Their suffering and desperation was so great that they begged them to kill them, to end their pain once and for all… but the men who had been raping them replied, “No, we’re going to leave you alive so you can die of sadness.”
This is the harrowing story told in the documentary “The Uncondemned” of the first time genocide, rape and sexual violence were prosecuted in an international tribunal. But this isn’t just a story of sadness and grief; it’s also a story of hope and healing. It is a story about the three brave survivors and witnesses who testified at the tribunal, identified then only as JJ, NN and OO.
Co-director Michele Mitchell said: “In the face of enormous tragedy and pain, the fact that three of them were laughing about the plane journey shows their great resilience and demonstrates how they had kept their humanity.” I was privileged to watch this amazing documentary when it was screening in New York City. I left the theater with a heavy heart, but also feeling extremely encouraged and motivated not only by the strength and resilience of the survivors, but also by the young lawyers and activists who made this historical trial a reality, bringing justice and at least some healing for these victims.
While researching for a graduate school project on sexual violence in conflict, I came across a paper that talks about rape as “speaking the unspeakable.” Indeed, talking about rape is speaking the unspeakable, especially the rape and sexual violence that happens during times of conflict and war. For a long time, it was believed that rape and other forms of sexual violence were an inevitable consequence of times of conflict and war, and not considered a serious crime of itself. However, today most scholars and activists agree that rape and sexual violence can be used as a weapon of war, and are considered a serious, prosecutable, and avoidable issue.
One of the brave witnesses and survivors who told her story in the film. Photo: IndieWire
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established by the UN Security Council with the goal to “prosecute persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda and neighbouring States, between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994”. After the ICTR, the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) and most recently the ICC (International Criminal Court), have joined in having successfully prosecuting rape as a war crime, crime against humanity, and genocide.
On March 22nd, 2016, the ICC issued its first conviction of rape as a war crime. Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice-president of Congo, was found “guilty on five charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including rape, murder and pillage, committed in 2002-2003 in neighbouring Central African Republic,” according to the United Nations. The significance of high-profile personnel being convicted of such crimes – Bemba in Congo and Akayesu (who was a mayor) in Rwanda – is to show that a person is not exempt from prosecution because of his or hers position of authority, and does not need to be the one committing the crime themselves, but if they have authority over those committing these crimes, they can be found equally responsible.
Sexual violence has severe consequences not only for the victims, but also for their families and communities. An article by the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) explains: “sexual violence can result in severe physical and psychological trauma, HIV infection and, occasionally, in death. In addition, victims often face double victimization: not only sustaining potentially dangerous and long-lasting injuries and trauma, but also facing stigmatization and rejection by their families and communities”.
Most recently, the world has become aware of the reality of sexual violence in conflict thought the reports coming from Syria of women suffering sexual violence not only from ISIS but also anti-government rebels as well as government officials if they had been jailed. Women in the World has reported this ordeal: “Per The Daily Beast, according to Othman and other reports amid the chaos unfolding in the besieged city, sexual violence has been so prevalent it’s forcing women into an unthinkable choice. This morning 20 women committed suicide in order not to be raped,” Othman said. According to NBC News, “suicide is quickly becoming a preference to a violent death or capture by Assad’s troops.”
Talking about rape and sexual violence is indeed “speaking the unspeakable”, but it must be done. To talk about this serious issue is to find solutions, ways of preventing it, and to bring healing and hope for victims. Here’s an example: UN Women has supported a project that helps providing job opportunities for survivors of sexual violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina – “While prosecution of perpetrators and access to justice for survivors is paramount to ending impunity, affordable and appropriate services, such as free legal advice, health care and economic opportunities for survivors, are critical for preventing re-occurrence and rebuilding lives.”.
For more information on sexual violence in conflict, see the Women Under Siege project.
Featured photo: The Uncondemned