In Syria, the Victims No Longer Have Names

Child beggars, an epidemic of rape, and graves that no normal citizen can afford to ignore no longer shock the world. The world is now bored by Syria, and turning its attention to other things.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The war in Mali has pushed the horrors in Syria to the sidelines. While there is something to the danger to the oilfields and foreign citizens in Mali, the tens of thousands of corpses, the stream of refugees and the incidents of rape occurring in Syria are being shoved to the margins of the news.

How many Syrians have been killed this week? How many Syrian refugees have been added to the camps in Jordan and Turkey? How many Syrian women were raped this weekend? Syria, we can now admit, has become a media millstone.

The civil war that has been raging there for 21 months no longer has any shock value. The diplomatic action is sluggish and boring. The daily figures on the number of dead, along with the winning and losing tolls of each side, have slid from the front pages to the newspapers' inside sections.

Now we have a new story to torture ourselves with: France's military campaign in Mali, the abduction of foreign citizens at a gas field in Algeria, and the clumsy attempt to rescue them. These sagas have taken Syria's place.

In Syria, the culture of war has replaced the stories of battles. It's a grim, morbid culture. You can see it in the number of cartoons inspired by President Bashar Assad's physiognomy (more than 3,000); in the methods of child beggars who plead for a few more coins from traffic-jam-stuck drivers; in the thousands of Syrian women who have been raped by soldiers or armed street gangs.

These symbols of the revolt have no names. They are already phenomena. The DP news site, with their slogan "More than half the truth," described the child beggars. It discussed the new benedictions the children use in order to score a few coins: "May Allah hide you from the eyes of the sniper"; "May Allah divert you from the areas of the fighting."

Civilian drivers who find themselves stuck in traffic jams are increasingly annoyed with the little vagrants. Their nerves are already frayed because of time lost in Damascus' crippling traffic, and now they have to hear the children's awful stories, as well.

In the end they will have to pay the kids a monthly wage, they complain. Shouldn't this be the Welfare Department's problem, they ask?

Maybe it should. But the Welfare Department has been defunct for some time now.

The drivers say that the pint-sized beggars are also asking for more money these days. At the beginning of the revolt, they stuck out their palms and asked for five Syrian pounds. Now, however, they say the cost of living has gone up and they need closer to 25 Syrian pounds. Kids have also been known to drag their little sisters to the intersection, showing photos of their slaughtered parents, or distorting their own limbs in order to arouse pity.

The local authorities, interestingly enough, have found enough manpower to clear the kids out of the streets. Unlike the children, who don't have names, the authorities have a hero who does.

Kamal Ramadan, supervisor of welfare and labor matters in the city of Hamat, says he has his staff go out into the streets every morning and evening to drag the beggars to the police. They are held at the police station, either until their parents come to claim them or they are transferred to special hostels.

Many of these ragamuffins aren't even from Hamat, he says. And regardless of your thoughts on the matter, this ruined city really can't, in its perspective, take in all the beggars in the country.

Another horrific phenomenon is the rape of women and girls. This is a strategy of war, not just an outburst of urges brought about by the war, say the human rights organizations. Last week one human rights organization published data showing that more than 4,000 incidents of rape have been reported since the chaos in the country began. That same organization also reported that it had conducted a survey of about 600,000 refugees, and most of the families decided to flee not to escape the fighting, but for fear of rape.

Here too, the victims do not have names. And rightly so. Women who have been raped bring disgrace upon their families. It is they, and not the rapists, who are considered responsible for the act. Their parents will also not identify themselves publicly, either out of fear of retaliation, or just as pernicious, fear that no one will marry the defiled girl, and they will be stuck supporting her for the rest of their lives.

Thus, the information about the victims comes from activists in Syrian women’s organizations, who collect the stories from the refugee women who arrive in the camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This is only partial data. The women who don't come to the refugee camps don't have anyone to document their stories.

In Syria, gang rape by soldiers, as family members look on, has become something routine. Women carry the fear of rape with them into the refugee camps, where they are supposed to be provided with protection. Stories about girls raped by the policemen who guard the camps, or raped by fellow refugees, come up in the descriptions of the fighting. They bring to mind the stories of women during the battles for Bosnia and Iraq.

Death, it seems, is the only honorable exit from the horror. And even death has a high price.

The price of a grave has soared so high that only the wealthy can afford a cemetery plot, which now goes for tens of thousands of dollars.

If Syria were endangering oil fields like the terrorists in Mali, maybe French or British aircraft would already be circling in the skies of Damascus. But rape, young beggars and the soaring price of graves are not justifications for international intervention.

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