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In Iraq, Sexual Assault Incidents Are Brushed Aside, Report Says

Police often see rape as a family matter. Female victims are disowned, even killed, by relatives.

October 26, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The girl was all alone on the desolate fringe of Baghdad, crying and pleading for help. She and her two sisters had been abducted by a gang, she said through her tears, and held captive for weeks. She had escaped, but she had been forced to leave her sisters behind.

The elderly man in a pickup recoiled. He didn't want to help this girl -- surely she'd been defiled. Finally, he relented.

But after half an hour, he stopped near a mosque and told her to get out.

Then he sped off -- the only witness who could have helped police trace the house where the girl, Mary, 15, her sisters and at least seven other girls as young as 6 had been held prisoner.

The next person Mary met -- a woman this time -- was slightly more helpful. She put Mary in a taxi with a strange man, wrote a note and told him to take the girl to coalition forces.

In a country where rape is so shameful that conservative families may kill the victims, Mary's two half-hearted rescuers that day in June didn't want to get involved in her ordeal. A recent report on sexual assaults in Iraq has focused attention on dismissive attitudes -- or worse -- to rape, not just among ordinary Iraqis but also among police and health officials.

Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who until recently oversaw the Iraqi police, has said that reforming their attitudes to rape is a high priority, but the message has not filtered down to many Iraqi policemen.

Police Lt. Col. Abbas Jasim, whose station, Al Khadraq, covers most of west Baghdad, insisted that rape affects only non-Islamic societies. "Our Islamic religion forbids these acts and even our criminals are affected, so they are afraid to commit rape," he said.

Another police colonel at the station, Mohammed Abdul Raheem, said he did not know of a single genuine case in his 26 years in the force.

Such comments highlight the problems the U.S.-led coalition faces in turning around deeply ingrained cultural attitudes -- and the gulf between coalition soldiers and Iraqi police as they work together on law enforcement.

The July report on sexual violence issued by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch criticized the coalition's failure to protect women and girls from violence and track down and punish rapists, reporting that U.S. military police often did not follow up rape complaints. It said Iraqi police saw rape as a matter for families to resolve.

"Police officers frequently did not appear to recognize or purposefully downplayed the seriousness of allegations of sexual violence and abductions," the report said, noting that Iraqi police referred to Mary as "the girl who ran away."

After Mary was abducted, coalition soldiers, including a female officer, interviewed her. But Mary, illiterate and a stranger to Baghdad, had no idea where she and the other girls had been held captive.

Mary says that she was not raped but that her older sister was -- daily. The three sisters were abducted in early May from a market in their hometown of Basra in southern Iraq. When Mary broke a lock and escaped from their abductors' house about a month later, she called out to her sisters, one of them 9 and the other 16, who were being held in another room. Neither answered. She hesitated in a moment of frozen terror. Then she fled, leaving them behind.

Their fate was unknown.

"I cry about them day and night," Mary said.

In Iraq, there is a huge psychological barrier against reporting rape and no reliable statistics on such incidents. Rape is a stain, and the task of washing away the dishonor by killing the victim traditionally falls to her brother. Even if she isn't killed by her family, a victim's chances for marriage may be ruined or she may be forced to marry her attacker.

Mary knows the risk of going home. But she is desperate to return to her family in Basra, after more than two months in the orphanage where the coalition forces placed her.

"It doesn't matter, even if they kill me. I just want to go back," she said, looking down at fingers with chipped purple nail polish.

In the month before she was able to escape, Mary heard her older sister being raped in the room next door. She saw her only twice during their imprisonment, when her sister tearfully confirmed those assaults.

"I heard her crying and screaming. They used to go and harm her every night. She told me she was raped," Mary said.

If her older sister is found alive, it could be dangerous for her to go home. Even Mary seemed uncertain, saying, "I don't know what [my parents'] reaction to my sister would be."

Mary described her sister, who has not been named because of the danger, as intelligent, studious, beautiful. She liked to be alone.

"She was complicated," Mary said.

About a week after her capture, Mary overheard two gang members near her door, discussing plans to sell her and her younger sister. Soon after, a plump, well-dressed woman came with alluring promises to take them in as her guests.

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