The revolution in Syria has put thousands of gay people at high risk of torture and death from all fighting sides–Islamist extremists, Assad loyalists and opposition rebels. It is currently one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a LGBT person. There is no mercy from any of these warring parties. The only escape is to another country or to hide by joining one of the fighting force to protect one’s family and self–and risk killing other gays who are arrested or suspected.
The following report was filed by Haley Bobseine, Head of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project Middle East program in Beirut who urges more attention to LGBT refugees at risk.
When Syrian rebels took Racca last March, one would have thought that the capture of this northern city that was previously controlled by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad would suffice them.
They do not get involved in the private lives of citizens by Amir, a Syrian from the city .
This quiet period did not last unfortunately . When Islamic groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the Frente al-Nosra, both related to al-Qaeda , began to rise in power they imposed their interpretation of Islamic justice on the population. “Little by little, they began to cleanse the city of its non-Islamic elements, says Amir. Moreover, there are courts and trials and with them they may decide to behead you. ”
Racca life quickly became impossible for Amir, who is gay. He managed to flee to Beirut. It is not safe to be sought by the jihadists. “Before, with the Syrian government, we could get away with pots of wine,” he explains. “But some people are so religious that they reject pots of wine. ”
While the violence in Syria continues, many people have fled to their ethnic or religious communities to find protection. But unlike other minority groups like Christians, Kurds and Alawites, sexual minorities, particularly homosexuals, enjoy no protection from political, ethnic or religious institutions. Syrian homosexuals are nowhere safe across the country. They are both attacked by militant regimes and pro-Islamist militia, sometimes because of their sexual orientation, but also because they are seen as an easy prey to rob in the midst of a chaotic war.
Violence that can lead to death
As program manager project support to Iraqi refugees (IRAP), I had the opportunity to interview dozens of gay Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon to escape persecution. The IRAP provides legal assistance to refugees of all nationalities to help them resettle. Many gay Syrians agreed to testify to help me write this article without it being linked to the assistance they received from IRAP. During our conversations, these men have described a culture of truly shocking violence, even when taking into account the innumerable and unbelievable violations of human rights committed by Syria.
Homosexuals who are still in Syria must avoid detection since their capture may be a mortal threat. Amir remembers one of his gay friends, Badr, who was kidnapped last summer by the Frente al-Nosra before being tortured for information about other gays and then executed. “A few days later, Frente al-Nosra people gathered in the square and denounced another man saying he was gay,” says Amir. “Then they cut off his head with a sword.”
All this violence seems not only related to Islamic beliefs. It might also be caused by a simple desire to manifest power and authority. Some homosexuals have themselves participated in acts of violence against their peers in clear conscience since they risked being unmasked.
Amir’s friend Imad tells the story of a homosexual acquaintance who is currently fighting alongside an Islamist group. “He slept with one of my gay friends for money, and then he disappeared for a few months. In fact, he was taking military training abroad. He came back with a long beard. He is surely motivated by money and the protection the Islamists can provide.”
Refugees fleeing the violence in Syria avoid the areas controlled by the group which they fear, but in the case of homosexuals areas, violence is not confined to one geographical area. A resident of Damascus, Najib, fled his home after his brother found out he was gay. His fear led him to enter a suburb of the capital controlled by the rebels where he began a close relationship with an Islamist fighter. The head of the brigade, a conservative Muslim, began to have suspicions about their relationship, forcing Najib to flee again to take refuge in a suburb closer to the city.
State opposition, everyone is attacking gays
One morning, pro-regime militia arrested two men at a checkpoint. Najib and Kheder. Someone had recognized the men and had seen them in a park that served as a place of rendezvous for casual gays before the revolution. The men were blindfolded and led inside a building where the soldiers demanded $15,000 to not be delivered to the authorities of the State. Najib said, “after that, they told me to undress. They took my phone and photographed me,” he said. “Another guy kicked me in the head and called me a prostitute. After that, they raped me.”
Najib gave some of the money the next day and promised that he would pay the rest of the money in the coming days. But instead he fled to Lebanon. “A homosexual person in Syria is caught between two fires: the regime and the opposition. The problem is that most people find it normal to attack homosexuals.”
Although acts of violence have become increasingly common in recent years, the persecution of homosexuals in Syria dates well before the uprising. The Syrian Penal Code states that “unnatural” sexual act is a crime that can result in a prison sentence of three years. The general lack of acceptance of the Syrian society towards homosexuality has always forced homosexuals to live in hiding and be in secret to avoid arrest or reprisal of a “crime against honor.”
In 2009, the police arrested a group of homosexuals in Racca after obtaining a recording of two men trying to make love. The police have used torture to obtain the names of other homosexuals, before arresting them too. “Many people were tied and severely hit before being interviewed. Most of them have admitted their homosexuality just to stop the torture,” explained Selim, a young gay man who fled Racca last spring, talking about the situation in the city before the revolution. By chance, if you knew someone high up in government, you could get away, so not everyone was arrested. Some suffered from blackmail while others were paying bribes to the police.”
Beirut, an asylum which is not paradise
For some gay Syrians, members of their own families could pose the greatest threat of being discovered. Joseph, a native Christian in Deir Ez-Zor, a city in the east, fled Syria a few months after forgetting to turn off his computer in a cafe while he was talking with his cousins. He had been in deep in conversation with his boyfriend. “The next day they came to me and told me to leave Syria because I would dishonor our family. They threatened to kill me if I refused to go.” Within 24 hours, Joseph left for Lebanon.
While Beirut is often regarded as the most open and relaxed Middle East city, many gay refugees find that their situation there is not much more better. In the Lebanese capital, some have discovered that they were treated in the same manner as in Syria.
Hussein fled northern Syria last spring after a family member tried to assassinate him after he learned he was gay. He knew no one in Beirut and began sleeping on the beach. He was forced into prostitution to survive. “Once a guy picked me to sleep with me, he said. “In fact, I was raped by a group of Lebanese men. After the attack, I went back to the beach because I had nowhere to go.”
During my interviews , when I asked these gay Syrian refugees if they could not find a safer place, most told me the same thing: they have nowhere to go. This must change: even if it is difficult to expect basic rights for homosexuals in a conservative society in the midst of civil war, refugee assistance organizations must do more to help this at-risk minority. The assistance team should be better trained to meet the needs of this population; we should develop support services for male victims of sexual violence. The most vulnerable individuals should be given a safer refuge and helped to move to another country.
Yaman, a gay Syrians who fled Kameshli, a town north in the Syria, described his inability to find accommodation in Beirut and how he was picked up in the street by a rich man in exchange for sexual services. The man shut Yaman inside his house when he went to work to keep Yaman a prisoner. “After a while, I could not take it anymore, so I escaped,” he told this reporter. “I’d rather be hungry and living on the street. ”
By Haley Bobseine
Head of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project Middle East program
Translated by Hélène Oscar Kempeneers
December 9, 2013
Note: All names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of witnesses.