War & Rape
The most shameful consequence of conflict comes out into the open.
First they shot her husband. Then the soldiers killed her two sons, ages 5 and 7. When the uniformed men yanked her daughter from her hands next, Mary didn’t think it could get any worse. Mary and her family were members of the Nuer tribe in South Sudan, caught up in a vicious power struggle between the new country’s President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, and his Vice President, Riek Machar, a Nuer. Their war, fought largely along ethnic lines, has turned the northern part of the country into a wasteland. At least 50,000 people have been killed, according to the U.N., nearly 4 million face famine, and another 2.2 million have fled their homes, recounting tales of civilian slaughter, gratuitous torture and even forced cannibalism. Mary and her family were among the tens of thousands of civilians seeking refuge at a U.N. peacekeeping base in the northern city of Bentiu when they ran into Kiir’s forces on the road in June 2014. The 27-year-old recounts what occurred next distantly, as if she were explaining something that happened to someone else. The soldiers told Mary that they considered the Nuers in the camps to be rebels, and that they killed her sons because they couldn’t risk letting them grow up to be fighters. “We don’t kill the women and the girls,” the soldiers told Mary. “They said they would only rape us. As if rape were different than death,” says Mary, speaking in a safe house in neighboring Uganda run by Make Way Partners, an American Christian organization that provides housing, medical care and schooling for South Sudanese orphans and victims of human trafficking. After the soldiers killed her husband and sons, five of them held her down and forced her to watch as three others raped her 10-year-old daughter. Her name was Nyalaat. When the men were done, Mary says, “I couldn’t even see my little girl anymore. I could only see blood.” Then the men took turns with Mary. Nyalaat died a few hours later. “I wanted to die too.”
Instead, Mary made it to a U.N. camp for civilians displaced by war. The conflict raged on, and soldiers—she’s not even sure from which army—were able to slip in to the camp through gaps in the fence and rape whichever women they could catch. “It happened to all of us: little girls, grandmothers. They didn’t care.” The rules were simple, says Mary, who asked that her full name not be used. “If you calm down when they are raping you, they won’t beat you. But if you resist, they will beat you, even so much to use the gun in you.” Rape in war is as old as war itself.
The U.N. reports that 200,000 Congolese women and children have been raped during Congo’s long-simmering conflict. Estimates for South Sudan are in the thousands. Both numbers are likely too low, says Pablo Castillo-Diaz, a specialist on sexual violence in conflict for U.N. Women, the U.N. agency tasked with issues of women’s equality, protection and empowerment. “Rape is one of the most underreported war crimes that there are. Women, if they survive the attack, rarely tell anyone else. We only hear of the most brutal incidences or the public ones that the whole community sees.”
Most recently, harrowing revelations about ISIS’s sale of Yezidi women as sexual slaves in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram’s abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls for forced marriages in Nigeria, have pushed survivors and activists to demand a real global response to a war crime with consequences so enduring it all but precludes peace. “The raping of women, the holding of women as chattel and slaves is utterly horrific, but it isn’t new. It’s just an escalation and amplification of what has been going on for many years,” says Eve Ensler, the American playwright and activist. “Anytime people are talking about this, it’s a good thing. But what hasn’t happened is that we haven’t ended the violence. That is the next step.”
After spending a year at the displaced-persons camp in South Sudan, Mary decided last April to leave for the capital of Juba. By this time she was pregnant and could only guess at which of the six different men that had raped her at the camp might be the father. It was too late to take the herbs that some of the other women in the camp used to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies, and a medical abortion would have been impossible to obtain. Instead, Mary planned to poison the baby as soon as it was born and throw it in the garbage, a curse from God that she would return to God. “I had nothing. No family, no income. I was thinking, ‘How will I be able to take care of a child that reminds me, every time I look at its face, of what happened to me in the camp?’” In the end, Mary kept the baby, now a burbling 8-month-old, after a friend convinced her that she would find support. Still, Mary struggles with the trauma of her daughter’s conception. She cannot bring herself to say, out loud, that she loves the child, but her tender caresses and softly sung lullabies make it clear that she does.
Education alone isn’t enough to stop rape in war, says Rukunghu, the fistula surgeon at Panzi Hospital. That requires society as a whole to condemn it and the government to act.
To put an end to rape in war, rather than merely healing it, requires that ISIS’s actions be treated as a war crime, point blank, and not just a “second-class crime that happens to second-class citizens,” according to Zainab Bangura, the U.N.’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict. Rape in war, she notes, is not inevitable. Rather it is a reflection of the subordinate status of women in society. Wartime rape will stop when the status of women changes, and the shame lands on the perpetrators, not the victims.
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