|Khalid*, 36, a gay man from Iraq who fled rape and persecution for the relative safety of Lebanon. Photo: Robin Hammond|
The high-summer fields stretch towards the distant Mediterranean like a billowing patchwork quilt. Following the contours of Lebanon’s foothills, a small group of hard-faced Arab youths slip in and out of view between derelict farmsteads and crumbling, bullet-pocked minarets.
Behind them is, literally, the road to Damascus. The refugees have just crossed illegally from Syria into Lebanon, in the narrow margins between the only two official border crossings left open between the countries. The Mount Lebanon range has long been the cruellest of demarcations. Those who are crossing it now are in fear of their lives. Most are young and, mercifully, fit enough to flit nimbly between checkpoints. Some are gay - and they've embarked upon this journey not knowing if they will find safety or further persecution on the other side of the border in Lebanon. It is a risk they are prepared to take.
"In my opinion, it cannot get any worse than being gay in Syria today," Halim*, a human-rights campaigner, tells me in a packed bar in Lebanon's capital, Beirut. "It's a place where you don't know your enemy. Seeing people you have had casual sex with being taken in on the street, and wondering if they will take you down with them. Lovers turning on lovers.
|Wolfheart*, 29, a gay man from Lebanon, was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for cruising. Photo: Robin Hammond|
"Also, this isn't just an Islamic State story," he continues. "If you are gay, you have many enemies intent on your persecution: the government, Islamic State (IS), al-Nusra [the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda]. That's not including your own extended family: they are often enemy number one." On the table in front of us is an untidy ring-binder detailing the torture that has been inflicted on gay men in Syria. Methods include the shabeh, which roughly translates as "the ghost" and involves handcuffing the victims' arms behind their backs and using them to hoist their bodies into the air, putting extreme pressure on the shoulder sockets, often until they pop out.
Other men accused of being gay, who have been abducted in the night by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's agents, describe being placed, helpless and motionless, inside the rims of large tyres and brutalised with electrodes and iron bars. The testimony of one Homs teenager details, in spidery writing, how he had his testicles smashed with a hammer by a member of the Syrian Republican Guard.
For gay people on the run from Syria, being "out" in Lebanon isn't an option, either. Lebanon now has the highest proportion of refugees in the world, with Syrian refugees making up a quarter of the country's population. "We know hundreds, thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] refugees are coming across, but if we start counting, it could be used against them and us," says Halim. "It's better they slip unnoticed into Lebanon. Prejudice against gay men and women doesn't stop at the border. The trouble is, they are being arrested and abused here in Lebanon, too.”
|Sally*, a gay man who identifies as a woman, had to flee her Islamic State-held home town in Syria. Photo: Robin Hammond|
Later, we sit in a cafe as it winds down for the night, restlessly sipping strong black coffee and examining a map showing routes across the border. Halim plays a video montage on his tablet. Frantic Arabic news commentators begin speaking over slow-motion footage of a masked IS executioner clutching what looks like a gleaming saif sword. In the dirt before him kneel four condemned souls, each accused of sodomy. An elderly man, a magistrate, steps up.
To me, he is familiar - I have seen him before in IS showreels. The magistrate uses a microphone to read to the crowd a few adulterated utterances from the Koran, and their fates are sealed.
I remain glued to the screen, waiting for the camera to pan away from the execution, but no respite comes. A head rolls in the dust, then a second and a third. Fountains of blood jerk from the necks of the men. As I give the tablet a final, reluctant glance, the camera pans to the crowd. No longer baying
over the bodies, they have moved on, bored and traumatized all at once.
Nathalie*, 41, who describes herself as a woman who used to be a man, is from Syria, where she was tortured. Photo: Robin Hammond
In recent months, the photojournalist Robin Hammond and I have interviewed gay citizens in Africa and the Middle East. Theirs is a narrative of great pain and desperate suffering. Here in the Middle East, it is clear that the taboo against same-sex activity is getting stronger, not weaker, and a corrupted version of Islam finds itself at the heart of much of this hatred.
Homosexuality is legal in the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank, but not in Hamas-controlled Gaza. In nearly 50 Muslim-dominated countries, individuals face criminal sanctions for private consensual relations with another adult of the same sex. But in the IS-controlled regions of Syria and northern Iraq, the persecution of gay men and women has reached a new level of malice.
In the early evening in a crumbling tenement in Beirut's southern suburbs, we meet four gay Syrian men. Safehouses have a uniformity of sorts. There are always broken TVs. Strong black tea is offered. Furniture is sparse, curtains torn. Threadbare carpets are laid out with small low tables. Without exception, cigarettes are passed around to calm the nerves. A battered Toshiba laptop sits in the centre of the one-bedroom apartment. On its screen, another film is on a loop.
A middle-aged man, handsome, grey-bearded, hands bound, is being held by his ankles from a 10-storey building by IS thugs dressed in leather jackets and long blue tunics. The man is held for several minutes as he weeps, before he is dropped onto the concrete some 30 metres below. On impact the baying mob, including children, cheer and laugh. As has been the case in other rooftop-to-ground murders of allegedly gay men at the hands of IS, the victim survives the fall, twitching in the dirt, but is stoned to death by the bloodthirsty crowds. For their convenience, jagged rocks have been supplied and left in small piles.
"They are holding out his mobile phone on the ledge as evidence," says Sami*, a gay man in his early 30s, from Raqqa, the IS heartland in northern Syria. "They are using it to justify the execution. Social media is killing our brothers. It is the first thing IS are asking for at checkpoints now: 'Hand over your mobile!' If they find anything that links you to another man - photographs, your Facebook profile, a single text you cannot explain, anything - then you are dead. It is over for you."
To prove his point, Sami opens Manjam, which he describes as a popular gay "hook-up" app, adopted from Turkey into Syria and surrounding countries. "Look at this," he says. "In 2013, there were perhaps a few thousand Syrians active on Manjam. The Assad regime generally looked away - in the north, at least.”
Sami counts the active accounts within Syria and finds 26 profiles in use in Raqqa. "How many of those 26 are IS hunting?" he asks. "Who would have a death wish to use a gay app there?" The broader truth is that governments across the region are also using digital surveillance to entrap, detain and harass homosexuals.
Police in states where homosexuality is outlawed frequently use apps to convince men to meet them, before arresting them, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based NGO that monitors the use of technology in the violation of human rights. A 30-year-old man was recently arrested in Saudi Arabia after asking men out for dates on Facebook.
Everyone in this shabby room acknowledges that IS alone did not bring homophobia to Syria. Gay men there have long been the target of "honour killings", as they are considered a disgrace to their families. Others have been imprisoned.
The civil war, however, has intensified the persecution. At the heart of the IS plan to target and wipe out the LGBT community are the Hisbah - the religious police, named after a Muslim doctrine that translates roughly as “accountability".
"IS want the Muslim world to know that they are executing gays, because it displays their credentials as enforcers of sharia law," says Ryan Mauro, a security analyst at the Clarion Project, a US-based NGO that works to combat extremism. “There is widespread anti-homosexual sentiment in the Muslim world because of the belief that sharia requires the execution of gays."
The language of persecution comes from both sides. To prove his point, Sami recites a description of "gay traits" found in IS pamphlets in Raqqa, later discovered to have been taken from a government-controlled Syrian newspaper. " 'A gay man can have a loose wrist, a noticeable way of using the fingers, sitting and crossing the legs together in a feminine manner and an interest in gossip and whispers. These are among homosexuals’ main distinctive features.' "
Knowing who the enemy is has become increasingly difficult for gay people. From the ranks of its own religious police force, IS is believed to have deployed undercover agents to entrap those who have been accused by others of being gay.
Elmo*, a doctor now working in a call centre in Beirut, fled his IS-held town in Syria after a member of his family - a cousin attempting to curry favour with his new masters - betrayed him to the militants. Such betrayals are common.
"The attitude now if you are gay and trapped inside [Syria] is, 'Trust nobody', " says Elmo. "Not your mother, nor your closest friend. The only difference between all the factions is that some will torture you before they kill you if you are outed and caught.”
Testimonies gathered by Proud, a campaign group set up by Bertho Makso, a gay Lebanese man, include reports of decapitations, and one of a transgender woman in a Damascus suburb who was hanged by her breasts until she died.
A similar database compiled by New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) late last year detailed a male couple who were captured by the Syrian government after being identified as gay, based on text messages between them. The men were beaten, referred to pejoratively as tante (auntie), and for 10 nights were forced to strip and have sex with each other in front of their Syrian army interrogators, who used chalk to make up their faces.
Another man, who used to work in the fashion industry, was abducted by unidentified armed men in an area of Damascus controlled by the Syrian army. He said they similarly referred to him as tante, forced him to strip and raped him.
HRW says that the ordeal for gay men doesn't necessarily end at the Lebanese border. In a number of cases, the NGO has documented gay men being subjected to excruciating and abusive anal exams by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces. This, despite calls by Lebanese doctors and the justice minister in 2012 to abolish the practice, which amounts to torture.
The road back towards the Qalamoun mountains in Syria passes through Ersal. This town in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, whose name means "Throne of God" in Aramaic, has become one of the flashpoints of the region. This isn't my first time travelling along this confusing line in the sand. Here, portraits of Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and fallen Hezbollah fighters dot the walls of residences.
Elsewhere, Sunni-populated areas have become de facto safe havens for Syrian rebel fighters. Equally, Shia areas of the northern Bekaa Valley look out with trepidation at the rise of extremist Sunni Salafi-jihadi groups. To the outsider, the whole area is impenetrable.
For the Syrian refugees who have made it to the fragile sanctuary of the Bekaa, the journeys of exile are far from tales of liberation.
"The road to the Lebanese border has become known as the Corridor of Death," says Sally*, a gay man who now identifies as a woman, whom I meet in Beirut. "There are perhaps 50 or 60 checkpoints. The soldiers are bored and isolated. They single out anyone they suspect of being gay.
"They keep us behind at night," she continues, looking away, wincing. Sally was living in Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria, when IS entered her district. "I knew from reports that they were carrying out executions for 'crimes' like pre-marital sex and homosexuality. The Hisbah, their religious police, hunted from house to house. Families were turning on families. I knew it was only a matter of time before one of my relatives reported me. Because I am feminine, I knew I would be singled out.”
Sally details her journey, on which Syrian soldiers sexually abused her at a number of checkpoints. In return for "favours", she was allowed to pass. Eventually, she reached the Lebanese border. A journey that should have taken seven hours took almost a week.
increasingly, those in flight like sally have nowhere to run. Lebanon is turning the taps off, managing its borders through just two official crossings, Masnaa in the Bekaa Valley, and Arida, to the north. Lebanon's border with Syria stretches 375 kilometres and covers rough terrain that cannot be monitored through human efforts alone. Helicopters mounted with infrared cameras fly overhead. But those determined to cross still do, making their way across country to the suburbs of Beirut.
IS is not the first organisation to use barbarism against LGBT people as a weapon of war, and they won't be the last. But their levels of violence and depravity are unprecedented. Without some kind of intervention, this civil war will continue to drive Syria's gay men and women to make the perilous journey into Lebanon via the foothills of Mount Lebanon - or across the Kabir River, which forms the northern border of the two countries - with no guarantee of a safe haven on the other side.
* Names have been changed
This is an edited version of a story first published in The Sunday Times Magazine, London.
Sydney Morning Herald