he and neighbours had to physically remove the woman from the little park in a neighbourhood of Deir al-Zour where her only son had been buried six months ago.


Deir al-Zour is now under the control of the Islamic State group. The target of a US-led bombing campaign, IS (formerly known as ISIS) has hogged the limelight over the past several months ever since its rapid expansion over a huge swathe of Iraqi and Syrian territory. IS was the catalyst that dragged a previously deeply reluctant West into yet

      It took many years for us to raise our children. It took only minutes to kill them
- Salhah Salem

another military venture in the region.


But Syria’s conflict has raged for three-and-a-half years and has claimed, by some counts, over 200,000 dead. (The UN stopped counting in August at the chillingly precise number of 191,369).


The son of Nasser’s bereaved neighbourhood woman was killed by Syrian security forces at a time of heavy fighting in Deir al-Zour, said Nasser. He had been “executed during a security campaign” in the area.


“He was buried in a small park because the bombing was too intensive, and it was impossible to reach the cemetery,” Nasser said.


The woman has since moved away but hers is the story of countless Syrian women, the often forgotten victims of a long and bloody conflict.


Waiting and bribing

Wedad Maraashli is waiting for news of her son, Ahmed who was arrested on 27 September 2013. She told al-Araby al-Jadeed that she had moved in with her sister after selling her house in Damascus to bribe mediators and security officers.


"Ahmed is all I have left in this world …. Every day I hear promises, and I live in hope."

She goes to the Palace of Justice in central Dasmascus daily to follow up on his case. The Palace of Justice houses several courts and Ahmed’s was recently referred to the Anti-Terrorism Court. She waits for hours, but receives no reassurance or news.


And she is not alone.  


"Scores of mothers beat me to the place. Their presence and their faces help me have patience. They sit on pavements carrying pictures of their detained children.”


If someone is freed, it sparks a scramble, said Maraashli.


“When anyone is released they rush to see him, bombarding him with questions about their sons, while he looks for his own mother."

Coping with loss

Salhah Salem wound up in the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey after her two sons were killed in the city of Saraqib in the Idlib Governorate. She hangs their pictures inside the narrow caravan where she lives.


Every day she cleans the photos. When asked about her sons, she smiles: "They are alive, and we are the dead."


"In this camp, there are hundreds of mothers of martyrs. I am one. It took many years for us to raise our children. It took only minutes to kill them."

Salhah studied Islamic sharia at the University of Damascus, and she teaches Arabic to children in the refugee camp. She also tries to console other bereaved mothers.


"No one can feel the pain of those women except someone who has already experienced it. By consoling them, I console myself."

In the same refugee camp, there is a woman everyone calls al-Khansa, a reference to a female poet in pre-Islamic times who lost all her sons and brothers in battles. Kilis’ al-Khansa lost her husband and four sons when their house was bombed in Homs in 2013.


She now shares a dwelling with the widow of her oldest son and the grandchildren. But she no longer talks. She will gesture and frequently raises her hands to the sky. But no words. According to her daughter-in-law, who did not want to give her name, she stopped talking the minute she heard the news.

“ A group of Syrian and Turkish doctors examined her, but to no avail."

Female detainees

It is difficult to obtain reliable information about the detention of women in Syria, especially in areas outside government control. Where the regime is still in control, according to the Syrian Center for Statistics and Research (SCSR), an average of 13 women are arrested every month in government-controlled areas.

Ramez is waiting for the release of his wife, who has been held in Adra prison for eight months. She was detained, he said, for giving relief to internally displaced people in Damascus and is expecting referral to the anti-Terrorism court.


But Ramez has shielded his children from that fact. “I have told them she is travelling, and will be back soon," he explained.


And for good reason. The conditions for female prisoners in Syrian detention is poor. Last month, women prisoners at the Adra prison managed to smuggle out a message describing their situation. The message described serious overcrowding, with “500 female political prisoners in the prison… At least 30 percent are over 50, and 5 percent are pregnant. There is at least one birth each month."

Some 10 percent of the inmates suffer disabilities, according to the message, and 60 percent of those with incurable diseases receive little to no medical attention or medication. Just a small fraction of prisoners pardoned have actually been released. In addition, only one in five can afford a lawyer, and less than a third are allowed visits from their families.

In figures

Before it stopped counting, the UN in August estimated the total number of women killed in Syria’s conflict at 18,000. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), some two-thirds were killed by government forces.  


"Over 12,800 women have been killed by the regime,” said Nour al-Khatib, of the SNHR. “This means 12 women are killed every day. There have also been 7,500 incidents of sexual violence. Around 2.1 million women have been internally displaced, and there are 1.1 million women refugees outside Syria."


Syria’s is a deadly conflict where all sides have been accused of grossly transgressing the laws of war. Most recently, the UN said this week said the IS had engaged in war crimes on a “massive scale”.


But with such outsized numbers of dead and casualties, the plight of women can go unreported. 

According to the International Rescue Committee, there are more than three million registered Syrian refugees living in host countries, and 100,000 more are being registered every month. Four out of five are women or children, with 30 percent living in refugee camps and 70 percent in urban areas."


The name of the IRC report? Are we listening?

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition