She Suffered Not the Reality of War Tragedy but the Horror of Its Nightmares

Expressive, a Syrian young woman at a park  in Istanbul city (Enab Baladi)

Expressive, a Syrian young woman at a park  in Istanbul city (Enab Baladi)


 “Self-flagellation” and a “guilty conscience” was the shape that Suzan’s life took as she listened to stories of Syrian women and girls’ rape, killing and torture in prisons being a psychological support counselor in a healthcare center.

Suzan, 20 years old, admits that she never went through the actual horrors of war in Syria, which seems to bother her, for none of her family members was killed, arrested or tortured, which forced her to place herself in the shoes of every girl she meets or the story of whom she hears, holding herself accountable for all the things she has never done, wondering: “What if I were in her place.”

Working in a psychological healthcare center in Lebanon, Suzan had to interact with war-afflicted women, the stories of whom turned her from a psychological counselor into a patient, who is in need for psychological support, for the “horrifying” tales pierced her ears, finding their way to her psychological health, as they alerted her conscience.

Suzan’s drawback started when she used to return from work to her house, carried by “indescribable” feelings of guilt, to imagine living exactly what the woman, whose story she heard today, has lived with all its details, sound effects included. She imagines being detained, beginning with the raid’s very first moment, the humiliation, the torture and the rape in the detention centers. She finally wakes up to her imaginings to the sound of her hysterical crying.

Suzan’s situation deteriorated when she started seeing nightmares, identical to the stories she heard but she never lived, as she left Syria with her family since the beginning of the war.

She broke of the nightmare, only to drown in it all over again once she fell asleep. This became her daily night routine.

Aware of psychological health problems, Suzan did not hesitate and asked the advice of the psychological specialists at the center where she used to work. One of them told her that she was undergoing a “secondary trauma,” which is barely different from the trauma of the women who went through the actual suffering.

Suzan recovered gradually, as she partially fathomed what was happening to her. And though she sees less nightmares, toady, they keep attacking her every now and then.

The young woman, as she put it, is yet trying to find answers for questions that are beyond her comprehension; she blames herself saying: “How could these young women bear with rape, how could they survive seeing their families being killed in front of their eyes, how could they endure seeing the massacres and hearing the screams of the tortured,” she answered herself saying, “I f I were in their place I would not have survived.”


 “Secondary Trauma” Triggered by Guilt

Doctor Ammar Bitar, the Coordinator of Mental Health and Psychological Support at the “Hope Revival” Organization, Turkey, said that the feelings of guilt force humans to place themselves in the position of the sufferers, which makes him/her liable to recurring traumas that affect them psychologically, especially if they are not qualified enough.

Commenting on Suzan’s case, Bitar said that she was not completely prepared to enter the field of psychological consulting, pointing out that usually workers in this filed receive help and support prior to involvement, as to prevent “burnout” caused by over sympathy with people.

He added: “There is something called trade-off, risk tolerance, a trait that workers in the field of mental health enhance with the additional explanation, comprehension and training they are receive.”

Suzan’s case is scientifically known as “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “secondary trauma,” the symptoms of which are not that different from the “initial-shock’s.” The latter happens to those who have been directly exposed to a certain traumatic incident while the “secondary” happens to patients who have only heard of a traumatizing event, according to Doctor Ammar Bitar.

He said that developing these disorders might be accompanied by extreme sadness, fear and depression; the patients are haunted by strong emotions relating to the shock they lived, and the feelings are manifested in dreams and constantly remembering the event.

These disorders might happen immediately after the trauma, or a whole year after it, as it does not only affect the people who directly suffered the crisis, but it might also affect people who live in dangerous conditions and with people who have seen others being tortured.

A study conducted by the University of Chicago, U.S., indicates that two thirds of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon suffer the “post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The study attributed this to forced migration and the painful happenings to which Syrian refugees were exposed, causing negative psychological effects that might lead to violence or extremisms.

These disorders’ treatment, according to the “World Health Organization” (WHO), includes the provision of psychological support and first aid.

Doctor Ammar Bitar recommends that patients resort to socialization, engaging in hobbies, and making a habit of separating personal life from works, as the best solution to the problem.

Female Detainees in Figures

As a cause, the Syrian female detainee’s exposure to rape in the regime’s prisons is sometimes discussed during international events while it preoccupies the mainstream, being received with condemnation to soon disappear in the whirlpool of forgotten Syrian crises.

The number of Syrian females detained in the prisons of the regime since March 2011 is estimated with about eight thousand detainees, 43 three of whom died under torture, according to statistics issued by the “Syrian Network for Human Rights” on March 8.  

Syrian human rights’ organizations, however, estimate the number of the forcedly disappeared Syrian women and those who have been arbitrarily detained with about 13500 women since 2011 to the end of 2017.

According to the Syrian Network, women in the Syrian regime’s detention centers are subjected to humiliation, insults, beating and systematic brutal torture, from the moment of arrest until the detainee reaches the detention center.

The figures indicate that at least 7699 incidents of sexual violence have been committed by Assad’s forces and their loyal militias, about 864 these incidents happened in detention centers and at least 432 girls under 18 years of age suffered sexual violence from March 2011 to March 2018, according to a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

The report also indicated that jailers resort to rape as a form of torture at a time where the international community seems helpless concerning the issue. 

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