Lebanon sex trafficking: Syrian woman describes nine-month ordeal

The only time Rama, a 24-year-old from Syria, broke down as she recalled her months of torture and sexual enslavement in a human trafficking ring in Lebanon was when she described how she lost her faith.

“Honestly no, I no longer have faith after what happened,” she told the Guardian. “Because when we were beaten, I would say, ‘God, please save us.’ And [my torturer] would say, ‘You whore, you think God will save you?’ And he would beat me more. We couldn’t say the word Allah, not even within our hearts.”

Over the course of an hour, Rama – not her real name – described in harrowing detail a hellish nine months as part of the largest sex trafficking ring ever uncovered in Lebanon, in which she endured torture, including being beaten with cables and an electric baton, with a bathroom mat in her mouth to keep her from screaming. She was forced to have sex on average 10 times a day and imprisoned in a decrepit house without even a glimpse of sunlight.

She also detailed the abuse of the other women who were enslaved in the network, forced to have abortions after unprotected sex with customers, and subjected to inhumane physical and psychological torture.

Her account meshes with details obtained independently by the Guardian from security and judicial sources involved in the investigation of the network, which eluded authorities for four years and enslaved 75 Syrian women. An indictment confirmed many of her allegations.

The enforcer of the group was alleged to be a man called Imad al-Rihawi, a former interrogator in Syria’s feared air force intelligence service, who allegedly imprisoned the women in two buildings in Maamaltein, a seedy suburb of Jounieh, a city known as the home of Lebanon’s red light district.

The interview with Rama, which occurred as she was finalising her departure from a shelter for abused women, offered a rare insight from one of the women enslaved in the network, who have rarely spoken to the media since its ringleaders were detained last month.

“We slept where we worked and we couldn’t go out, not even to see the light outside,” said Rama. “The windows were painted black. We couldn’t see the light, or breathe the air outside.” Her voice rose as she continued: “It’s not that he made us feel like slaves – we were actual slaves.”

Rama described how she was lured to Lebanon from a city in Syria where she worked as a waitress in a cafe. She was approached by a man who said he was recruiting for a restaurant in Lebanon that would pay her $1,000 a month. Eager to leave her war-torn country, at the time approaching five years of civil conflict, she accepted.

She said the man told her he would take care of the necessary approvals to enter Lebanon (Syrians need visas now to enter the country) but was surprised when he told her after a few hours of driving that they were already in the country, having crossed the border through a smuggling route.

They arrived at Chez Maurice, a derelict house that was visited by the Guardian after the police raid, where she would spend the next nine months. The windows and balconies are barred, and the two-storey house is now empty and sealed with red tape. Underwear and dirty clothes are strewn by the entrance, coffee spilled on the ground from the police raid.

Some windows have been left ajar, and from there emerges the stench of rotting fruit from the dark interior, clothes and half-empty cigarette packs scattered about dingy rooms and beds with metal bars.

After being seated in Chez Maurice, Rama said Rihawi entered the building and after paying the driver, informed her that she would now be a prostitute in the house he ran.

“I told him I didn’t want to work as a prostitute,” she said. “He said I was going to whether I like it or not. And then he began beating me. He beat me until I surrendered, and told him yes.”

Rama said she learned from the other women at the shelter that that was how many of them were brought to the house, some living there for four years. Their torture often consisted of being tied to a table that was set up like a crucifix, and beaten with a cable. If they fainted, they were shocked into consciousness with an electric prod.

The women, 29 of whom lived in Chez Maurice with the others in a nearby house, were forced to have sex as many as 10 times a day on weekdays. Rama said the number of customers often doubled on weekends.

She said women who had not yet lost their virginity when they arrived at the shelter had their hymens broken with a bottle.

Those who said no to customer requests, including for unprotected sex, had marks registered under their names by the female guards in the house, and would be punished with beatings. They had to collect at least $50 in tips from customers a day, and that money – as well as the hourly rate the brothel charged – was all confiscated from the women.

Rama said the women told each other in hushed tones the story of two other women who died in the house, and were buried in unmarked graves before she arrived. When Rihawi, the network’s alleged enforcer, heard them discussing the tale, he beat one of the women 95 times on her legs with a cable, she said.

She said the women who got pregnant after having unprotected sex with customers were taken to have abortions, which are illegal in Lebanon, often months into the actual pregnancy. Police officials have arrested the doctor responsible, who operated a clinic in the northern Beirut suburb of Dekwaneh, where investigators say he performed as many as 200 abortions on women enslaved in the network.

The women worked in two shifts between 9am and 6am the following day. Many had lost family members in war, or otherwise had nobody to look after them, Rama said. Some of the girls were as young as 18 and the oldest were in their mid-30s.

She does not plan to tell her own family about her ordeal, saying they would see what happened to her as a stain on their honour.

“I can’t just go to my sister and tell her, excuse my language, I was working as a whore,” she said. “My dear sister, I’ve been a whore. Or to say it to my brother. It’s not a small thing to say.”

She described how they ultimately escaped from the brothel – five women including her had to wrestle with a female guard on Good Friday, when they were closed for business, while three others distracted the other female managers in another room. They escaped from the back door, barefoot and in their pyjamas, and took a taxi to Beirut’s southern suburbs.

“I forgot most of the things I had known while I was in there,” she said. “There were only the beatings. As soon as you entered through his door, you might as well forget that there was anything outside these walls. Just forget it. We couldn’t even open our windows. When we left the place, our eyes hurt us because we were seeing the sunlight after such a long time.”

A minivan driver they met in Choueifat heard their story, and took them to a local office of Hezbollah, the Lebanese military and political organisation, who called the police. Officers with the Internal Security Forces arrived and questioned the girls, before planning a raid to rescue the rest.

The case has shocked Lebanon, leading to questions about how a network this large escaped detection for years. And though the women were all trafficked directly from Syria, according to a police officer familiar with the investigation, it highlighted the vulnerability of refugees in countries neighbouring Syria and the exploitation many are subjected to.

It also highlighted the deficiencies in Lebanon’s human trafficking law, which was passed in 2011 under pressure from the US and co-exists with the prostitution law in the penal code, which treats female victims in prostitution rings as equivalent to their pimps.

The law also requires that victims of trafficking prove that they were compelled to act as prostitutes.

Human rights campaigners want Lebanon to rescind the prostitution article in the penal code, and reform its existing statutes on human trafficking, as well as train judges and police officers in handling human trafficking cases. There have been no known convictions for sex trafficking in the country since the law was passed.

As for Rama, she said she wanted to stay in Lebanon, obtain a residency and work. She wants to live by herself, saying she has lost trust in all human beings, and still has nightmares about her incarceration.

“Whenever something bad happens it brings back everything we went through,” she said. “All the things that happened to us, we can never forget them.”

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