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26 April 2022

The dual atrocity of rape in the war on Ukraine

Sexual violence as a weapon of war is not only a crime against humanity, it’s often treated as a side issue.

By Christina Lamb

Twenty-five women and girls kept for weeks in a basement in Bucha by Russian soldiers and gang-raped, leaving nine pregnant. Charred bodies of women found with nails torn off. A 16-year-old girl with all her teeth knocked out. A woman’s body locked in a potato cellar, legs akimbo, naked except for a fur coat, surrounded by condom wrappers and shot in the head.

The stories are shocking and hard to read. Sadly, this is nothing new. The world’s oldest war poem, the Iliad, starts with an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon over an abducted girl, for there has always been rape in war, going right back to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians. Indeed, it’s hard to find a conflict where it hasn’t happened. 

The Russians, of course, have form. During the liberation of Berlin at the end of the Second World War women across the city cowered in basements as vodka-fuelled Red Army soldiers sought them out, even though they had desperately rubbed their hair and faces with ashes to try to make themselves unattractive.

Fast forward to the year 2014 and Yazidi girls were doing the same to try to deter fighters from Islamic State. In recent years there has been an epidemic of war rape, tens of thousands of women from Iraq to Nigeria, Myanmar to the Democratic Republic of Congo finding their bodies used as battlefields.

And while there is rightly outrage about the horrific reports from Ukraine, where are the voices speaking out for the thousands of women being brutalised in the Tigray region of Ethiopia? Like the 27-year-old who told Amnesty International that as she was raped a militia member shouted: “You Tigrayans should disappear from the land. You are evil and we are purifying your blood.”

Or the Uyghurs, such as the woman who wept as she told a London tribunal last year how she had been raped by Chinese guards in an internment camp in Xinjiang with iron bars and electric rods until she bled non-stop. “It’s very difficult for me to even think about that night,” she said. “It was just a horrific time, a time when I was dead.”

It is not yet clear whether what we are seeing in Ukraine is opportunistic — adrenaline-fuelled soldiers lashing out in frustration amid a war not going their way — or something systematic: rape used as a weapon to wipe out people they see as “the other”, as happened in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s as well as to the Yazidis and Rohingya in recent years.

[See also: The women raped in war]

There seems little doubt rape in Ukraine is widespread and a deliberate attempt to intimidate. The indications of ethnic cleansing are there, according to Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova, who said that the 25 girls and women held in Bucha were told they would be raped “to the point they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man to prevent them from having Ukrainian children”.

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What is clear is that the women and girls who have been through this will carry it for the rest of their lives and that long after the physical damage has healed the emotional trauma will remain.

I spoke to survivors in 12 countries on five continents for Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women, my recent book on war rape, and almost all told me they would rather have died. They also told me that what they wanted was justice, bringing perpetrators to account, so it did not happen to others.

Few know more about this than Denis Mukwege, the amazing doctor who runs Panzi hospital in eastern Democratic Republic in Congo, which has treated 55,000 victims of rape. “This human tragedy will continue if those responsible are not prosecuted,” he says. “Only the fight against impunity can break the spiral of violence.”

Sadly, accountability is the exception, not the rule. The International Criminal Court has only successfully convicted one man in more than 20 years of existence.

Some survivors have been fighting more than 75 years just to get acknowledgment of what happened to them. One of the most moving encounters I have ever had was with the Lolas in the Philippines — dignified grandmothers or great-grandmothers in their late 80s who were taken as 13-year-olds by Japanese soldiers in the Second World War as so-called “comfort women” and raped over and over. Yet they were forced to live in silence for decades, made to feel shame, and even now go unmentioned in their history books, let alone getting justice.

It’s not that there aren’t laws. War rape is a war crime or crime against humanity, albeit the most neglected. The first successful conviction was in 1998 at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the women who bravely came forward told me they could not understand why it was still happening over and over again.

One problem is the tendency to think of this as a side issue in war. At the trials of Islamic State fighters in Iraq, I asked the judge why none of the charges included sexual enslavement of the Yazidis. “Why should we bother about the rape?” he scoffed. “There was also torture and killing.”

Indeed, that first conviction of a Rwandan mayor only came about because there was a female judge, Navi Pillay, on the bench, whose ears pricked up when a witness mentioned being raped. When she asked more questions, the woman told her that dozens of women were taken to the town hall and raped. The trial was halted and rape added to the charges.

The international focus on Ukraine gives us a chance to remedy this lack of attention. For the first time, war rape is being widely reported and already there are teams at work focusing on collection of evidence.

The uncomfortable fact is that members of sitting governments and their armies almost never face international prosecution for their conduct in war, no matter how horrific. Prosecuting them for rape is even harder. If we are to have any chance, we need more female judges and more women at the table in peace negotiations.

What we don’t need is another Nuremberg. At the world’s first international tribunal to prosecute war crimes after the Second World War, women were virtually invisible despite evidence of sexual violence on all sides. Millions of women were raped in that war, yet there was not a single prosecution. We can do so much better.

[See also: The atrocities in Bucha show us that remembrance without resolve is empty]
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