A woman approached me as I was rushing toward the D.C. Metro after giving a talk on rape in Syria last month. She asked in a low voice if she could share some information. She had DVDs, she said. On them were testimonies of Syrian women who'd been raped; in particular, a mother, a daughter and a sister all in one family.
In a taxi recently en route to Heathrow Airport, I was told another startling story. The driver turned to me and said, "I am Syrian. And I have a story to tell you that I keep wishing is not true."
His eyes welled up as he relayed what his neighbor said happened to a friend. The neighbor described being stopped in his car at a Syrian checkpoint on the road from Zabadani to Damascus. He said army officers told him to leave his daughter with them. My driver said he knew no other details than this, that the man had been given a horrific choice to make: leave his daughter behind, or his wife and other children would be killed in front of his eyes.
The man made a decision, the driver said. He left his daughter at the checkpoint and drove on.
I keep wishing it is not true, too, but what I told the driver that day is that his story sounds all too familiar: Of the hundreds of cases of sexualized violence against Syrian women and men I have heard and documented as the director of the Women Under Siege project at the Women's Media Center, many fit this pattern of women and girls being raped at checkpoints.
And the story from the woman in Washington falls all too neatly into the pattern of ripping apart families -- rape and other forms of sexualized violence have long been used as a tool of war to destroy not only individual bodies but entire communities. What is happening in Syria is no exception.
In an attempt to not lose a single story that could be used as possible evidence for future war crimes trials, we are documenting reports of sexualized violence on a live, crowd-sourced map on Syria. We know, however, that evidence of crimes is being destroyed every day: More than 20% of the women in our reports are found dead or are killed after rape.
Broken down by type of crime and perpetrator, each case is marked as a red dot on the map and contains up to dozens or even hundreds of victims. Each dot is a life or lives potentially ripped apart by a horrific act of violence, an act that is particularly powerful as a weapon in Syria, where honor is so highly prized.
Rape is tearing Syrians apart. The concept of purity is destroying their lives on top of it.
The International Rescue Committee, referring to Syria, reported in August that "girl-child survivors of rape are frequently married to their older cousins or other male members of the community, to 'save their honor.' " Participants in adolescent girl groups told the IRC that if a girl is raped, "Sometimes she might be killed by her family. She might kill herself. ... She knows that she will be dishonored for the rest of her life."