In Rwanda six years ago, I watched a grown man wail and realised I knew little about the horrors humans inflict on each other. He was a prominent member of government and he had asked me to attend a funeral for his mother, who died during the genocide 20 years before. She was stopped at a checkpoint and raped repeatedly – raped to death, someone told me later. He still carried her photo. He still called her "mother". It took decades to discover her body.
Rwanda is just one of the countries Sunday Times chief foreign correspondent Christina Lamb visited for her new book Our Bodies, Their Battlefield, which focuses on rape as a weapon.
“Rape is so common in war that we speak of the rape of a city to describe its wanton destruction,” she writes in the introduction. “Rape is as much a weapon of war as the machete, club or Kalashnikov.” It is used to humiliate and traumatise local populations, or to impregnate women to change the demographic balance, she notes, setting out to investigate it in detail.
Lamb's ensuing reporting takes her around the world. She meets Yazidis, once kept as slaves by Isis, who are now living on Greek island Leros and in a forest in Germany. She researches rapes carried out by Stalin's soldiers in Berlin, at the end of the second World War.
In Argentina, she meets victims of the military dictatorship; in the Philippines, "comfort women" raped by soldiers from the imperial Japanese army; in Bosnia and Herzegovina, women who survived rape camps. In northeast Nigeria, she meets mothers of some of the hundreds of schoolgirls abducted by Islamic militant group Boko Haram in 2014.
She interviews other Nigerian escapees who were subjected to gang rape, or made to watch people being murdered in front of them if they didn’t submit. Lamb writes about the #BringBackOurGirls campaign finally bringing global attention to what had happened and the failure of the West to properly intervene.
In Cox's Bazaar, in Bangladesh, she meets Rohingya assaulted in front of their family members. "They beat me and slapped me and kicked me and bit me," says one woman, describing being raped by five different men alongside all the women and girls in her village.
Three-quarters of a million Rohingya were driven out of Myanmar – the largest forced migration in human history. Survivors speak of soldiers cutting out the foetuses of pregnant women, or women being raped while they were tied to trees by their hair.
In Dhaka, Lamb looks into the 1971 war for independence, when somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 women are thought to have been raped by Pakistani soldiers. An attempt to turn the women into "birangonas" or war heroines backfired, with the word quickly gaining a bad connotation. Many birangonas were driven from their families and villages, or even told they should kill themselves rather than enduring dishonour. The stigma was generational, with daughters failing to find husbands because people didn't want to associate with them.
She details women's struggles to access justice in the aftermath, because of the financial cost, shame and the corruption of local officials
Throughout the book, Lamb condemns impunity and tacit acceptance. She emphasises that rape in war is a deliberate policy. She details women’s struggles to access justice in the aftermath, because of the financial cost, shame and the corruption of local officials. Some of those complicit also include women, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi among them.
Both the 1949 Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute, which set up the International Criminal Court, include provisions against rape, yet Lamb calls it "the world's most neglected war crime". The first prosecution was in 1998 – more than 50 years after the end of the second World War. "It took rape camps being set up again in the heart of Europe for the issue to get international attention," she writes.
During the genocide in Rwanda, 800,000 Tutsis were killed in 100 days, and countless women were also raped. Afterwards it was another battle to have rape included on the list of indictments at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Lamb travels there and meets some of the witnesses who finally testified in Arusha. Despite having done such an extraordinary thing, she finds them living in poverty, unable to find a way out. The trauma of what they went through still impacts their daily existence.
In a book aimed at elevating the voices of women, it's an effective and powerful touch
With the MeToo movement and increased awareness around sexual violence and harassment of women, it is the right time for this book to be written. In 2018, Yazidi activist Nadia Murad and Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work standing up against sexual violence. Lamb even travels to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to meet Mukwege in Panzi Hospital, where more than 55,000 rape victims have been treated over 20 years.
Lamb's early books – first The Africa House, and later Small Wars Permitting – were what made me want to become a journalist. The stories she finds are fascinating, her writing emotive. She entered the profession at a time when female war correspondents were rare. In her later work, Lamb has increasingly focused on elevating the voices of women, co-authoring Malala Yousafzai's biography with the Nobel laureate herself, and later the biography of Syrian refugee Nujeen Mustafa.
Throughout Our Bodies, Their Battlefield, it’s noticeable that Lamb lets interviewees speak for themselves. She includes pages of direct quotes during almost every story. In a book aimed at elevating the voices of women, it’s an effective and powerful touch. Many of the interviewees have long been isolated for years or decades because of what they went through, but they speak openly to her. The mass of testimonies feels like a display of strength.
“The longer I have done this job, the more disquieted I have become, not just at the horrors I have seen,” Lamb writes. “Even now, histories of these conflicts are mostly told by men. Men writing about men. And then sometimes women writing about men . . . It’s time to stop only telling half the story.”