The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein made an impassioned plea last week to the international community to act against the “monstrous campaign of annihilation” in Eastern Ghouta. His address in Geneva followed shortly on the painstakingly delayed passing of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2401, calling for a cessation of hostilities in the besieged region of Syria. The resolutions and statements have gone unheeded by the Syrian government and its ally Russia, rendering the UN at its most weakened state in history. The failure of the international community to act to protect innocent civilians will leave an indelible smear for decades to come.
Eastern Ghouta, the site of a brutal chemical weapons attack in 2013 that derailed the Geneva peace talks, is once again facing the aerial might of barrel bombs, cluster munitions and chlorine gas aimed at exterminating almost half a million people. The Astana declaration of de-escalation zones to protect civilians, has not been upheld.
Hospitals are systematically targeted, leaving injured civilians without the necessary emergency medical treatments required. Medicins Sans Frontieres reported that more than ten of the MSF-supported facilities attacked last month. In addition, at least twelve other hospitals and clinics were also targetted.
The Syrian war is in its seventh year with no indication of peace on the horizon. The war has transformed dramatically, with external interventions by parties with vested interests entering the space, including Iran and Russia on the part of the regime and Turkey to combat the Kurdish YPG. The Syrian opposition is disunited, and terrorist organisations have tainted the struggles of the Syrian people.
The impact on women and girls has been catastrophic. Millions have had to flee to neighbouring states and beyond, risking their lives and being subjected to squalor in the refugee camps. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a UK-based Syrian-run organisation, from March 2011 to November 2017 no less than 24,746 women have been killed, 85% of whom at the hands of the authorities. In comparison, ISIS and other extremist groups were responsible for 2.5% of the deaths of women. The report further breaks down the number, indicating that 12,986 women died from torture at the hands of the government (almost half were female children), with 51 killed by extremist groups.
To highlight these abhorrent atrocities and to stand in solidarity with Syrian women, the Conscience Convoy of women from fifty-five countries from around world will embark on a journey from Istanbul to the Turkish-Syria border. Activists, journalists, lawyers, doctors and humanitarian aid workers will come together on International Women’s Day, joining their voices with the call for justice, accountability, and most importantly the protection of women in times of war.
The spate of arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and abductions has continued unabated since the first uprisings, inspired by the Arab Spring, in 2011. Gülden Sönmez, Deputy Chairperson of the Human Rights and Justice Movement in Turkey has identified 13,581 women detained by the Syrian regime between March 2011 and November 2017. Of these, 6,736 women and 417 girl children remain behind bars or unaccounted for. Sönmez has conducted interviews with more than 100 women who suffered torture in detention and are now living as refugees in Turkey.
As a South African former diplomat and human rights activist who has raised awareness about the plight of the Syrian people with protests and campaigns locally, as well as in undertaking a humanitarian aid mission to the Syrian refugee camps in 2015, I felt compelled to join the Convoy.
Women face most vulnerabilities in war, and many have been targeted whilst trying to protect their children. According to the Convoy organisers, the Syrian government does not distinguish between children and adult women and has been responsible for over 400,000 arbitrary arrests of women and girls since 2011.
In a press conference held in Istanbul on 28 February to announce the launch of the Convey, Syrian women refugees who will be joining the convoy told harrowing tales of their incarceration, torture and rape at the hands of the Syrian regime. Some of these women are pursuing legal recourse to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
Sexual violence and rape are used as a systematic weapon of war by all parties to the conflict. Humiliation, physical abuse and deliberate manoeuvres to tear apart the social fabric of the conservative Syrian society, where speaking out would leave the victims stigmatized, are the norm. The parties to the conflict continue to act with impunity. There is no accountability for the grievous harm committed against innocent people. The Conscience Convoy seeks to draw the world’s attention to the suffering of women who have been tortured, raped, executed, imprisoned and displaced since the beginning of the war.
The Conscience Convoy of buses left Istanbul on Tuesday March 6th, traveling through the Turkish cities of Izmit, Sakarya, Ankara, and Adana before reaching Hatay along the Turkish-Syria border today, International Women’s Day. Several South African women will be joining the Convoy, carrying messages of hope, solidarity and support for their Syrian sisters and will symbolically tie embroidered scarves to the border fence, marking the number of women still detained in Syria.
* Zeenat Adam is a human right activist based in South Africa.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.