Ibrahim owned a shop located near several security and intelligence offices in the Syrian town of Deraa. He was arrested there on three separate occasions simply because of his shop’s location. While in prison, he was beaten with the barrel of a rifle and still has broken teeth. He was blindfolded and suspended from a ceiling for hours at a time. Guards threatened to hurt his wife. For Ibrahim, the psychological torture was worse than the physical. He describes feeling deep paranoia and having chest pains when hearing the sounds of sirens.
Now, Ibrahim lives in Jordan. His ordeal is one of 64 harrowing narratives from Syrian and Iraqi refugees now residing in Jordan collected over two years by the Centre for Victims of Torture (CVT), which provides trauma rehabilitation services. The centre’s new report, Reclaiming Hope, Dignity and Respect: Syrian and Iraqi Torture Survivors in Jordan, takes a close look at the psychological scars left behind. Jordan has seen a massive influx of refugees — nearly 630,000 registered Syrian refugees and increasing numbers of Iraqis — as a result of the ongoing Syrian war and the advance of Daesh.
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In the case of Syria, according to the report, the overwhelming majority of those interviewed who were tortured claim to have had no role in any opposition movement. With no reported involvement in demonstrations, revolution or armed groups, many interviewees were swept up arbitrarily in the violence and government crackdowns. They happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, often their own homes or at checkpoints. The torture was not used to extract information, simply to cause pain and create fear.
For those who had either participated in demonstrations or attempted to document such events, the treatment was especially brutal. Kareem, an independent photographer who took photos of demonstrations, told CVT how he was forced to watch the gang rape of his wife and killing of his son before enduring brutal physical torture himself. Fatima, whose husband was a member of the Free Syrian Army, had her 12 year old daughter taken by Syrian troops, who used her as a lever to force her father to surrender in order to save her life. He did, and was killed.
In Iraq, the use of torture is much murkier. This time the main perpetrator is not the government. In fact, the victims often do not know who was behind their treatment, but recall being kidnapped on the streets by groups of men, apparently due to their affiliation with a certain religion, sect or minority group. For example, Mostafa was coming out of a Sunni mosque when he was taken by a group of around ten men. He was later found in a rubbish bin with horrific injuries and having been set on fire.
Even though those interviewed have now fled their respective countries and are living in the relative safety of Jordan, the trauma of what happened to them remains. Many display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as withdrawal, depression, fear, flashbacks and inability to perform daily activities. For children, the impact of torture is even more severe, with aggression, fear of being alone, withdrawal and inability to concentrate being common side effects. For many of CVT’s most severely affected clients from both Syria and Iraq, their torture leads to a breakdown of their community and family structures.
The mental health issues faced are only heightened by the condition of prolonged displacement in Jordan. When crossing the border, refugees often said that Jordanian soldiers treated them well and it “was like we reached heaven.” However, they were soon ushered into places like the massive Zaatari Refugee Camp. Even though clients acknowledge that medical, food and other services were readily available in the camp, they nonetheless described the conditions as unliveable. Inability to work and instead having to rely on charity handouts to survive also leads to a great deal of frustration and helplessness. Meanwhile, the host community’s attitude makes things even more difficult. For example, Ibrahim, the storeowner from Deraa, said that he pulled his children out of school in Jordan last year because they were treated very poorly and insulted by their teachers.
Nevertheless, despite all the hurdles faced by Syrian and Iraqi refugees when trying to recover from their experiences of torture, their resilience continues to amaze CVT’s Marie Soueid, the report’s primary author.
“As we see with many of our healing programmes, survivors of torture and war trauma demonstrate the capacity for resilience in the face of significant challenges,” she explained. “They have both the desire and ability to discuss and come to terms with the traumatic incidents they faced while providing for their families, seeking international services and imagining a more just future for their home country.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.