The War Crime No One Wants to Talk About

The War Crime No One Wants to Talk About


Despite the barbarity, Lamb’s humane portraits of survivors kept my attention. I grew invested in the women and felt compelled to listen to their stories. Tragically, most can’t find peace. Husbands spurn those left incontinent and unable to bear children. Even the women’s daughters stop speaking to them out of shame. Some live among their attackers, whom they see on the street.

“We are like dead women walking,” says Victoire Mukambanda, who lost count of the number of rapes she endured during Rwanda’s genocide. Left for dead in a latrine pit, she feels unlucky to have survived.

The first prosecution of rape as a war crime occurred in 1998, at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, half a century after the Geneva Convention declared it such. The International Criminal Court has a sorrier record. Created in 2002, it has secured only one conviction for sexual slavery and rape, in the 2019 case of a Congolese warlord. (A previous conviction was overturned.) More than half of the 90 war criminals convicted by the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were found guilty of sexual violence, but this, Lamb writes, is a “fraction considering the tribunal received reports of more than 20,000 rapes.”

Giving testimony can reawaken the trauma. At the Rwanda tribunal, defense lawyers expressed doubt that a woman could have been raped 16 times, because “she had not bathed and smelled.” The judges laughed. About the few such cases in which guilty verdicts were handed down, Lamb notes acidly, “It surely cannot be a coincidence” that the judges were women.

Recently there have been signs that the international community is finally waking up. The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize went to two campaigners against wartime rape: Nadia Murad, a Yazidi repeatedly assaulted by ISIS militants, and Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist called “Dr. Miracle” for his genital repairs of thousands of victims of sexual crimes. Yet the devastation will persist without recognition that rape is as heinous as murder. Witnesses will remain silent out of fear of stigma or a lack of access to lawyers.

In the conclusion of her book, Lamb writes, “Every time I walk past a war memorial I wonder why women’s names aren’t on it.” With “Our Bodies, Their Battlefields,” she provides a monument of sorts.


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