A Faraway Problem

Christina Lamb, Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women

William Collins, 432pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780008300005

reviewed by Jennifer Thomson

In 2014, Angelina Jolie joined the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, at a summit in London to promote the United Kingdom’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI). In the years since its introduction, the movie-star sheen provided by Jolie has faded from PSVI. An Independent Commission for Aid Impact report, released in January of this year, declared that ‘the initiative lacks a clear strategy and overall vision to guide its activities’, and that there is ‘little monitoring and reporting on how outputs translate into lasting outcomes’. Following Hague’s departure from the Foreign Office, high-level interest has waned and funding has quietly shrivelled up. Indeed, in what is perhaps an indication of its importance for UK Gov, in lieu of Jolie PSVI is now fronted by the Countess of Wessex.

Rape in war is as old as war itself, but public acknowledgement of this, and action to tackle it, have only emerged more recently. As Christina Lamb documents in her latest book, Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women, it was not until the 1990s and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that there was the first prosecution for rape as an instrument of genocide. In 2000, the UN Security Council signed the first of a series of resolutions on women, peace and security, part of which acknowledged sexual crimes in wartime. In 2009, the UN Secretary General created the post of Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 2018 to Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor of kidnap and rape at the hands of ISIS, and Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynaecologist who has worked for decades with rape survivors. What was for so long a hidden consequence of war is now far more prominent.

Lamb’s book is part of this corrective. As Senior Foreign Correspondent for the Sunday Times, she writes from a place of anger at the oversight which she has seen afforded to women’s experiences in war. In Our Bodies, Their Battlefield, women’s stories from around the world – Syria, Bosnia, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Germany, the Philippines – come in an onslaught. At times the book feels like a feat of readerly endurance, such are its horrors. Rape follows rape, in ways more violent and brutal with every chapter. We meet Yazidi girls who were sold into sexual slavery in Iraq and are now cast to the winds of Greek refugee camps and the German asylum system; schoolgirls kidnapped and forcibly married in Northern Nigeria; women raped during the fall of Berlin by Soviet soldiers and state forces under the Argentinian dictatorship. In her consideration of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the word ‘rape’ seems insufficient to capture the brutal abuse of women, girls and even infants that Lamb catalogues. She passes statues on her travels and is angered that women’s suffering is not written into the history books: ‘every time I walk past a war memorial, I wonder why the women’s names are not on it.’

‘Reading this in our safe homes,’ Lamb writes, ‘this seems like a faraway problem.’ A safe story around sexual violence is created for the British reader consuming this book, one reinforced by the idea that such actions happen at a distance: ‘How could something like this happen in the heart of Europe?’, Lamb wonders in the chapter addressing the actions of Red Army soldiers in Germany at the end of World War II. Rape is something monstrous, a phenomenon which only emerges in the fog of war. And like the UK PSVI policy, rape happens over there, not here. Lost in this narrative are the refugee and asylum-seeking women on UK soil, many of whom are fleeing sexual abuse (but face incredible difficulties in making a claim to stay on these grounds). Lost, too, are the approximately 20% of women over the age of 16 in England and Wales who have been sexually assaulted. Whilst the UK was promoting PSVI with one arm, another branch of the government Hague served in was cutting women’s services. To point this out is not to belittle the horrific events that Lamb depicts, or to discredit policy attempts to address a complicated issue. It’s simply to recognise that sexual violence is a lot more prevalent than this narrative cares to acknowledge.

Lamb does contextualise sexual violence in this way, though the dismal rates of prosecution (a little over 3% in 2018) for rape in the UK are not presented until the final chapter. And, indeed, her evocation throughout of a monolithic ‘West’ in the book is striking. She wonders at the ‘resilience’ of refugees in the camp at Cox’s Bazaar: ‘What would we in the West do if we lost our homes and were dumped in a place with no electricity?’ As with other volumes of global feminism – the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn’s Half The Sky, or the liberal international idealism of Samantha Power or Melinda Gates – the West is unblemished. Bad things happen over there, and ‘we’ have the power to solve them here.

Lamb describes being taken by a representative of an international NGO to meet a Rohingya rape victim in the refugee camp outside of Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. When they got there, there was ‘a queue. The New York Times and a local journalist were waiting outside. An NBC crew was hovering nearby.’ Later that day she exchanged stories with another journalist. They wondered about ‘the beast we were encouraging them [refugee interviewees] to feed, endlessly looking to devour ever more horrific accounts. Were we really any different to that perhaps apocryphal TV reporter who shouted “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?” to a planeload of Belgian nuns who had just been rescued from a siege in eastern Congo?’ The chapter ends here, the question left hanging.

In the book’s conclusion though, Lamb circles back to answer it. In the closing paragraphs she writes: ‘As long as we keep silent, we are complicit in saying this is acceptable.’ Implicit throughout Our Bodies, Their Battlefield is the idea that testimony has the capacity to create change. Lamb meets a Yazidi rape victim who has fled to Germany. ‘How does it help me to tell my story?’, she asks Lamb of her questioning. ‘Maybe so it never happens again to other women,’ Lamb replies, somewhat ambivalently. Lamb interviews Dr Denis Mukwege, the 2018 Nobel Laureate who has spent a lifetime working with rape victims in his hospital in the Eastern DRC. He tells her that he invited Human Rights Watch to visit his hospital in the Congo in the early 2000s to allow them to document sexual violence: ‘I thought it would be a turning point where the international community would say this can’t go on, but since this time I am still waiting.’ The moments of hope presented in the book occur where individual witnessing meets legal institutions – the International Tribunals in Rwanda; the actions against Burma taken by the Gambia at the International Court of Justice; the small NGO run in Sarajevo that is still hunting down rapists decades after the Balkans war. The book is an argument against silence, proposing instead that telling horrific stories can spur change.

In a similar vein, Virginia Woolf once wrote about photographs of the war dead. She believed that viewing such images was a unifying experience: ‘When we look at these pictures, some fusion takes place within us; however different the education, the traditions behind us, our sensations are the same . . . we are looking at the same picture; we are seeing with you the same bodies, the same ruined houses.’ Almost a hundred years later, Lamb’s book argues similarly about the power of witness testimony. If we look at the same picture, if we hear the same voice, our ‘sensations’ will be the same. Everything will change. Wars will cease. Rape will stop. A common, more empathetic humanity will emerge.

Yet, when it comes to rape, no matter where we are, breaking one’s silence rarely leads to action. Lamb talks to Rwandan women who see people who committed genocidal violence in the 90s every day in their communities, freely living their lives. Recent successes in prosecuting rape and sexual violence (Weinstein) stand out for their uniqueness. I watched Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee in my office one afternoon and could not fail to see how it would stop Kavanaugh’s appointment. Then the next day there was a calendar and crocodile tears. Telling her story, giving up her anonymity forever, risking the personal security of herself and her family – it achieved nothing.

To return to Lamb’s modus operandi here – ‘As long as we keep silent, we are complicit in saying this is acceptable.’ What if testimony isn’t enough? Why, in light of all of the countless tales of assault that women (and men) have told through books, documentaries, news stories, and courtroom testimonies, is there so little action? Rape and sexual violence in conflict have been on the international community’s agenda for decades – yet the Yazidi girls and women Lamb talks to were sold into sexual slavery in the last few years. Put bluntly, women’s stories of rape and sexual assault still have little impact on justice, and their ability to access it, anywhere in the world. In that case, why are we (in ‘the West’) still writing, reading and buying these narratives? Why is the rape and abuse of women a product for consumption? As Sinead Gleeson writes in her recent essay collection, Constellations, ‘there is meaning in suffering, except that there is not.’ Why are we still stuck at the naming of women’s suffering? Why have we not moved beyond this?
Jennifer Thomson is an academic based in the south-west of England.