Q&A with Christina Lamb

Q&A with Christina Lamb

The Orwell Prizes for Political Writing and Political Fiction shortlists, released last month, highlight the finest politically engaged books published in 2020. Throughout June, we will be sharing Q+As with the shortlisted writers from both lists, here on our blog. To see the lists, visit our website here.

In 1919, rape was declared an international war crime, yet since then the International Criminal Court has prosecuted no-one. In 'Our Bodies, Their Battlefield', a harrowing but clear-eyed account, journalist Christina Lamb reveals the extent to which women and girls have been, and continue to be, raped as a deliberate tactic of war. From the killing fields of Rwanda and Kosovo, to war-time Berlin and Southeast Asia, to 1970s Argentina and present-day Nigeria, Lamb speaks to survivors, witnesses, and those who hold the memory of unspeakable atrocities. These crimes have never before been recorded and compiled in this way, making this a landmark work.


Your book presents rape in wartime not as only as a random act committed by rogue soldiers, but often as a concerted and deliberate military strategy. Why do you think the systemic nature of rape as a weapon of war has often been overlooked in mainstream reporting and writing?

It’s a difficult subject which it seems many people would rather not think about but I don’t believe that because something is uncomfortable we should ignore it – on the contrary that’s exactly our job as journalists: to expose it.

I think it’s also that military history has tended to be written by men and women’s voices have been left out – similarly peace negotiations to end wars have usually been conducted by men and so this issue has been left out.

Survivors have also been reluctant to come forward as they have been made to feel shame, that it’s their fault – one of the saddest things of this barbaric crime is that it is the victim who is stigmatised.  Look at the women in Germany where as many as two million were raped by Soviet soldiers in 1945, yet it wasn’t for more than half a century with Antony Beevor’s Berlin book that this really became known – even now after my book came out in Germany people have written to me, saying ‘this happened to my aunt/grandmother etc but it was never talked about…’ And in Russia, it remains taboo.

There is still a tendency to see rape in war as somehow less important than killing or torture – ‘oh well there has always been rape in war’ – but in fact as the women I spoke to so eloquently explain, rape does not just ruin lives but is an extremely effective weapon.

This is an extremely difficult book to read – and must have been a difficult book to write and research. How did you manage the sensitivities of talking to the women who have been through such awful things, and what did you learn about the relationship between the reporter and the reported-on in the process?

My biggest worry in doing this book was re-traumatising women who had already been through such horrific ordeals.

At the same time I wanted to speak to a lot of women rather than just focusing on a few, as I wanted to give a sense to readers of the enormous scale of this issue.

First of all the women were quite self-selecting – I went through legal organisations, hospitals, aid agencies and counselling services and asked them if they could ask if any of the survivors they were working with would like to tell their story.  Where possible I had a psychologist present during the interview.

It was soon clear that it was very important that they be able to tell the story the way they wanted, however much time that took, and that they be seen as people with hopes and dreams, and not just be their trauma.

It made me realise journalists are often the first to talk to deeply traumatised people yet we are not trained for this, so could unwittingly cause damage (and jeopardise future legal cases). So I have since worked with survivors, an American film-maker and the Dart Centre on developing some hopefully helpful guidelines.

Your book considers a wide variety of different contexts in which rape is a feature of war.  How far do you see these contexts as being essentially instances of a common practice and how far are they distinguishable from one another?

If you go back to the earliest histories, rape has always happened in war. Presumably by 2021 we’d like to think we’re advanced in terms of human rights. Yet today war rape is so common I would describe it as an epidemic that’s happening all over the world. As I write women in Tigray are being laid next to the bodies of husbands who tried to protect them and violently gang-raped; brave female protestors in Belarus are being sexually tortured in jails, as are Uighurs in detention centres in Xinjiang.  For my book I looked at 12 countries on 4 continents but it’s so widespread I could have spent the rest of my life going to different places where it’s happening.

These cases are common in that they are about dehumanising the victims – I recently interviewed a man (sexual violence against men is even more taboo) who had spent 14 years in Guantanamo and told me when he and a fellow-prisoner first heard about sexual assault of detainees they laughed.  “We said what does that mean, they bring you a hot girl and she wants to touch you, so what? I was so foolish. I didn’t understand how painful and how humiliating it is to be sexually assaulted by another person you are not willing to engage with. It really scarred me.”

What is different is that where rape by soldiers in ancient wars was often part of the chaos and breakdown of society, or to reward fighters, what I found in recent conflicts was how it was used as on a mass scale as a systematic weapon – fighters literally ordered to capture and violate women.

This was the case in Northern Nigeria when Boko Haram abducted girls as young as 12 to be their ‘bushwives’; Yazidis enslaved by ISIS fighters told it was their religious duty as they were ‘devil worshippers’; and Rohingya women, dragged from their huts and tied to banana trees and gangraped by Burmese soldiers who were told they were Bengalis not Burmese and ordered to drive them out of their country.

I found different levels of degradation and different motivations – ideological in the case of Latin American dictatorships; ethnic in Rwanda, Burma and Bangladesh; religious with ISIS treatment of the Yazidis and Boko Haram capture of Christian women; and economic such as the militias in eastern Congo wanting to take control of mineral-rich areas. But always the same objective - to humiliate and drive out communities.

Having considered so many different conflicts and their aftermath, what do you see as the relative advantages and disadvantages of accountability in domestic courts, as in Chile, or international tribunals, as in the Balkans and elsewhere?

International tribunals have been disappointing after all the fanfare of the 90s when rape was first prosecuted as a war crime in tribunals for Rwanda and Bosnia. In both countries, women told me they see their perpetrators in the streets for the majority are still free. In 20 years existence the ICC has only successfully convicted one for sexual violence - Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, the Terminator, whose conviction was upheld earlier this year. That even though Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor for the last nine years, had vowed “The message to perpetrators must be clear: sexual violence and gender-based crimes in conflict will neither be tolerated nor ignored at the ICC.”

We have recently seen a number of successes in domestic courts or countries such as Germany and Gambia using universal jurisdiction.

One area of hope has been Latin America where courts from Argentina to Guatemala have finally started to recognise sexual violence as a separate crime and bring to justice military officers from past dictatorships, decades later – and many brave women have started to come forward. Last November three members of the Pinochet regime were convicted for horrific abuses at a detention centre known as the Disco that specialised in sexual torture seeking to break the morale of captured female activists and send a message to others. Women were raped in front of their partners or had rats inserted into their vaginas while loud music was played to drown out their screams – hence the name.

Only a handful of cases have been prosecuted and in each one, the judge or prosecutor have been female which can’t in my view be a coincidence. Each time the victims have shown enormous bravery and persistence to speak often in the face of threats. The grandmothers of Sepur, raped and enslaved by soldiers during the civil war in Guatemala, took 36 years to get justice and had to testify 22 times.

Sadly, for the moment accountability remains the exception not the rule.

Who are the writers – non-fiction or fiction – you would say have (in Orwell’s phrase) “turned political writing into an art”?

I adore Ryszard Kapuscinski’s writing on the last days of the Shah, the fall of Haile Selaissie, the Soccer War etc. But there are a lot of questions now about how much was true which is not easy for someone like me who believes firmly on reporting things as they are and exactly what people say.

I recently discovered Virginia Cowles’ reporting of the Spanish civil war (one of the few reporters to have covered both sides), as well as Europe into the Second World War and marvelled at her eye for detail (her description of the Nuremberg rallies is hard to beat) yet sadly forgotten.

One of the most powerful writers today for me is Sebastian Junger.

I love reading fiction and how that can often be far more powerful in conveying a time and place – Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet; anything by Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd; A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini opens a real window into the lives of Afghan women; and last year I absolutely could not put down Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah which I was delighted to see on your shortlist. Shall I stop there?!


Buy the book from Bookshop.org here.

Image credit: Tom Lewis Russell.

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