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Istanbul 'conscience convoy' highlights horrors faced by Syria's jailed women

Sixty buses of women activists and NGO members begin 1,200km trip to Syrian border to mark International Women's Day
Activists prepare to set out for their 'conscience convoy' (supplied)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Gathered under a sea of colourful umbrellas on a rainy Istanbul morning, a large convoy of women set off on a roughly 1,200km road trip to the Syrian border bearing a simple message: Syrian women subjected to unimaginable suffering in that country's jails need to be freed immediately.

About 60 busloads of women, including activists and NGO members from 55 countries, on Tuesday embarked on a two-day trip to the Turkish province of Hatay. They hope to highlight the torture and rape imprisoned Syrian women are subjected to as the world marks International Women's Day on 8 March.

"A world of women are here. My dear Syrian sisters, we will never give up on you," Gulden Sonmez, from Turkish Islamist charity IHH, rallied the crowd as they began boarding the coaches. "We will not leave decision-makers in peace until you are saved; and when you are saved we will work together to prevent war.

"We feel your pain. All of us women have gathered here regardless of religion, language or race. And we are setting off in the name of human conscience. We in this convoy are the voice of conscience for those in Syrian jails," said Sonmez.

Data provided by the IHH, which has been active in humanitarian assistance both along the Turkish border and in certain areas of Syria throughout the Syrian war, stated that more than 400,000 were held in interrogation centres and jails, many of them children and women.

'Conscience convoy' activists prepare for their trip to Hatay (supplied)

It said 13,104 had died as a result of torture while being held.

IHH said 13,581 women have been arrested by the Syrian regime to date and 6,736 women are still languishing in regime jails.

"These women are being tortured and raped. The Syrian regime uses the rape of women as a weapon," she said.

IHH said 76,000 people are also listed as missing, according to various reports. And that among them are 116 children and 4,219 women.  

In separate remarks to Middle East Eye, Sonmez said while similar atrocities against women were all being carried out by other actors in various detention centres and prisons across Syria, they had focused on the regime's atrocities as it was the worst perpetrator of such acts against women.

One of the organisers, who asked for anonymity since he was detracting from the main topic, told MEE that one of the reasons behind opting to use a convoy rather than other means was to highlight another issue as well.

"Look at Eastern Ghouta now and all the trouble getting aid convoys in. Throughout the conflict humanitarian convoys have been the subject of intense speculation and often falsely accused of being used for nefarious means purely out of political bias," the organiser said. "Humanity has gone missing."

The "conscience convoy" is expected to grow in numbers, reaching 200 busloads, by the time it reaches Hatay on the Syrian border.  

Sonmez said participation had exceeded their expectations.

"We were hoping for 5,000 women but right now I can tell you there will be at least 10,000 there," she said.

"But this is not about us. This is to show the horrors women are having to suffer and the senselessness and cowardice of war. Our Syrian sisters will be freed and we won't stop until they are."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.