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The brave and the blameless: women survivors of war-time rape

Serbia and Montenegro
woman in shadow

Quinn Dombrowski under a Creative Commons Licence

One night, when Anisa* was 14 years old, she was dragged from her bed by six soldiers and taken at gunpoint to the field which backed on to her small house. It was 1971 in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the bitter and bloody war for independence from Pakistan raged on. That night, she was gang-raped by the soldiers who had just killed her parents. ‘I was so scared,’ she says. ‘It hurt terribly at first but then I became wooden. I don’t remember how many times they raped me; after a while I didn’t feel or think anything. There was no-one to hear me scream.’

Now in her mid-fifties, Anisa is one of an estimated 200,000 Bangladeshi women who were raped by state-backed Pakistani troops during the war.

Her experience is not unique, according to the charity Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) – it is being repeated in war zones throughout the world today. MSF is now delivering medical aid to sexual assault survivors in conflicts across the globe, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Darfur.

‘Sexual violence during war can have several objectives,’ says Françoise Duroch, MSF’s expert on violence. ‘Rape can be used as a weapon, meaning it is carried out with martial reasoning and used for political ends. It can be used to reward soldiers, or remunerate them, to motivate the troops. It can also be used as a means of torture, sometimes to humiliate the men of a certain community. Systematic rape can be used to force a population to move. Rape can also be used as a biological weapon to deliberately transmit the HIV/AIDS virus. In war, we also find the phenomenon of sexual exploitation, forced prostitution or even sexual slavery.’

Strategic weapon

This week, London will host The Global Summit To End Sexual Violence In Conflict. The four-day long summit, hosted by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Special Envoy For The UK High Commissioner For Refugees, Angelina Jolie, is the largest gathering ever brought together on the subject. The message is clear: rape and sexual assault of women and children in conflict is not an opportunistic ‘spoil of war’ – rather, it is a used as a strategic weapon by invading military, and the international community must work together to hold those responsible to account.

Though sexual violence in armed conflict is recognized as a war crime by the United Nations, the organizers of the Summit say that to force change, more work must be done to raise awareness of its impact on communities, families and individuals.

British Bosnian charity Remembering Srebrenica says rape was used as part of a strategy of ethnic cleansing during the conflict in the 1990s. It estimates that somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 women were assaulted by invading soldiers during the war, with the aim of impregnating Muslim women with Serbian babies. To date, only seven soldiers have faced trial over these charges.

Meldisa* was 17 when she was kidnapped from the streets of Sarajevo before being raped and impregnated by Serb soldiers. During her four months in captivity, she was burned with cigarette butts, beaten and spat on. She was raped ‘countless’ times, often at knifepoint. She says her attackers told her that ‘there are too many Muslims here, you will have a Serb child’. When the soldiers grew bored of her, she was taken to Tuzla and dumped in the street. She had a late abortion there.

‘Healing cannot happen without acknowledgement. Now in Bangladesh, the women who suffered and survived the pain and humiliation of rape during the battle for independence are brave enough to speak out about what happened to them’

Reporting rape in non-conflict zones is challenging enough for the victim – often the social stigma or legal infrastructure makes speaking out impossible – but in the chaos of a war zone there is seldom anyone to tell.

London-based writer and actor Leesa Gazi is working hard to change this, collating the experiences of women raped by soldiers during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence from Pakistan. The women’s stories have been put together for a new production by her theatre group, Komola Collective. The play is entitled ‘Birangona: Women Of War’. Birangona means ‘the brave and blameless’.

Gazi says recording the experiences of these women is a vital part of Bangladesh’s short but bloody history – and confronting the harsh reality of what happened to them is part of the healing process.

‘There is hope,’ she says. ‘Healing cannot happen without acknowledgement. Now in Bangladesh, the women who suffered and survived the pain and humiliation of rape during the battle for independence are brave enough to speak out about what happened to them. They want the world to know our history and they want justice for the war crimes committed against them. I hope this week’s summit in London achieves its aims because the terrible legacy of rape in conflict goes on a long time after the war itself ends.’

*name has been changed.
Subi Shah is a journalist and documentary film producer based in London. She has worked in Srebrenica, Tuzla, Dhaka, Mumbai, Northern Ireland and Los Angeles.


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