“I Wish I Had an Eraser” - The Trauma of Giving Accounts of Wartime Sexual Violence

Still from
'Mission Rape: A Tool of War'
Ella Hardy
June 7, 2022

Dalal, a Yazidi woman who was held in Islamic State (IS) captivity for months, visits her destroyed home in Hardan and breaks down, sobbing; "Oh my God," she says, "I don't want to see Iraq again."

Bardis, a Yemeni poet and activist forced to flee her home due to Houthi persecution, tearfully explains how Houthi rebels violently arrested her; “They broke me in front of my children. And they broke my children in front of me.”

Nabintu Honoratte, wife to a Congolese army captain, sits, washing boots and talking about how her husband had changed after he returned from war; “...I had to pay for something I hadn’t done. The war seemed to be my fault.”

Bakira Hasecic, president of the association of ‘Women Victims of War’ in Sarajevo describes how a soldier raped her eldest daughter during the Balkan War; “My screams could be heard miles away,” she cries.

In each of these four conflicts,  sexual violence has been used as a tool of war, and women experience severe trauma as a result of the acts committed against them.

Whether it is the trauma of retelling their experiences, the trauma of facing their captors or the triggering of traumatic memories in everyday life, sexual violence in war has a debilitating and lasting impact on women.

Months, years, even decades: voicing traumatic experiences

Dr. Jan Kizilhan, a psychologist and trauma specialist based in Germany, has been helping Yazidi women in Baden-Württemberg since 2016. Kizilhan, who is himself a member of the Yazidi community, explains how female victims of wartime sexual violence must confront their trauma in order to start the healing process. However: “If you go too fast and talk too much about this trauma event you will retraumatize these persons,” he explains, “and it’s individual, some need 3 months, some need maybe 8 months.” The two women featured in the documentary I was a Yazidi Slave’, Dalal and Lewiza, have different reactions to Kizilhan’s treatment programme. While Dalal wants to voice her experiences openly, Kizilhan says, Lewiza’s confidence grows when she is reunited with some of her family members.

For many women, it can take years to voice their experiences, if they talk about them at all. Zlatka, a victim of rape during the Balkan War, comes forward in the film Mission Rape: A tool of War’, after nearly two decades of staying silent. At that time the threat of retaliation loomed large in her mind, as her perpetrators had told her; “If you tell anybody about this, we’ll come back and kill you.” Bakira explains; “although it’s been many years since the war you can never tell when a woman decides to break her silence.” Amela, Bakira’s daughter and office assistant at 'Women Victims of War', describes the association headquarters as a horrific time capsule; “the moment you open the door to this place, you’re back in 1992-95. We are not in the present. Unfortunately.” Pictures and profiles of war criminals, maps, and awards honoring Bakira line the crowded office.

While some women slowly grow more comfortable retelling their experiences, others cannot bear to relive their trauma. An unnamed Congolese woman featured in the documentary Soldiers Who Rape’ starts telling the interviewer how she was raped while washing clothes, then stops abruptly; “I don’t want to say the rest because I don’t want to think about it.” The woman later agrees to meet with her rapist, a former rebel soldier; “I’m ready to talk, but not about what happened,” she says, “I don’t want to remember it and feel it all over again. Otherwise I’ll think of it too much.” 

In the film Detained Under Houthis’, former Yemeni prison guard Fawzia describes how her two daughters were left traumatized by their arrest under Houthi rule. “They became introverts, in an unimaginable way. They don’t like to speak to people and they hate gatherings. They refuse to go down to the store.” A woman, who has chosen to remain anonymous over continued concerns for her safety, tells us that she was nearly driven to suicide and now takes sleeping pills. Though she is being treated by a psychologist she expresses an enormous feeling of loss; “I lost my husband. I lost my family, I lost my dignity. I lost so much and it wasn’t my fault.” 

Treating women who have experienced trauma with dignity and respect

Christina Lamb, a journalist who has written a book based on the testimonies of victims of wartime sexual violence, has balanced the issues of re-traumatisation and doing justice to the victims by publicizing their harrowing accounts; “...When I was doing the book I didn’t go to communities and say, 'Has anyone here been raped and speaks English?' Which a British journalist is supposed to have said to a group of nuns in the Belgian Congo years ago.” Lamb explains that she only spoke to victims that had already volunteered their accounts to psychologists or groups working with trauma.

You can watch our interview with Christina Lamb here.

In order to avoid callous handling of victims, Lamb and other journalists have created a set of guidelines for covering Conflict Related Sexual Violence (CRSV). They include assessing fully informed consent, the safety of the source and allowing survivors to speak on their own terms and, crucially, “in their own time”. Lamb cautions journalists on speaking to victims of CRSV without recognizing the potential for re-traumatisation; “We’re often the first people that they meet. If they’re fleeing from a village that’s been taken or crossing a border we’re the ones there with our notebooks or cameras saying ‘hey what happened to you’ and we’re not trained on how to deal with people that have gone through such severe trauma.” 

The treatment of deeply traumatized people is also important to consider for government officials accepting refugees from conflict zones. Lewiza, a Yazidi woman who fled to Germany describes her arrival in the state of Baden-Württemberg; “When I landed in Germany they split us up. When IS had come they’d also taken us at night and put us in separate rooms. That’s why I was so scared.” It took several days before she realized that nothing bad was going to happen to her. 

“As a victim I feel that they would have liked us all to die in one night. So that everything could be swept under the carpet,” Bakira says with a pained anger, she is speaking about the Bosnian government, which has failed to give victims of war rape compensation for their ordeals. NGO lawyer Anita Ramulic points out that; “The law allows for a small subsidy. But it’s only a balm on their deep wounds.” The victim she is trying to help, Zlatka, has been incapacitated by her trauma, and is unable to work. Her husband explains that without the help of NGOs, Zlatka would not receive support. 

“I will make myself strong to face what the future brings”

Through various coping mechanisms, psychotherapy and support from their communities or local organizations, women depicted in the four documentaries have been able to resume some aspects of their normal lives. Some, like Fawzia, have turned some of the pain into a determination to face the future. 

“The Fawzia that you tried to kill, the one you tried to end, is still here. I will stand up to you, and stand up to anyone who acts as the enemy of Yemen and its women,” Fawzia says, as she stares defiantly into the camera, “we are the women that you thought you had destroyed.” 

Many women argue that justice for the crimes committed against them is the only avenue to relief. “We raise our voices every day for rape and sexual abuse to be prioritized in the prosecution of war criminals,” Bakira says, her daughter Amela agreeing; “You may be partly satisfied if the perpetrator is punished.” 

Rape as a war crime is notoriously underprosecuted, a fact that angers journalists like Christina Lamb and often crushes the hopes of victims. Without justice, they are left to feel unheard, and ‘not guilty’ verdicts can re-traumatise victims. “The greatest pain we carry is the lack of justice for without justice we’ll never gain any self-esteem and peace in our souls,” argues Bakira.

For Dalal, the lack of action taken by the international community against the IS fighters who forced her into sexual slavery is baffling; “Even now I don’t understand. Why is IS not being taken to court? Why are they not putting them in prison? Why have they not been sentenced?” With the volume of testimonies demonstrated throughout the four films, the answer cannot be a lack of information. 

“We’re human beings too”: fighting for justice

Christina Lamb acknowledges that justice can mean different things for different people but says that “the most heartbreaking thing to me is not just the terrible things that the women and girls have suffered but the fact that afterwards they are often made to feel that they did something wrong. Rape is the one crime where the victim is made to feel shame.” 

Shame is a crushing weight on victims of sexual violence in conflict, ostracizing them for their communities and re-victimizing them. The Congolese woman who meets with her perpetrator tells him that “People know I was raped. My fiance left me because he wouldn’t marry someone who’d lost her virginity. You have destroyed my life.” The trauma of wartime rape goes beyond the physical and psychological trauma of the rape itself, it translates into a deep sense of alienation.

The taboo of sexual violence forces women to hide their trauma from friends and family. A woman named Alma calls Bakira’s association; “I can’t tell my husband about it…Please help me,” she begs. Dalal, who is proud of voicing her experiences to Dr. Kizilhan, still feels shame when addressing her trauma within her family; “I don’t know whether my dad knows that I was raped. I want him to hold his head high and be proud of his daughter. I want my dad to accept me because I care so much for him. I would tell him but I know his wounds are deep.” 

Access to justice can help women victims achieve recognition for deeply traumatic incidences of sexual violence and combat feelings of guilt or shame. Some women may want justice through international courts, community reconciliation or local justice mechanisms. Others may seek acknowledgement from those responsible for their crimes or reparations and financial support. The word ‘justice’ holds different meaning for every woman that has been a victim of sexual violence, making it even more important to listen to victims when they demand accountability. 

After speaking to her rapist, the unnamed woman in Soldiers Who Rape’ is asked if she is relieved; “It went well” she says, holding the perpetrator’s gift of an grey piglet “I’m very pleased that he realizes we’re human beings too.”

The four films mentioned in the article are part of The Why Foundation’s Campaign ‘What Happens to Women in War?’ You can watch all four films for free on our YouTube channel.

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