Male rape and sexual torture in the Syrian war: ‘It is everywhere’

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When Sarah Chynoweth was asked to report on sexual violence against men and boys in the Syria crisis, she had no idea of the scale of the problem

Last year I agreed to undertake a fact-finding mission for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, on sexual violence against men and boys in the Syrian crisis. We knew that many women and girls were being targeted for rape and other sexualised violence, but we didn’t know much about what was happening to men and boys. Drawing on a few existing reports, I assumed some boys were being victimised, as well as some men in detention centres, but that sexual violence against males was not common. I worried that few refugees would have heard of any accounts and that they wouldn’t talk to me about such a taboo topic anyway. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In October 2016, I landed in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had fled. The UNHCR arranged for a translator and discussions with refugees at a nearby camp. I met with the first group, eight Syrian men who had fled the war. I asked them about their lives in the camp, how they were getting by, and what their main concerns were. Once we had established some rapport, I tentatively probed whether they had heard of any reports of sexual violence against men or boys in Syria. They looked at me incredulously, as if they couldn’t believe that I was asking such a basic question, saying: “Yes, of course. It is everywhere. It is happening [from] all sides.”

We cannot think of any family who doesn’t have someone who was detained and sexually abused

Related: Tortured and abused: hidden horror of ‘disappeared’ women in Syrian prisons | Hannah Summers

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