Friday, June 24, 2005

Prostitution and War

Listen to this:

You might not even notice the Manara nightclub if it weren't for the gradual flow of cars leading right to it. Just behind the Mosque of President Hafez Assad, the club's parking lot is crammed with cars, many bearing plates from neighboring gulf states. Inside, disco lights pierce the smoky air. Patrons pack the seats as they sip beer and lazily gaze at the dance floor. They watch teenage girls dressed in snug, revealing clothes awkwardly shuffling to thumping Arabic music. Many girls wear stilettos so steep they can barely walk. Some dance in pairs, often tightly pressed together, fingers entwined. Most seem bored and some, noticeably, are uneasy.

Male customers summon waitstaff to inquire about the availability and age of select girls. A Syrian journalist and I, posing as patrons, consult the staff ourselves. Farah, a 15-year-old, is brought to our table, dressed in camouflage pants and heavy makeup.

Farah sits, swings her long dark hair, shakes hands all around, then pointedly asks, "Who am I speaking to?" I'm taken aback by her businesslike tone and point to the Syrian reporter. Farah pleasantly chats with him, negotiating how much time she'll share, and if a "next step" will be taken. Farah locks eyes with the waiter, nods, and a bottle of champagne is brought to our table. "That'll be 7,000 Syrian pounds," says the waiter. That's $140. The champagne signals the beginning of the process. Conversation is next, and "anything else" will cost more.

As we empty our bottle of champagne, Farah tells us her story. Like most of the girls at the Manara disco, she is an Iraqi, a Sunni from Fallujah, one of Iraq's most war-torn areas. She got married in the United Arab Emirates, divorced four months afterward, and found work at the disco through a cousin. She says she's working "just to make some money for my family," who also now live in Syria. Farah says she's the family's breadwinner.

The story of a Sunni girl from Fallujah selling herself in a Damascus nightclub represents startling new fallout from the Iraq war, one human rights organizations and experts are only beginning to address. An increasing number of young Iraqi women and girls who fled Iraq during the turmoil are turning to prostitution in Syria, although there are no reliable statistics on how many girls are involved. That might partly explain why so little reporting has been done on the topic. For journalists and human rights workers, securing contact with Iraqi sex workers in Syria is difficult and dangerous because the topic is taboo.

"It's a serious problem because there are young girls doing this -- 11, 12, 13 years old," says Abdelhamid El Ouali, the representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who's based in Damascus. "It's amazing at first. But when you fight for your life, what are you going to do?"

Read the whole thing, even if you have to sit through an advertisement. It's likely to give you shivers, of the not-so-nice kind.