Show Hide image

The women raped in war

How systemic sexual violence is deployed as a battlefield tactic

"It must be hard to read,” remarks the woman sitting across from me on a flight when she spies the title of the book in my hand.

Yes, Our Bodies Their Battlefield is hard going. But it should be essential reading. This retelling of some of the world’s worst wars highlights a dark seam of human history suppressed by shame, impunity and the unwillingness of so many even to listen to horrific accounts of systemic mass rape. Even more, there is a shocking failure to do enough to stop it – to this day.

“The more I read, researched and talked to women, the more I wondered about everything I had learned in history,” the Sunday Times chief foreign correspondent Christina Lamb writes as she takes readers on her own journey, looking back to ancient times and crossing four continents, to revisit atrocities. Journalists, especially ones as experienced as Lamb, know their accounts are often “the first rough draft of history”. But in the books that fill libraries and are taught in schools, widespread abuses are ignored, or buried.

Some stories have made headlines in our time: the repeated rape and sexual enslavement of Yazidi women by Islamic State fighters in Iraq; harrowing attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known as the “rape capital of the world”; and the heart-wrenching fight for justice by Asian “comfort women” who were enslaved by the Japanese during the Second World War. But, Lamb writes, it wasn’t only the Japanese and the Russians who raped during the Second World War. “The British, French, Americans and Canadians were also at it, but on a far smaller scale.”

There were others too: even those of us who have spent years working in South Asia don’t know much about the calculated campaign by the Pakistan military to rape thousands of women of all ages in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. And for all the focus on the Vietnam War, “multiple rapes hardly got a line in any reporting”.

Rape is as old as armed conflict but Lamb’s account amounts to much more than simply “bad things happen”. Her conclusion is clear: rape is a systematic weapon of war; this is not about individual abuses but deliberate military policy. There may be differences in the depth of premeditation, but looking the other way is a constant.

This is not pitch-black history, however – lights are shone by the courage of women and girls determined to speak out and confront their abusers. There’s Victoire, who experienced Rwanda’s genocide and was “raped so many times I lost count”, and Graciela, who survived Argentina’s Dirty War following the 1976 coup d’état, but lives with “thirty years of pain”.

There is also halting progress along a tortuous legal and political trail to achieve justice. It’s about societal change, and a new architecture of international criminal courts and human rights law. But it also demands the simple but powerful act of listening.

The readiness of the South African judge Navanethem Pillay to hear testimony from the terrified women of Taba – the scene of a massacre and associated atrocities by Hutu militiamen in 1994 – marked a turning point. While her male colleagues at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda “wanted to put their hands over their ears and not hear any more”, she made space and time for ghastly details of repeated gang-rapes to be heard in public.

It led, in 1998, to rape being recognised as an instrument of genocide for the first time if there was a specific intent to destroy a particular group, and its first prosecution as a war crime in an international court.

Brave Rwandan women such as Victoire helped change the law, but their own lives remain haunted by harrowing memories. They live among their abusers, and perpetrators are still on the run. The Tribunal, after spending 21 years and more than $2bn, never prosecuted anyone for rape, only for supervising and encouraging it. The UN estimated that, over a few months in 1994, there were between 250,000 and 500,000 rapes.

It’s not just Rwanda. “Everyone applauded but nothing happened,” regrets the Congolese doctor Dr Denis Mukwege, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 along with the Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who survived being sexually enslaved and many of her family members murdered by Islamic State in 2014. Dr Mukwege, known as “Doctor Miracle”, is said to have treated more rape victims than anyone else on earth. They celebrated the Nobel award at his hospital in Bukavu, but women and young girls are still showing up with savage and systematic damage to their genitalia, the result of rape so aggressive that it needs another name.

Lamb wonders, as we all do, what drives men to this kind of bestial behaviour. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, victims are as young as four months and as old as 86. This is not just about sex.

Some of the answers, of course, must come from the perpetrators. And it is mainly – but not only – men who descend to this depravity, although we read about a women’s development minister who facilitated rape in Rwanda. And, increasingly, men are also targeted; reports reveal Syrian prisons daubed with the blood of countless victims of torture, including sexual abuse. Lamb turns to the accused she can find. But prisoners in Iraqi jails, the young Islamic State fighters awaiting trial, are, perhaps understandably, selective in their memory.

It is hard to find out what really happened, and Lamb doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of simply asking questions. “How do you feel?” she asks Serafina, a young Rwandan rape victim, but then wishes, “I could take the words back as I spoke them.” She tells of her encounter with Turko, a young Yazidi woman, who demands: “How does it help me to tell my story?” Like Nadia Murad, she’s from Kocho, where Islamic State fighters massacred or enslaved almost the entire village.

“I was torn between the journalistic desire to know, the fear of what she might have to say, and above all the concern that telling her story would bring her more grief,” admits Lamb. There is also the uncomfortable truth that all too often even the most painful stories have had little power to provoke real change – a disquieting thought for all storytellers.

But the landscape is changing even as this book is published. “History books will now read that Harvey Weinstein is a convicted rapist,” I heard my BBC colleague Nick Bryant report from New York, on the trial of the man who would otherwise have been remembered as a celebrated Hollywood movie mogul. Changing the record requires the actions of many: victims prepared to break years of painful silence; journalists who persist with investigations despite legal threats and harassment; and lawyers ready to take up these high-profile cases. The Weinstein story is, of course, not a military conflict, but the global reach of the #MeToo movement underlines how it is a battle of our time.

Accounts of rape are often doubted and dismissed. For journalists, the only weapons are questions and facts. It can be complicated; Lamb mentions the case of a Rohingya man in a squalid refugee camp in Bangladesh who made up an account about his family. Blame is not straightforward in such traumatic times: people are desperate for help, and the press is searching for stories.

But we live in a time of unprecedented access to information, an ability to know what is happening, anywhere. In 2014 nearly 300 schoolgirls were abducted in Chibok, Nigeria, by the Islamist terrorist organisation Boko Haram – in a rousing campaign, many, including the then first lady Michelle Obama, tweeted #BringBackOurGirls. Less well known are the stories Lamb tells of how Western powers immediately sent in military advisers, hostage negotiators and satellite specialists.

A few months later, she writes, fly-bys and US drones spotted a large group of girls, but it was concluded “they were beyond rescue in practical terms”.

Small but significant victories, as well as small mercies, matter. Rwandan women travelled to New York to meet Yazidi women to share their stories. Healing needs empathy. But more than that it requires justice, and reparations, to give all these stories a chance of happier endings.

This is a hard book to read. But, once you do, you will join a growing group of people who ask: “How is this allowed to go on?” 

Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women
Christina Lamb
William Collins, 432pp, £20

This article appears in the 20 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning