It is not a comfortable read. To be honest, it is gruelling read although the reporting is so sensitive and so beautifully phrased that there is an almost guilty pleasure in reading it.
Christina Lamb is the chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times and has reported on almost every genocidal conflict around the world for the last 30 years. She already has a string of books to her name chronicling much of what she has witnessed. In Our Bodies Their Battlefield she returns to many of those conflict zones to describe what happened to the women whose mass and brutal rapes were used to humiliate, subjugate and often destroy not just communities but whole races – the Tutsis in Rwanda and the Yazidis in Syria to mention only two of the 15 that she cites.
But this is not just a searing account of the unspeakable brutalities that were inflicted on the women in these wars, it is the heart breaking tale of the survivors’ struggle to get justice and, very rarely, reparations. There have been a few successes. Such as the ruling after the Rwandan genocide that, for the first time in international law, rape should no longer be treated as a spoil of war but as a war crime. A tribute to the incredible bravery and determination of a small group of women who survived.
But these successes are rare and are of little comfort to women who lives were destroyed beyond repair. As one of that group of Rwandan women who went to court but who now lives alone in a ramshackle hut on a bare hillside with no electrcity said:
‘You may think we are the lucky ones because we survived the genocide and were not diseased, but, we are dead women walking.’
So, why did I buy and read the book? Me doing so does not in any way help any of those women or the many other millions of women whose bodies have been treated as a weapon of war – not just in the 20th century but throughout history. As Christina Lamb points out, rape as a weapon of war – as a means to humiliate and thereby subjugate and often destroy whole populations – is as old as war itself. Nor should one assume that it is a weapon used only against women. One study from 2010 that she quotes suggest that nearly 25% of men in conflict affected areas of the eastern DRC had experienced sexual violence.
But if me – or you – reading the book offers one iota of support despatched through the ether to those who have suffered – or adds one grain of resistence to these tactics being used again – then maybe we should read it.
Quite by chance last night I met Alison Lochhead. We were both on a fascinating walk around the City of London looking at Sculpture in the City (of which more in a future Walks post). She was wearing a bright red coat and was rounded, jolly, enthusiastic, friendy and fun. So I was very surprised when she told me that she was a sculptor and created burnt installations showing the devastation caused by war – burnt shoes, burnt books, burnt remains of furniture and buildings.
So once I got home I checked out her website where I found three videos of her installations. Two were of her war work – the shoe above and the burnt books below are screen shots from the videos. Charred and twisted remnants of life accompanied by quotes on war and conflict. They were extremely powerful – and so relevant to Christina’s book that I had just had to include them in this post.
Alison lives high in the hills of Ceredigion and the third video followed her across the hills where she installs works she has created from the rocks of the hills.
‘The putting sculptures back to the land was work I did on the lead mines and the trauma left by them; both from the people who worked in them and what the mining did to the land. I took materials from the mine sites to make the sculptures, and I needed to give some back to the spirits of the mines! They indeed have all gone now back inside!’
Look also at the paintings that she has done in this last year, many of them featuring refugees fleeing across borders.
I very much recommend that you devote 15 minutes to looking at her work.