Revealing the nightmarish lives of sex-trafficked Syrians in Lebanon
More and more Syrians made vulnerable by war are becoming victims of sexual exploitation, including in Lebanon and Jordan
The iron-gated doors and blacked-out windows keep the room dark at all hours of the day. Lingerie is splayed across the floor and a whip hangs over the bed.
This nightmarish setting north of the Lebanese capital is where Soha, a 26-year-old Syrian woman, was trapped for eight years with dozens of other Syrian victims of sex trafficking.
In an interview with AFP in southern Lebanon, Soha -- a pseudonym for the soft-spoken brunette with black-polished nails -- recounts her traumatic experience.
"We had to sleep with 15 to 20 men every day, sometimes 40 if we had a lot of 'work'," she says, taking deep breaths to steady her shaking voice.
"We weren't allowed to leave. The guards would bring us clothes, makeup and food."
Four months ago, Soha managed to escape from her captors and tried to get legal help.
Then in early April, security forces stormed the building where they were being held, breaking up the largest known sex trafficking ring in recent years.
At least 75 women -- mostly Syrian -- were freed.
More and more Syrians made vulnerable by war are becoming victims of sexual exploitation, including in Lebanon and Jordan, police and international organizations say.
People in Lebanon were shocked by the women's horrifying ordeal, as well as by accusations that the "moral police" were complicit and that a gynaecologist had carried out at least 200 abortions on the trapped women.
Notorious gang leader
Originally from southern Syria, Soha was tricked into coming to Lebanon in 2008.
She was told she would be working as a waitress, but was terrified to find she had been "sold" to the head of a powerful sex trafficking ring.
"When I refused to be a sex worker, he beat me," she says.
The gang leader who had imprisoned Soha and so many other women was a former officer in Syria's notorious air force intelligence service.
Security sources say the man -- identified only by the initials I.R. -- fled to Syria after his operation was broken up.
For years, he had managed Chez Maurice and Silver, two of the most infamous brothels in Maameltein, a town known as Lebanon's red light district.
Prostitution is illegal in Lebanon, and police shuttered both locations earlier this month.
Wringing her hands and chain-smoking cigarettes, Soha says she and other women were tortured at Chez Maurice.
"They could do anything to us. If we refused anal or oral sex, or sex without a condom, or if a client wasn't satisfied, they would whip us until the morning," she says.
I.R. would tie the girls to tables, throw cold water on them and hit them with whips or plastic piping -- often in front of other women to serve as a warning.
One girl was so badly beaten that she was bedridden for a month, Soha says.
"The only time a girl was allowed to leave was when I.R. would bring her to his house for the night to 'test' her as if she was merchandise," she says.
"During those eight years, I felt filthy, like trash... I couldn't feel my body. It belonged to my torturers, my clients."
Tricked and trafficked
Since the war in neighbouring Syria broke out in 2011, increasing numbers of women fleeing the conflict have been trafficked in Lebanon.
Joseph Mousallem, press officer for Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, says traffickers intentionally target orphans or "girls from vulnerable families".
"As soon as they arrived in Lebanon, the girls were imprisoned and their papers and cell phones were confiscated," Mousallem tells AFP.
The girls had nowhere to turn to in Lebanon, he says, and some try to commit suicide.
Traffickers often lie to young Syrian girls, offering them jobs or promising they will be engaged when they arrive in Lebanon, according to Maya Ammar from KAFA (Enough!).
KAFA is one of several NGOs that manages safe houses for trafficked women and offers medical, psychological and legal support to help them rebuild their lives.
"Many girls are raped on the first day to force them to obey," Ammar says.
Some girls were indefinitely tied to a specific trafficking ring, while others would be "lent out" for months at a time to different gangs, Soha says.
Forced abortions were common "either at the doctor's clinic or at the brothel by swallowing pills", she recounts.
"The foetuses would be buried in the back yard at Chez Maurice," she alleges.
Abortion is illegal in Lebanon, but a gynaecologist who regularly saw the trafficked girls and carried out more than 200 abortions on them was only briefly detained before being freed.
'They destroyed our lives'
Lebanese institutions are rife with corruption, and the Chez Maurice case has sparked accusations of officials turning a blind eye to trafficking and prostitution.
Nearby residents had alerted the police to screams coming from the building, but gang leaders were somehow tipped off before the authorities showed up.
Leading politician Walid Jumblatt has even accused "high-level officials in the moral police" of being "complicit" in the operations.
KAFA's Ammar criticised segments of Lebanese society for being shocked at the "headlines" of sex trafficking when many brothels in Maameltein are an open secret.
She says "artistes' visas" issued by the authorities are often covers for eastern European women to work as prostitutes.
While prostitutes can be charged and imprisoned under one Lebanese law, a second decree from 2012 says victims of sexual trafficking should be treated as victims.
The 2012 law specifies a prison sentence of between five and 15 years for traffickers, Ammar says.
The Syrian women freed recently will not be charged, but will remain haunted by their experience.
Soha says she is furious that her tormentors are still on the loose as she tries to piece herself back together.
"They destroyed our lives."