Pietro da Corona's 17th century painting depicts "the rape of the Sabine women" by the early Roman armies. But rape in war is also much more modern.
Christina Lamb has been a journalist reporting from war zones for over thirty years. Her book Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Has Done To Women, published by William Collins in 2020, traces the struggle to get rape recognised as a war crime.
When Lamb began to submit copy to editors, telling the largely unreported evidence of survivors who told her their stories, her editors would reply that it would be too shocking for their readers to put into print.
From Bosnia where rape camps scarred the entire region, to Rwanda where the systematic use of violent and repeated rape was an integral part of the genocide, the statements of women in the courts was considered a diversion from the real job of convicting the perpetrators of mass murder and ethnic cleansing.
Lamb shows, through well-documented evidence and testimonies of women survivors and victims, that rape is not a trophy of war or collateral damage, as it has often been considered, but is instead as much a weapon of war as the machete, club or Kalashnikov.
Rape is used as a weapon to terrorise whole communities in the determination to ethically cleanse the land. To traumatise, to humiliate, and dehumanise. And it is also used, along with forced marriage, impregnation, forced imprisonment until birth, and removal of babies to families, often those of the perpetrators, to deliberately ethnically change the demographics of the population. Almost all the victims of these war crimes are women.
In 1919, in response to the atrocities committed against Armenian women by Turkish armies, rape was included in a list of 32 war crimes. Yet the first ever prosecution for rape did not happen until 1998, when the international court in Rwanda, after the determination of the only female judge on the panel to hear the stories of the witnesses despite the attempts of the prosecutors to silence them, convicted a perpetrator of both genocide and mass rape. Until then, rape was not considered an important enough issue.
Lamb places the recent atrocities, such as those suffered by the Rohingya women in Burma in their countless numbers, in their historical context, having researched evidence of the rape in the 1940s of one in three women in Berlin at the hands of Stalin’s troops – the very people celebrated for freeing the western world of fascism.
In Argentina, during the dictatorship in the 1970’s, women were forced into military brothels to provide a "service" to the military officers. From Franco’s troops in the Spanish Civil War to the Japanese military rape and enslavement of ‘comfort’ women in the second world war; and on to the Birangonas, the women victims in East Pakistan during the war of independence of Bangladesh, rape has always been integral to military strategy.
“Comfort" and "strategy" make it sound almost clinical. But what Lamb describes across continents and over decades is the brutal gang-rapes of women from the ages of two to ninety; the deliberate degradation, humiliation and countless deaths by rape of generations of women.
Often the survivors of rape, traumatised and physically damaged, unable to hold any positive relationships, were also ostracised and blamed by their communities. Women were persuaded not to speak out by their families for fear of bringing shame onto them.
Against this, has been the incredible bravery and determination of women to bring perpetrators to justice by setting up victim associations, sharing and gathering evidence, collecting bone fragments, and giving evidence in courts which were reluctant to hear them, often being retraumatised in the process.
After thirty years as a war correspondent, Lamb wrote the book in order to end the marginalisation of war rape.
Our Bodies Their Battlefield is a hard read. Readers would be well advised to take breaks and reorient themselves. But, as Lamb says, “We can start by listening to women’s voices. Those women who told me their stories did this so we can’t say we didn’t know”.