(Latakia) A few days ago, people in Latakia were shocked to discover the news about a man exploiting girls under the legal age of 18 for prostitution. The news went viral on social media. In the details, the man reportedly forced the girls to engage in sexual acts six times a day with certain customers. He locked up six girls in a house and cut them off completely from the world, threatening them with scandal and murder.
Undoubtedly, the culprit took advantage of the poverty and ignorance of the girls who come from socially disrupted families, and he used them without any moral deterrence.
This would not be the first time or the last time for such a scandal to come out into the open in Syrian cities. Hidden slavery practices have surfaced all too often to suffocate Syrians in their choices and to denigrate their souls. Locals have become enslaved to making a living and surviving. And, despite the war plaguing their country, they have indeed survived.
These practices can be classified under new forms of slavery, as they deprive individuals of their freedom and dignity. Worse yet, they put people at the mercy of social and economic constructs that brazenly promote these practices, like in this case, or discretely hide them behind ‘humanitarian titles’ like women’s work in restaurants where some of them face harassment, or child labor.
With the inability to stop these practices and the deafening silence of victims who have to make ends meet, this situation risks to become ‘the new normal’ with time.
Contemporary Syrian society abounds with such practices that were covert in the past for fear of state or social authority. But, they have made their way to the open, owing that largely to the war. Notably, victims belong to vulnerable social groups (women and children).
Many women are working in prostitution, and their husbands either know or choose to ignore this bitter truth. Mayada[i] (27), who is an internally displaced person with four children, said that when her husband asks her about her source of income, she always claims the money comes from charity.
However, Mayada admitted that she hovers around Al-Azhari roundabout (in the north of Latakia) daily and waits for someone to take her to spend the day for 2000 or 3000 Syrian Pounds (SYP) (around $4-6 at the time of writing, in April 2017) and sometimes for less than that.
The woman justifies her act by saying that she and her family were kicked out of several houses because they could not pay the rent of 20,000 SYP ($40). “What can I do?”, she asks, “All the doors are shut in my face. Expenses are increasing, and I do not have a job or income.”
Madaya says that the circumstances “pushed” her to reach this point and denies any responsibility in her current fate. She does not like what she does and resents the unbearable insults.
“I worked in a tailor shop for two months,” she recalls. “At first, I ignored the insinuations and winks of the owner everybody calls ‘Al-Hajji’ because he went on pilgrimage three times [Hajj being ‘pilgrimage’ in Arabic].
“Nonetheless, he dedicated all his time to me, and he even followed me once to the restroom and tried to open the door. Sometimes, he would give me pieces of cloth shortly before the end of the shift and would ask me to finish sewing immediately. Once I threw one of these pieces on his face, and that was the last straw. I walked out the door and never returned.”
Extortion on All Levels
Women have the lion’s share of daily slavery practices. They are thus the most affected in society. Statistics show that there are at least one million widows in Syria. Half of them had to enter the job market after losing their husbands and fathers at a young age.
In the areas under the regime’s control, dozens of women whose husbands died in the war face sexual and financial extortion in exchange for jobs in state institutions. Mona (24), a widow with a child from Latakia, said that she had to pay more than 200,000 SYP ($400) for the manager of a state institution to employ her after she had lost her husband’s death certificate.
“The bastard!”, says Mona with a burst of rage, “He put spokes in the wheels just because I refused to give in to him. Every day, he would ask me to supply a new valid document. After I returned several times, he told me I had to pay and the problem would be solved within two days. And this is indeed what happened.”
As for the opposition areas, women are forced to marry foreign militants there. Moreover, fatwas are issued daily obliging them to work under inhuman circumstances that turn their lives into a living hell.
Men are also victims of extortion. Joining armed militias has become another form of slavery. Available jobs no longer provide the minimum human needs, especially for men under 40.
Military reserve force mobilization in regime areas has spared no one, and employers are taking advantage of those avoiding the service. They offer them low salaries under the pretext of protecting them from patrols that are deployed in the streets.
After being summoned for the military reserve forces, Mohammad (32), an unemployed man who is married with two daughters, applied for voluntary enlistment in the Fifth Corps. The Russians who formed this corps pay 100,000 SYP ($200) per month for each fighter in its ranks.
Mohammad hid in his village for two years to escape the military reserve service. He did not face much social pressure because men avoiding the draft were no longer blamed, but there was not much to do to help them either.
He explained: “I don’t want to fight in the war. I lost part of my family to it. My brother died fighting with the Baath Brigades. Nobody offered his poor family anything. They only got some aid packages, and this process in itself is humiliating. Every three months, they would receive ‘a relief carton’ [ including staple foods like rice, oil and bulgur, which are worth only $30-40 on the market]. I joined the Fifth Corps although I knew I was throwing myself into the arms of death.”
New Moral Constructs
Mohammad has the same take on the war as people who consider it the utmost evil and a mere battle of attrition draining the country and its men. Still, they had no other choice but to join the armed militias, be they affiliated with the regime or the opposition.
The war has engendered a new moral construct that has replaced the fixed social values and absolved people’s actions towards themselves and others. Many people link the meaning of life to motives, behavior, hopes and goals. In their absence, humans would live in existential void, whether they commit right or wrong. Each person would be left to their own fate.
For instance, prostitution is no longer done under the table, rather in public parks. All price ranges are offered to suit all clients. With the same pain, people are willing to buy whatever spoils are being sold.
Syria is not the first country to face such problems, and it won’t be the last. But, the gravity of radical changes that have hit society hard set it apart from other countries. The new social structure in Syria eliminated the classic social stratification -- rich people have been impoverished and the poor have become filthy rich.
To add fuel to fire, this new structure wreaked havoc on all consolidated structures and brought out the worst in humans. Each person became an existential threat and competitor to the other. Consequently, social solidarity dropped to its lowest. A case in point was a local incident that saw a man kicking his brother out of the place he was renting and replacing him with a tenant who offered to pay more.
Besides, the attempts of Syria’s emerging civil society to alleviate human suffering are falling short due to the numerous scattered missions in the country.
Meanwhile, new power centers emerged out of the rubble. And, because of their political and class-oriented nature (Baathists and farmers mostly), they only sought to prove themselves in a Syrian society that had gotten used to one despotic authority for decades.
Consequently, these powers reintroduced the regime’s oppressive policies, as they only comply with the law pro forma and no authority can halt their work; the only red line is their access to politics since, historically, this is what usually triggers the regime’s intervention to curb their influence.
The issue here is only slightly related to sects. After all, money matters cannot be sectarian. So, arm traders from different sects cooperate in their work, leaving their differences aside.
In Search of a Solution
These practices will leave their mark on society now and in the future. That boy who was ten years old in 2011 is now a young man. What lies ahead is a generation that has suffered deep psychological damage. It won’t be easy to overlook the oppression they faced. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and it is difficult to guess how the situation in Syria will unfold.
The pain is deep and so is the humiliation. Psychologically-speaking, recovery will require more than just reconstruction and reform. More than one generation might repeat the same catastrophic mistakes and relive the tragedy. In the absence of a fair political solution, the godfathers of the future will be the masters of slavery. When it comes to extracting war lessons, if any, Lebanon and Iraq serve as the best teachers.
The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect SyriaUntold’s views.
[Main image: An artwork by Thaer Maaruf (Courtesy of Thaer Maaruf/All rights reserved to the author)].
[i] Pseudonyms were used for security reasons.