Women's 'Conscience Convoy' masses on Syria border

Women's 'Conscience Convoy' masses on Syria border
Thousands of women from around the globe have gathered on the Turkish border in a united call for the release of all women subjected to brutal conditions in Syria’s jails.
7 min read
13 March, 2018
Saeha Albaroudi, 52, is a former Syrian prisoner [Charlie Faulkner]
Thousands of women from around the globe amassed on a Turkish city located on the Syrian border in a united call for the release of all women subjected to brutal conditions in Syria's jails.

The call came on Thursday, International Women's Day, as the Conscience Convoy For The Women arrived in Hatay amid a flurry of flags, banners and a chorus of chants, following its two-day journey which began in Istanbul.

Around 10,000 women from 55 different countries mobilised to draw attention to the atrocities faced by female prisoners who usually have no idea why they have been arrested. Since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011, the women have been subjected to torture, rape and execution.

Yvonne Ridley, Scottish journalist and women's rights campaigner, as well as spokeswoman for the event, was among a number of women who addressed the crowd at the convoy's final destination.

"Ten thousand women from across the world stand here today to voice our support and solidarity with the thousands of women on the other side of the border who are being held as hostages and tortured, just because they are women. The time is now," she said.

"Hear our voices; we are here with you in body and spirit. You will no longer be forgotten and the world will no longer be allowed to ignore the atrocities being perpetrated against you and your children. The time is now.

"People are asking us what we want to achieve; stop killing our sisters, stop using rape as a weapon of war. The time is now to stop brutalising and torturing women."

She continued: "To the brave women in the regime's prisons, women from across the world are sending you a message today, a message of love, love for our sisters and compassion. We feel your pain and we want you to be here, we want you to be free.

"Thousands of us here pledge that we will never, never forget you, nor will we allow the world to forget you. This is the beginning; the time is now!"

Along the 1,200km route, cities were brought to a standstill as the fleet of buses blasted their horns and flags were waved from support vehicles accompanying the convoy. Initially starting out with 55 buses, the convoy had reached more than 100 by Thursday.

Saeha Albaroudi, a 52-year-old former Syrian prisoner - a survivor of Assad's jails - was among the participants who joined the convoy at Istanbul. She was arrested in 2014 on allegations of supporting and funding terrorist groups. She denies all such charges.

"The first thing they do is throw you into solitary confinement - a toilet - where you can spend several hours at a time. That was the worst bit for me - the shock of it, the way they strip you of your dignity. You're not a human being in their eyes.

"We were hung and electrocuted. I was hung by one hand with my feet barely touching the ground, in front of around 25 male prisoners," she said. By "electrocution", she was referring to torture by electric shocks being administered to her body. "They were aged from late teens up to around 75 years old and they were stripped to their underwear. We were all stood in water, so every time I fainted and they electrocuted me, the male prisoners were electrocuted as well.

"They would say to the men 'She's your mother, she's your daughter, she's your wife, she prostitutes herself'. It was emotional, psychological and physical torture for all of us."

Saeha was able to pay eight million Syrian Lira ($15,500) to be released after two months.

"I was beaten, whipped, I had my breasts exposed, my hijab pulled off. I've seen the remnants of the interrogation rooms - dead bodies, body parts, blood-matted hair," said the mother-of-two.

"There would be nearly 50 of us in a tiny room. The seams of our clothes would collect so much dirt and lice that we would turn them inside out just to try and make it a little less awful.

"But, I always had hope that I would be free again so I saw it as my duty to stay strong, provide a shoulder to cry on for the other women and make sure I shared their harrowing stories across the world when I got out. That's how I survived."

During her time in prison, Saeha was in a cell with an 80-year-old woman and her daughter-in-law. Both had been subjected to incomprehensible violence.

"They raped the younger woman in front of her mother-in-law. And after they were finished they just threw her back in our cell covered in blood," she said. "It's well known that rape is a common tool of torture used by the regime."

A 27-year-old woman, also in Saeha's cell, had been tortured to such an extent she had a nervous breakdown.

"At night time she would cry and scream in her bed. We would beg the guards to give her something to calm her down. Instead, they tied her to the bed and moved her to another room where she continued to scream."

The latest statistics indicate 13,581 women were detained by the Syrian regime between March 2011 and the end of 2017, according to figures from the organisations behind the Conscience Convoy.

More than 6,736 women still remain in prisons run by the Syrian regime. Of this number, 6,319 are adult women and 417 are children.

Since her release two-and-a-half years ago, Saeha has remained in Turkey with her husband to help other women who have been through ordeals like hers.

"I have a duty and I need to be putting my energy into that. I think this event is an incredibly important opportunity to push this issue into the forefront and make sure it's a priority," she said.

Women from all walks of life embarked on the journey together, from lawyers to athletes, housewives to politicians, from activists to businesswomen.

Rayne Rose Mandela-Perry, Nelson Mandela's daughter-in-law, also took part in the convoy. Addressing participants in Sakarya, she said: "The biggest lesson we have learned through our own struggle is the importance of international solidarity. We call for the release of the women and children incarcerated in Syrian jails."

Meanwhile, Newcastle city councillor Ann Schofield from the UK urged international media to do more to highlight the suffering of prisoners.

"Women are being used as weapons of war and I think the silence of the media has allowed a culture of impunity in Syria," she said.

"By coming here, we're saying we're sharing it, we're sharing our humanity together and I don't want the suffering for me, I don't want it for my family and I don't want it for you."

Speaking to The New Arab, Yvonne Ridley said: "The amount of engagement we've received is amazing. When the idea was first suggested two months ago we thought three buses would leave Istanbul. Today, more than 100 buses have arrived in Hatay and women have joined us from all parts of Turkey.

"Nothing has changed since the UN released its report last year about the accounts of survivors who had been imprisoned in Syria. This is not 'fake news', this is real suffering. Positive action needs to be taken to stop this war."

This was the first event of its kind Dojana, who declined to give her full name, had ever been involved with. "I am here because I'm a Syrian woman but I've been silent. If I remain silent nothing will change and I'm here for all the women who feel trapped or imprisoned, not necessarily just in prisons but in their homes as well.

"I think women in [the Arab] world are starting to ask for their rights. They may still be afraid but I feel there is something building in our society and one day it will explode."

Charlie Faulkner is a British journalist based in Istanbul whose work focuses on migration and women's rights. Follow her on Twitter: @Charlie_Faulk