The flat is 15 square meters. A small living room with a rug where several cushions lie. A cramped kitchen with a half-empty fridge and a balcony that overlooks the neighborhood's green mosque. Syrian Melak El Osman lives here with her three-year-old daughter Aya. They arrived in Reyhanli, a Turkish city located just four kilometers from the border with their country, in 2019. Years of war, stories of torture and abuse in prisons, the rejection of society, the abandonment of her husband and half a burned face after An airstrike on her home in January 2016 seems like too much for a 26-year-old. Like El Osman, there are hundreds of former detainees living alone, with serious psychological problems and with no prospects for the future in Reyhanli after escaping from a country shattered after more than a decade of war.
While little Aya runs around with a packet of chips, El Osman apologizes for having nothing but Turkish coffee and some chocolate bars to offer the guests. The young woman's new life in Reyhanli is not behind bars, but it is not far from being in a prison either. Dark and dilapidated stairs give access to her home, a few empty square meters where she spends 24 hours a day with her daughter. Between four walls he deals with his mental problems derived from the attacks suffered behind bars after his arrest in 2017, which destroyed his life and undermined his self-esteem. “Those two months I spent in jail brought my life down. The stigma of having been detained by the government makes society not forgive you. It was a nightmare. They tortured me, sexually abused me,I was insulted and denigrated in the cold cells of Damascus. When I got out, my husband had married another woman and in my city nothing was the same anymore because I had been in prison”, explains the 26-year-old through tears.
El Osman, a native of Daraa, a conservative and largely Bedouin southern town where anti-government protests began in 2011, highlights the difficulties he faced after leaving prison.
“I had a bad reputation and everyone was talking about what the soldiers had done to me.
I couldn't even go back to university because they made it difficult for me to be admitted again.
My husband no longer wanted to be with me because of what they had done to me.
Everything collapsed and I decided to leave”, he laments as he spontaneously covers the part of his face that is burned.
It was a nightmare.
I was tortured, sexually abused, insulted and denigrated in the cold cells of Damascus
Melak El Osman, 26-year-old Syrian
Abdel Qader, director of the humanitarian organization Kahatein, highlights from his office in Reyhanli the problems faced by the women who were imprisoned.
“In 2018 we decided to delve into this topic.
They leave prison after being abused and tortured.
Their husbands reject them, they are left alone and face an unjust society that judges and rejects them.
That is why they flee and come to places like Reyhanli to start a new life”, he argues.
Currently, the organization helps 52 beneficiaries in this situation with psychological and economic support and, in some specific cases, with medical treatment.
Kahatein is providing psychological therapy to El Osman once a week every Friday and financial support of 70 euros per month.
Syrian Melak El Osman with her three-year-old daughter Aya. Cristina Cascajo
The young woman narrates her story while little Aya plays with her teddy bear, oblivious to a story shared by hundreds of women in Reyhanli. Osman was 22 years old and was returning, like every day, from the University of Damascus, in Daraa, where he was in his second year of Banking Sciences. On the way home she was arrested. The young woman assures that she was one of the organizers of the demonstrations in Daraa when the anti-government protests began in 2011. Her activism cost her arrest over the years. “For me it was already a routine. They insulted me, beat me and raped me in prison. She cried and was alone all the time. They asked me for the names of the rioters and, not getting anything, they transferred me to Damascus, where I was in several prisons until I ended up in Adra”,he affirms referring to the well-known penitentiary located on the outskirts of the capital. Those two months of beatings, transfers from prison to prison and continued sexual abuse, she says, left her touched forever.
Qader maintains that there are hundreds of women in the city who were imprisoned in Syria, but knowing an exact figure is impossible, since most do not dare to count the sexual violence suffered during their arrest for fear of stigma, which makes the documentation process much more difficult. “The problem is that many have lost their self-confidence, they are wounded forever and need help to start a new life here,” she explains. Qader comments that they help the express depending on the need. Sometimes they grant about 100 euros, others 150 or even support them to start projects such as beauty salons or provide them with sewing machines.
El Osman's odyssey did not end in Reyhanli, a city where he arrived two years ago without money, with a little girl and with serious psychological problems that he still cannot get rid of. After spending several months living in a home for compatriots wounded in the war, he tried to ask both people and organizations for help. "Many people who said they wanted to help me tried to abuse me taking advantage of the fact that I am alone and despite my situation," she laments. The consequences of torture, abuse and the complete change from her previous life as a student and married to Reyhanli's misery and loneliness have taken their toll. The Osman carefully takes out of his bag several documents that confirm that he suffers from post-traumatic stress. "I'm not well. I feel tired. My day to day is being at home with Aya, we don't leave here. I am afraid of everything.To the street, to the young people. I don't trust people”, she explains with her head down.
The worst has been the pyramidal destruction of my family.
We have always been very close and now they are all incarcerated, dead or far away from me
Safaa, Syrian, 22 years old
Many young women like El Osman have faced injustice both inside and outside of prison and the consequences are still very present years later. The stigma associated with imprisoned women in Syria is a heavy backpack that few manage to shed. Reports of rape and other forms of violence are frequent, especially during war years. In both parties to a conflict, women are normally gradually exploited as a weapon of war to pressure their relatives or members of the opposition to turn themselves in or, in other cases, they are used as bargaining chips in the exchange of prisoners. . The International Movement for Consciousness (ICM) documented the detention of at least 13,500 women from 2011 to 2019 in its latest report. Until that year, at least 7.000 were still imprisoned, according to the ICM.
Koran classes to forget the torture
Little Yusef opens the door of the house and tells the guests that they have to wait.
His sister Safaa needs to put on the niqab to receive guests.
The young woman is 22 years old, is from Damascus and was arrested in her country in 2014 when she was 15 years old and had just returned from school.
He prefers not to give his real name because he still has relatives in Syria and he fears reprisals against them.
In a spacious living room, with blue sofas and a large window that lights up the entire room, Safaa begins her story with a broken voice and pauses that reveal her sadness without having to uncover her face.
“She was just a girl. How was I supposed to know anything about the rioters at the protests?” he asks. Safaa remembers perfectly that April 2014, when she stepped on what she calls a "cage" for the first time with her older sister and her mother, who were also arrested. "Beatings with metal sticks, insults, little food, constant screams from tortured people... All of this made us go crazy in the cell," he says. It also highlights with a thread of voice what a woman finds when she is released. “Anyone like us is not going to get forgiveness from our society. It is not only stigma related to abuse, there is also that of stopping socializing with you for fear of being the next detainees”, he laments.
When Safaa was released from prison, she found half her family devastated.
One of his brothers died behind bars at the age of 14 and another brother and his father remained in detention.
In 2016 he fled to Reyhanli. Cristina Cascajo
In October of the same year, Safaa left prison to find half a family devastated.
One of his brothers died behind bars at the age of 14 and another brother and his father were still detained, according to what he narrates.
In 2016, she fled to Reyhanli after escaping from her neighborhood in Damascus to Idlib (northern Syria) after her release, but the danger and fighting in this city forced her to move to the Turkish city.
“I will never forget those months.
But the worst of all has been the pyramidal destruction of my family.
We have always been very close and now they are all imprisoned, dead or very far from me, ”he says through tears.
In Reyhanli, Safaa has found a way out of her depression and memories of a lost childhood. A school for learning and reading the Koran, started by a teacher from Aleppo to whom she goes every day for two hours a week, has given her back "some of the illusion" that was taken away from her in recent years. “I am very happy during the time I am there. There is a very good atmosphere and after classes the girls go to the garden to talk for a while”, she assures. The method of understanding, reading and reciting the sacred book evades Safaa for a few hours from the heavy reality that she lives in Reyhanli and from her past memories. “I already know more than 13 suras and the teacher assures me that I am good at it. It is the moment that I look forward to the most in the day”, she comments enthusiastically before beginning to recite one of the parts of the Koran that speaks of Mary,your favourite.
Safaa's life since arriving in Reyhanli has not been easy. He counts the juggling he does every month to feed his mother and his little brother, Yussef, in addition to paying the rent for the house, which is just over 100 euros. Kahatein and the Turkish Red Crescent give him almost 400 liras every month, about 40 euros. The last quarter he has been working making food for a factory that paid him 500 lire a month (almost 50 euros), so his situation has become relatively comfortable. The job was temporary, so now he just became unemployed. “It is the problem I face in Reyhanli. I am alone, with children and with my mother, but there is very little employment here,” she says.The young woman regrets that most of the jobs she finds are physical and due to her back problems "derived from the beatings in prison" she cannot accept them. “Many of us who were detained in Syria who are here, whether they made it public or not, we find ourselves in this situation or even worse. We lost everything there and we have nothing here.”
You can follow PLANETA FUTURO on
, and subscribe
to our 'newsletter'