Book review

Our Bodies, Their Battlefield by Christina Lamb review – the eternal war against women

This harrowing account of the thousands of rape victims airbrushed from history is required reading.

This harrowing account of the thousands of rape victims airbrushed from history is required reading.

Yazidi women at a ceremony to commemorate the death of women killed by Islamic State in Iraq, March 2019 . Photograph: Ari Jalal/Reuters

Rape, writes Christina Lamb at the start of this deeply traumatic and important book, is “the cheapest weapon known to man”. It is also one of the oldest, with the Book of Deuteronomy giving its blessing to soldiers who find “a beautiful woman” among the captives taken in battle. If “you desire to take her”, it says, “you may”.

As the American writer Susan Brownmiller has put it, “man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe”. And yet, despite the ubiquity of rape across time and in all continents and all settings, almost nothing is written about those who have experienced sexual violence.

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Lamb writes about her discomfort at seeing statues of military heroes in stations and town squares and the names of those who fought in battle in history books. Yet those who have suffered most have done so in silence – unmentioned, glossed over and ignored.

Our Bodies, Their Battlefield provides a corrective that is by turns horrific and profoundly moving. Lamb, the chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Timeswhom I have known and admired for years, is an extraordinary writer. Her compassion for those she talks to and deep understanding of how to tell their stories makes this a book that should be required reading for all – even though (and perhaps because) it is not an enjoyable experience.

We meet Munira, a Rohingya who was raped by five Burmese soldiers in quick succession and was then confronted after her ordeal by finding the body of her eight-year-old son who had been shot in the back as he was running towards her. We come across a five-year-old in the Democratic Republic of Congo who had been raped, who kept repeating that they had been taken “because Mummy didn’t close the door properly”.

Rape has been used as a tool of fear, but also for soldiers to create grotesque bonds of solidarity

We meet Esther Yakubu, whose teenage daughter Dorcas was kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram in Nigeria. When Lamb sees her two years after their first meeting, Esther has aged 10 years. “I can’t sleep, I can’t breathe,” she says. False alarms and raised hopes of her daughter’s release have come to nothing. “I go to church every day and pray for her to come back. I hope one day God will answer.”Advertisement


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We meet Victoire and Serafina, two Tutsi sisters of extraordinary bravery, who talk about their experiences during and after the Rwandan genocide – where 800,000 were murdered in 100 days in 1994 – while George Michael’s Careless Whisper plays over the radio in the background.

Rape has been used as a tool of fear and intimidation, a way of devastating communities but also for soldiers and young men to create grotesque bonds of solidarity, trust and loyalty. While Lamb recognises that sexual violence against men has been and is a problem – noting that some estimates suggest that nearly a quarter of men in conflict-affected territories in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo have experienced sexual violence – the focus here is on women.

No one is safe, as Lamb shows: under the wrong circumstances, in all corners of the world, communities who used to have drinks together and celebrate one another’s children’s birthdays and achievements turn on their friends and neighbours’ wives, sisters and daughters in an orgy of brutal violence. In many cases, it is not coincidental: rape is perpetrated systematically and deliberately, such as in the war in Bosnia where one European council report stated that it was being used in “particularly sadistic ways to inflict maximum humiliation on victims, their families and on the whole community”.

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It was the same in Bangladesh in 1971 and in Argentina under the military junta in 1976-83. And it is the same in the world around us today. As Lamb takes us through the trauma and suffering of women in the Middle East or in Burma, we are chillingly reminded that despite legislation being passed to classify rape and sexual violence (against women and men) as a war crime, the International Criminal Court has not made a single conviction for war rape; that there have been no prosecutions for the abduction of Yazidi women or of young girls in Nigeria.

Lamb’s disgust at the way victims continue to be treated shames us all. Some of those responsible for what happened in Rwanda walk the streets of London and Paris freely. Amnesties were given to military officers who committed atrocities in Argentina under the junta. A statue commemorating women forced into sexual slavery in the Philippines was taken down (to be “relocated”) after President Duterte was persuaded it was distasteful. A plaque on the wall of the Liberation War Museum in Bangladesh says it all: “There are not many records of this hidden suffering”, referring to the rape of 200,000-400,000 women by soldiers from Pakistan in 1971.

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari poses with released Nigerian schoolchildren who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Photograph: Philip Ojisua/AFP/Getty

In the modern world, our new technologies sometimes facilitate the suffering, with Facebook being accused of helping incite racial hatred in Burma. Sometimes there is an outcry, such as in Nigeria where the kidnap of the girls from Chibok led the world news, as Michelle Obama and a host of celebrities championed a campaign to “Bring Our Girls Back”. That soon petered out as attentions turned elsewhere, with activism replaced by paralysis. Eighty of the kidnapped girls were spotted by drones in the Sambisa forest, yet remained there for six weeks. As the British high commissioner tells Lamb, when the question was put to Whitehall and Washington about “what to do about them… answer came there none”. The reaction to the address given by Denis Mukwege when he won the Nobel prize for his work to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict sums it up. “Everyone applauded,” he said, “but nothing happened.” Back in his clinic in west Africa, he tells Lamb that numbers of young children who have been raped is rising. As for rape and sexual violence: “it never stops.”

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This is a powerful book that not only underlines how women have been written out of history, but how victims of rape have had their suffering enabled, ignored and perpetuated. We cannot understand how the international community and the UN “just stood by and watched us be raped”, Victoire tells the author in Rwanda. And yet, she goes on, “the same things are happening over and over again round the world. We are just simple women, but it’s hard for us to understand.” No one who reads this will finish without reaching the same conclusion.

Peter Frankopan is professor of global history at the University of Oxford

  • Our Bodies, Their Battlefield by Christina Lamb is published by William Collins (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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