A new book by foreign affairs journalist Christina Lamb asserts a shameful truth: that rape is a rule not an exception of war but is the one least spoken of

On 12 February 1942, just days before the Imperial Japanese Army forced the surrender of British Allied Forces in Singapore, the yacht Vyner Brooke set sail for Sumatra, Indonesia, with hundreds of British military service personnel and 65 Australian nurses, on board.

Hours later, the ship was bombed and sunk by Japanese warplanes, with only 22 nurses and 25 soldiers making their way to a beach on Banka Island, Sumatra, where they were soon after rounded up by Japanese soldiers, who split the men and women into two groups before machine-gunning them down, leaving only one survivor: the Australian nurse Vivian Bullwinkel, who was later recaptured and detained as a prisoner of war until the war’s end.

“I was towards the end of the line and the bullet that hit me struck me at the waist and just went straight through,” Bullwinkel later told investigators with the War Crimes Board.

For almost a full 75 years, this was the official account of the Banka Island massacre, given that Bullwinkel was “gagged” by the Australian Government from speaking at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Last year, however, military historian Lynette Silver collated evidence proving that, not only were the nurses raped by the Japanese soldiers beforehand, but that the Australian Government deliberately concealed their sexual assault from the public and investigators, out of fear it would shame the Government for not mobilising their withdrawal from Singapore earlier.

It serves as another reminder of how women remain the most invisible victims of war, and rape the most neglected of all war crimes.

In her newly published book Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women, Christina Lamb, a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times, argues that rape against women is one of the most common crimes of war, but it is not only the one least talked and written about, but also the one least prosecuted.

“War rape was met with tacit acceptance and committed with impunity, military and political leaders shrugging it off as a sideshow,” writes Lamb. “Or it was denied to have ever happened.”

Despite the fact that rape has been a war crime since 1919, and despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Russian women were raped by German soldiers and hundreds of thousands of German women were raped by Russian soldiers, and that rape has been a central component of dozens of campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing ever since, it wasn’t until 1998 that the first ever prosecution of rape as a war crime occurred, when Jean-Paul Akayesu was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for his knowledge of rape and other crimes.

As noted by Lamb, the International Criminal Court has secured only a single conviction for rape since its creation by the United Nations in 2002.

Selective Knowledge of Perpetrators

In the 2015 award winning documentary The Uncondemned, which narrates the trial and conviction of Akayesu, its director Michelle Mitchell says that rape “happens in every conflict around the world, with all religions, and it’s almost never taken as seriously as other crimes”.

“In the years after his precedent-setting case, international tribunals showed greater resolve in recognising war-time rapes, such as in the tribunals that held Serbs accountable for their treatment of Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia,” Mitchell told PBS in 2016.

But the 90 convictions handed down by the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where Serbian forces used rape as an instrument of terror designed to achieve ethnic cleansing, does not come close to the number of women who were raped. It is, as Lamb describes, a “fraction considering the tribunal received reports of more than 20,000 rapes”.

Rape is not the exception, but a rule of war. When it is discussed in the context of armed conflict, it is always in reference to their crimes, and not our own. For instance, the American public is acutely aware of the mass rapes carried out by the self-declared Islamic State against Yazhidi women, but are largely ignorant of the mass rapes carried out by US soldiers in Vietnam.

“You’re not likely to encounter the story of the rape of a Vietnamese woman by Americans in the ‘literature’,” writes a US Vietnam War veteran in Kill Anything That Moves. “And yet the sexual assault of civilians by GIs was far from uncommon, even if you can read thousands of books on the Vietnam War and have little inkling that it ever happened… War is also about rape, even male-on-male rape, even GI-on-GI rape. Just how many such rapes occurred, we’ll never know, because such acts were and generally still are kept secret.”

More recently, the Washington Post obtained a video showing US military personnel raping young boys in front of their mothers, and then afterwards the mothers, at Abu Grahib prison. The video remains unpublished, but it was seen by veteran journalist Seymour Hirsch, who gave the following depiction in a 2014 speech:

“The women were passing messages out saying ‘please come and kill me, because of what’s happened’ and basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomised with the cameras rolling. And the worst above all of that is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking that your Government has. They are in total terror.”

With armed conflicts raging and emerging across the world, and with campaigns of ethnic cleansing ongoing in Myanmar, China, Syria and Kashmir, Lamb’s newly-published book serves as a timely reminder that the international community must treat rape in war-time with the seriousness it deserves.

We can no longer afford to continue writing women out of the history of war.


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