Discussing the topic of rape in Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, prominent war correspondent and prize winner Christina Lamb has said that the topic of rape in wartime is underreported in general. The officers who ordered the rape of Ukrainian women and children are unlikely to be found and brought to justice, partly because Russia is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court, she underlined.
In the interview below with Kristina Aržuolaitienė, a journalist at Bendra.lt, Lamb, who has written extensively about rape in wartime, said that more has been written about the topic in recent weeks with regard to Ukraine than about other war zones put together in the last three decades.
It’s unlikely that anyone will find and punish the commander who allowed Russian troops to rape Ukrainian women.
As Russia’s war against Ukraine drags on, horrific reports abound of women and children being raped. Atrocities range from a Russian soldier defiling a baby and sending a video of the act to his friends, to a group of women and girls raped in a basement by Russian soldiers in Bucha for almost a month, leaving nine pregnant. Sexual abuse is considered a war crime, so will the perpetrators be caught and punished. The current reality is that the chances are slim.
“There is information that the command said ‘Keep these Ukrainian women for yourselves’. But it is unlikely that anyone will find the men who ordered it,” says Christina Lamb, a prominent British war correspondent and writer, in an exclusive interview to Lithuanian journalism platform “Bendra.lt.” Lamb has won 14 prestigious awards, including Foreign Correspondent of the Year on five occasions and the Best European War Reporting Award (Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Award).
Lamb gives a voice to women living in war zones, showing how soldiers and members of terrorist groups in wars use violence as a weapon to humiliate, exploit and ethnically cleanse. She reveals incredible stories of heroism and resistance, from South-east Asia, where the Japanese enslaved “comfort women” during World War II, to Rwanda, where an estimated quarter of a million women were raped.
In this interview with Kristina Aržuolaitienė, Lamb discusses sexual violence as a weapon of war, and the women who have to live with the traumatic after-effects. She explains why history books don’t write about it, why violence in the context of the war in Ukraine is underreported and why Russian soldiers are unlikely to be held accountable for their crimes.
Christina, we are hearing a growing number of stories about women and children being raped in Ukraine. Why is it important to talk about this and to publicize the issue?
Well, there has always been rape in war, dating back to Ancient Greece and Persia. But to think that this is happening in 2022, it’s totally unacceptable. It’s a difficult story to tell and difficult to listen to. These things should not be happening and it’s a war crime. But if anything is going to change, it’s very important that we talk about it and make people aware of what’s happening.
Why is rape used as a tool in war?
Well, sadly, women and children are always the most vulnerable in wars. What we have seen in recent years is people using sexual violence as a weapon of war because, unfortunately, it’s very effective if you want to humiliate and terrorize your enemy. Why it’s still happening so much is because there is absolutely no justice.
I started looking into this and reporting on the women that were taken by ISIS and women who flew from Burma to Bangladesh who were taken by the Burmese military and gang raped. These cases involved tens of thousands of women and girls, and no one was talking about it. Not a single person was prosecuted. I had some intimate conversations with some of these women and they were asking me, “why is nobody doing anything about it?” I couldn’t answer. I started looking into it and was frankly horrified to find that there was so little action against the perpetrators.
I also think you have to differentiate between individuals taking advantage of opportunities and people being ordered to rape on a systematic level in war. Some people are ordered or encouraged by their commanders to commit rape, be it for reasons relating to religion, ethnicity or occupation.
In Ukraine, scores of war crimes are being reported. Is rape given enough attention as a war crime?
No, absolutely not. I think more women are coming forward, but normally we don’t know about it until much later. No one talks about sexual violence in real time.
Frankly, it’s the most neglected war crime. I’ve been researching what happened in Nigeria and then around the same time Burmese women being attacked and tied to banana trees. No one was talking about it. And even if people were talking about it, none of the perpetrators were prosecuted. I received messages from some of these women saying, “I have told my story, why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?” And I couldn’t answer the question. So, I started trying to find out the extent to which this was happening.
In your book “Our Bodies, Their Battlefield”, you reveal stories of resistance from South-East Asia, where the Japanese took “comfort women” into slavery during World War II, and the case of Rwanda, where an estimated quarter of a million women were raped. Why was it important for you to write this book?
I didn’t set out to write a book, I was just so horrified that [sexual violence in war] was happening that I started to look into it. I realized that very little was written on the topic so I decided to write about it myself.
I became angry that no-one was doing anything. And I discovered, to my horror, that sexual violence was prevalent in many places, that it was not being reported, and that it was so difficult to get justice – even where I imagined justice would take place. I went to speak to some of the survivors from the Bosnia war in the 1990s. They told me that they have seen their torturers and rapists in coffee shops, restaurants, and lifts and some even serving in the police force. Very few of the perpetrators have ever been brought to justice.
In one of the episodes in your book, you write about the moment when you sit in a park in Berlin and look upon sculptures that show the so-called soviets’ liberation of Europe from fascism. You write that the monuments should be built for women who were raped during the war. Why is it important?
Because I don’t believe people think about it when they think about war. They think about men fighting. And generally, nobody thinks about the role of women in war, whether it’s about keeping their lives together or suffering some of the brutality. You don’t find sculptures for women in war and I think we need to rethink that.
History textbooks don’t tend to record these atrocities and we can only find fragmented references in other sources. What was the scale of the rape culture during World War II?
Many women in the concentration camps were raped. During the liberation of Berlin, the Russian forces raped around 2 million German women and many women across Eastern Europe. The women were made to feel ashamed and some committed suicide. And that is to me the most heart-breaking thing of all –the fact that often the victim is made to feel like they did something wrong. Worse, these women were ostracized by their own communities. They lived hidden away because nobody would accept them.
Another woman in your book mentions that if you were a female judge, you would never forget such horrors as men jumping on a pregnant women’s belly to attack her baby, because the mind and body would feel as though it was happening to you. But it seems that society easily forgets. Why is it still so uncomfortable to talk about rape as a tool of war?
Admittedly it’s very difficult to report on it. But if some people feel uncomfortable it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write about it. On the contrary, I think, these stories need to be told so that things can change. But I do think that things are already changing. In Ukraine, a lot of people are reporting on this issue now. In fact, I think more people have reported on this in the last couple of weeks than they have over the past 35 years. And to my mind, it’s a good thing that people are now coming forward and causing public outrage about it.
When researching “Our Bodies, Their War Field?”, which story left the deepest imprint?
After every story I hear, I think I can’t possibly hear anything worse and then I do. I don’t like to rate these stories since that would be unacceptable. But one story that I will always remember is when I met a 16-year-old girl who was raped and thought it was the worst night of her life, then later heard the same man bringing a 10-year-old girl to the same room and raping her. She cried for her mother all night. It was hard for her to tell her story, but she told me she really wanted to because she could not escape from it and wanted everyone else to know.
You have talked to many women who experienced rape during war. One of the women you talked to from Taba says she thinks rape is worse than killing because she has to live with it every day. What helps women deal with the traumatic experience?
I don’t think anyone ever gets over something like this, but you can learn to get on with things in everyday life. Different things help women in different ways. All the women I spoke to said that they wanted justice so that the same wouldn’t happen to other women. They also wanted recognition or acknowledgement of what had happened to them.
Women in the Philippines who were captured by the Japanese army and kept as “comfort women” lived with it for years with no mention of their plight in any history books. In 2017, a statue was raised in Manila to remember their story and less than a year later it was taken down by the government. It must be horrendous that you have gone through this, and it can’t even be acknowledged. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Bosnia tried different ways to help.
Women need to be in control of their own story, and they need to tell their story in the way they want to. Some women take solace in the healing power of nature and growing things, such as roses. Sadly, most of them never get over their ordeal and some of the women I spoke to said they would have rather died than have to live with it every day.
It’s very difficult to live with this trauma and sometimes whole lives are destroyed when local communities don’t take the victims back. In some cases, women get pregnant so have a constant reminder of what happened to them, whilst also raising a child who is essentially innocent. Some successful projects encourage women to talk about what happened to them, to share their stories and support one other. Therapy and counseling also help but, unfortunately, in many places in the world they do not have access to such support.
In your book, you talk about the fact that although there are shifts in this area, the perpetrators are not being punished. Can we expect that Russian soldiers will be punished for raping Ukrainian women and girls?
Well, it hasn’t happened before. The International Criminal Court that was set up in 2002 to prosecute war crimes, yet it still has not convicted one person for [sexual violence] and in the intervening years, hundreds of women have suffered the same fate. On the other hand, the fact that we are seeing this in real time, there is a lot of discussion around what can and should be done.
Can we bring these people to justice? There’s increasing focus on this, which is an opportunity to try and harness, to get the justice that these women deserve.
But you know, it’s difficult, particularly because Russia is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court, and we would also be trying to bring a leader of a superpower to justice. It’s difficult to get evidence of this particular crime to prosecute individual soldiers because you need to identify them. Key questions: Was it systematic? The numbers are high, so was it encouraged? In this event you could prosecute a commander for having overall responsibility. It’s not easy, but this is the best opportunity as what is happening in Ukraine is getting so much international attention.
There is a resolution signed by every single member of the United Nations to say that sexual violence in a conflict is unacceptable and that something should be done to stop it and prosecute. The resolution exists so it should actually be implemented.
But it’s difficult to judge as we don’t know how it will all end. There is information that the men in command said: “Keep these Ukrainian women for yourselves.” But sadly, it’s unlikely that anyone will find the men who gave the orders.
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