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Iraq Refugee Crisis Engulfs Women Silenced by Rape

Sunday, April 1, 2007

An Iraqi woman who survived a rape before she and her family moved to Lebanon is finding a way to talk about her ordeal. But aid workers say that in the major Iraqi refugee communities of Syria and Jordan this war wound goes unmentioned.

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An Iraqi woman who survived a rape before she and her family moved to Lebanon is finding a way to talk about her ordeal. But aid workers say that in the major Iraqi refugee communities of Syria and Jordan this war wound goes unmentioned.
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'Noura' fled Iraq after she was raped

BEIRUT, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)--The six kidnappers who raped Noura in Baghdad left her on the highway bleeding, her face bruised, her clothes torn and her feet bare. Her husband of 18 years was with her when she was kidnapped and he was stabbed and left for dead.

Onlookers who witnessed the kidnapping in the street, however, took Noura's husband to the hospital. The following morning, after the kidnappers pushed Noura out of their car by the highway and threatened to kill her if she described them to anyone, a minibus driver acting as a good Samaritan picked her up, gave her his own shoes and coat and dropped her off at her sister's.

The couple was reunited and a few days later they fled to Syria with their three children, partly to escape the violence and start a new life and partly to escape the stigma attached to rape victims and shield their children from ever learning of it.

"I sat in Sit Zeinab and prayed that God would strike me dead," said Noura, a 34-year-old Sunni, referring to the mosque where thousands of Iraqi refugees, mostly Shiite but some Sunni, pray in Damascus.

Today, almost two and a half years later, Noura--who asked that her real name not be used--and her husband live in anonymity in a suburb of Beirut.

"There were too many Iraqis in Syria," Noura said, of the family's decision to move a second time.

"We don't socialize with any Iraqis at all. My friends are all Lebanese. My 7-year-old doesn't even speak with an Iraqi dialect and doesn't understand Iraqi," said Noura, who bleaches her brunette hair blond and speaks in a mixture of dialects. Her marriage has been shattered since the brutal attack.

"He hits me now sometimes, like just two days ago, because he got so frustrated and angry very quickly for no reason," she said in his presence, adding he never used to hit her "before the incident." Her husband stared at the floor.

Responding to the Crime

When her husband left the house, Noura also revealed that her brothers repeatedly told her husband they blamed him for failing to protect her. She said he has developed sexual impotence since the attack.

"Men and women exposed to torture--and rape is a form of torture--have trouble rebuilding relations with their family because they feel like a stranger to each other. They develop emotional numbness, impotence, or sexual or physical aggression," said Suzanne Jabbour, director of the Restart Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. Based in Tripoli, Lebanon, it is one of the few internationally accredited centers operating in the region.

Noura and her husband go to the center for psychiatric help and counseling every week, and Noura said it has helped their relationship. Her husband, who used to not trust doctors, now looks forward to their weekly therapy sessions "because he feels good after he talks about his thoughts and feelings."

But among Iraqi refugees living in crowded conditions in other countries, there is mainly silence about the sexual violence that women may have endured in Iraq.

"There are thousands and thousands of rape cases, but the victims would rather die than talk about it," said Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi journalist who recently fled to Syria. He said he repeatedly tried to write about the pervasiveness of rape in Iraq since the war started, but no one would discuss it with him.

Humanitarian organizations currently working with Iraqi refugees are also shy about discussing the sexual violence that refugees might have endured.

"There are many cases of rape among Iraqi women and, to a lesser extent, men, but it's culturally too sensitive to discuss in the open," said one humanitarian aid worker in Damascus on the condition of anonymity.

Among Iraqi refugees, now considered one of the fastest growing refugee crises in the world, no one knows how many women live with the memory of a brutal attack, suffering in silence to protect themselves and their families from unbearable stigma.

Outreach Efforts Beginning

International humanitarian organizations working with refugees have just begun to provide outreach and rehabilitation programs for rape and sexual abuse victims.

There are 2 million Iraqi refugees living outside of Iraq, mainly in Syria and Jordan, with several thousand in Lebanon, according to the United Nations. And every month thousands of Iraqis flee. Within Iraq, there are also an estimated 1.8 million internally displaced Iraqis. The New York-based International Rescue Committee is now setting up an operation in Amman, Jordan, to provide care for refugees.

Statistics are not available on rape survivors among Iraqi refugees, but a 2003 Human Rights Watch report documents numerous cases similar to Noura's during an earlier phase in the war.

In Lebanon, Noura and her family have no legal status, which means they struggle to live on whatever her husband manages to earn and local charity. But she has found relief at least in breaking the silence.

"Last Valentine's my (13-year-old) daughter asked me: How come daddy didn't bring you flowers? I didn't know what to tell her," said Noura. "But I woke up in the middle of that night and found my husband kissing my hands quietly. He was crying."

Heidi Lehmann is a senior advisor at the International Rescue Committee, one of the first international organizations to provide gender-based violence outreach and rehabilitation programs in conflicts such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, where Lehmann has worked with rape survivors.

Rape Endemic to War Zones

"It's amazing the similarities between war zones in terms of women being targeted and the stigma attached," said Lehmann. "Sexual violence is extremely common in war zones, and it's not a matter of if, but a matter of how often." Iraqi refugees enter a Syrian mosque in May 2006.

In February, an Iraqi woman shocked viewers when she went on Al-Jazeera, one of the most watched television stations in the Arab world, alleging she had been raped by three Iraqi policemen after they took her in for questioning.

The alleged victim is Sunni and the policemen she accused are Shiite. Her allegations unleashed a furious reaction along sectarian lines, offering an object lesson in what a rape survivor and her family might endure if they came forward.

One Iraqi member of Parliament told Al-Jazeera that the woman, dubbed Sabrine, was "obviously lying about the rape . . . judging from the makeup she wears." He was referring to the traditional Arabic black Kohl that Sabrine wore in her eyes the day she spoke on Al-Jazeera; she had also worn a scarf that covered her hair and face but revealed her eyes.

Noura says she endured her own version of humiliation and stigma after her mother and 12 siblings and neighbors found out about what had happened to her.

"My mother and siblings in Baghdad all moved out of their neighborhood to get away from the looks and whispers," said Noura. "And today when my brothers call every now and then to check up on us, I feel ashamed to talk to them. I feel I've let them down somehow."

Rasha Elass is a freelance journalist based in Damascus, Syria.