Tracking a rumor: Is there a sugar factory in Syria being used as a rape house?
We were seated on a scratchy nylon mat with “UNHCR” written all over it. Children with the same beautiful, olive-complexioned face stared big-eyed at me from every corner of the furniture-less room, and their mother cried as she talked about the many massacres her family had fled in Homs five months previously. The woman, Maha, 37, couldn’t recount how many people she had seen killed but she knew the number of family members she saw dragged away at a checkpoint as they fled their Homs neighborhood, Deir Ba’alba: 10.
As she tried to recall some of the horrors she’d witnessed, Maha mentioned that there was a sugar factory in her town where government soldiers were taking girls to be raped and killed.
“They picked beautiful girls for generals and then gave them to the soldiers,” Maha said.
“How do you know this?” I asked her.
She knows people who worked in the factory and witnessed what was happening there, she said.
“Whoever leaves the village has to go through a checkpoint next to the factory,” Maha said. “They take the girls at the checkpoint. The girls get killed. They disappear.” She said she did not know how many girls had been abducted.
In my many interviews with Syrian refugees, I’d heard about alleged apartments or construction sites used as impromptu rape and torture centers. But something about a sugar factory rang a particular bell. The media, and the United Nations investigating commission, have reported on a sugar factory used as a rape and torture center in a town called Jisr Al-Shugour, in Idlib province. This is the UN’s note on it from a September 2011 report:
“According to other witnesses, the sugar factory was used in that period [around June 8, 2011] as the headquarters for armed forces deployed from other areas, as well as for the interrogation, detention and torture of suspects. Several sources also reported that four girls were raped at that location, although the mission was unable to corroborate these accounts.”
The France-based TV channel Euronews reported in June 2011 that a man named Sadik told the outlet: “I saw what happened in Jisr-al-Shughour with my own eyes. They have turned a sugar factory into a prison. They are literally skinning the men alive and raping the women.”
And we have this report on our map from German news outlet Spiegel Online International in June 2012 and this one from Time magazine in June 2011 talking about the Jisr Al-Shughour sugar factory/rape house.
But Jisr Al-Shughour is not close to Homs. So what about this allegation from the refugee I met? Could there really be two sugar factories being used as torture/rape centers? Could there even be one? I decided to look into the Homs rumor a little more closely.
A Web search turned up a number of sugar factories in Syria, but news reports specifically seem to refer to three or four. There is one in Jisr Al-Shughour, and there appear to be two near the woman’s home in Deir Ba’alba.
The National Sugar Company is located 16 miles (25 kilometers) outside of Homs on the way to Damascus; it was reportedly shut down in 2011. It might also be known as the Jandar refinery. Then there’s the Middle East Sugar Refinery located 31 miles (50 kilometers) south of Homs, in the Hasia industrial zone, 55 miles (90 kilometers) from the coast, near Iraq. Maha had told me the factory was “close” to her house. Are either of these conceivably “close” to Deir Ba’alba?
I asked a Syrian colleague of mine if she thought either factory would qualify as “close” to this woman’s town.
“As for the way Syrians estimate distance and what is close or far for them, it always frustrated me,” my colleague said. “There are no rules. They can say about a place that it is ‘as close as the distance a stone you throw will reach’ but turns out to be far, and they can say you need a car and it turns out it is a very reasonable walking distance.”
Assuming one of these factories is close enough to be the factory Maha talked about, who was actually in charge of the area in December 2012? Was the town controlled by government soldiers at that time?
A search reveals that there were a number of government massacres in that period in Homs. Specifically in Deir Ba’alba, the London-based independent Syrian Human Rights Committee reported on a massacre on December 29, 2012: “Human rights activists have reported that the district of Deir Ba’alba in Homs has witnessed a horrific massacre in which more than 220 civilians have been killed, following an attack on the area by Syrian regime forces and its Shabiha [plainclothes militia] gangs.” That particular attack might be the one that caused Maha and her family to flee Syria. She described a massive shabiha knife attack on her town as happening “around New Year’s Eve.”
This Reuters story describes an army push into the same area of Homs that same day, and an ongoing struggle for rebels to maintain their control over pieces of Homs. Are either of the two Homs factories in those disputed areas? I’m still looking into who was controlling the specific surroundings in those months, which saw heavy fighting in the province.
Getting back to the basic question here: Can there really be a sugar factory being used as a rape house in Syria? And can there actually be two?
The likelihood that there are two sugar factories being used in this way seems off. With the echo chamber that is the Internet and the rumor mill that churns propaganda surrounding Syria, I would be reluctant to say that both these allegations are real. But with the actual, documented torture and rape occurring in this war, I would be hesitant to discount that there is such a center where atrocities are being committed. We know such centers exist. And keeping track of the rumors gives us a base from which to investigate.
If such a rumor were proven to be true, it would open up an important question: Is someone in the Syrian government or army aware that this factory is (or was) being used as a rape house and, if so, did they order it into existence?
No one has yet proven that rape is systematic in Syria. By “systematic” I mean that someone in the government has orchestrated it. We just don’t have definitive proof whether the government, accused of multiple atrocities, has a hand in organizing any kind of rape site.
Regardless of who may have organized an alleged site, it might help at this point to look to the lessons of Bosnia: In that conflict, a sports hall called Partizan, in Foca, served as a center for sexualized violence for a number of months in 1992. Women were routinely transported from the hall to be raped in soldiers’ apartments nearby. One told Newsday that soldiers had raped her about 150 times at Partizan. And while during the war there were warnings about the existence of the Partizan camp, the multiple reports went ignored.
One day, journalists and human rights investigators will be allowed into Syria. My hope is that by that time there will still be enough evidence, and survivors left to speak, to tell us what really happened.
(With research by Stephanie Chaban. For more on our work documenting sexualized violence in Syria, see this report on our findings at one year of crowdmapping and this story on how stigma is creating a wall of silence around this issue.)
UPDATE: A woman who says she lived in Homs for many years contacted me the day after this story went up and said she knows of a sugar factory about 3 miles (4.6 kilometers) from the center of Deir Ba’alba. Here it is on Google Maps. “It is very close to an air force intelligence building,” she said.
More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, Rape, War