Alma Abdulrahman is lying gaunt and unable to move anything below her diaphragm in a hospital bed in Amman. Some bedsores have become so deep she's having surgery tomorrow. Screws hold together her upper vertebrae, and cigarette burns pock her right shoulder. Her voice fades in and out, hoarse from either weakness or morphine.
Six months earlier, she was paralyzed when a regime soldier struck her in the neck with a rifle on a street on the outskirts of Damascus. Now, from a guarded hospital room, she wants to be heard, and what she has to say is deeply disturbing.
Alma Abdulrahman is one of the very few women in the Syrian conflict to speak out about having been raped. While she offered to use her entire name in this story, I've used only her first name and a family name because of safety concerns.
Within an hour of her arrival at the detention center north of Damascus, where she was held in a cell with 20 other women, she says she was roused to consciousness and her torture began.
She has already received severe punishment, she says, as retribution for her role as a battalion commander in the Free Syrian Army. "I served at a very high rank in the army, where I was responsible over men who had to listen to me," she says.
Unusual for her forthrightness about the rape itself, Abdulrahman is also the rare Syrian woman who has discussed her role in the FSA, which she joined very early in the revolution. Formerly an accountant, she says she rose to the rank of an FSA battalion commander and was in charge of about 15 men at a time. She says she has killed "many, many" men -- at least nine, at her count. With her slim, tall figure, she was sometimes even able to pass as one, she says.
Over the course of a few days in June, Abdulrahman described what she says are the details of her torture via Skype from her hospital bed. It is a series of interviews that almost didn't happen. Her first, short interview was given to Al-Arabiya on June 6. After this, a person connected to the case told me, a man from the Jordanian government visited her hospital to let the administration know that he was displeased they were treating a "terrorist." All interviews, including my plans to speak with her, were canceled. Through the cooperation of various medical and social workers in Amman, we were eventually able to connect. While tired, she agreed to speak multiple times through a translator and repeat what she made clear were painful memories.
Her ordeal began on April 29, 2011.
Abdulrahman is from an area in the southern part of Damascus called Al-Midan and had four children at that point. She was living a double life, fighting "during work hours" to hide her FSA world from her husband.
One day in April she had gotten caught up in an incident in which a regime soldier was severely beating a 16-year-old boy at a checkpoint. Sick of the constant brutality, she says, she tried to intervene. This is what led to her own beating and incarceration by the Assad regime.
During dark sessions over a period of 38 days, guards whipped her with a wire, strung her alternatively by her wrists and feet, and injected the crook of her elbow twice a day with a kind of drug that made her feel high, she says. The things Abdulrahman recalls the men saying as they allegedly raped her multiple times were so filthy she is loath to repeat them -- "it's too dirty and too low" -- although she remembers them saying, "Here is the freedom you wanted" (a phrase similar to ones other women have reported hearing while being raped in Syria). And she can summon up at least one face. And a couple of names.
Within an hour of her arrival at the detention center in Harasta, about 7 miles (12 kilometers) north of Damascus, where she was held in a cell with 20 other women, she says she was roused to consciousness and her torture began. She describes being gang-raped daily by men who smelled strongly of alcohol. Floating in and out of consciousness, she would kick and yell as best she could while lying next to another woman doing the same.
"We were all blindfolded and raped and we would not know who was raping us," she says, tearing up for the first time in our interview. Before being blindfolded, she could see what she calls the "boss" sit in front of them, teaching them "exactly what to do and say to us."
"They were ordered to take this one, to take 'your portion,'" she says. "And they would take it."
Abdulrahman describes to me how she and one other woman from her colorless cell, college-aged, were usually taken together to another room with no furniture and raped. She remembers clearly the face of one man who tortured her. He was "very, very tan," she says, "very, very thin," and balding, she says; he was one of the men who would hit her while she was hung from the ceiling.