Lamb writes about her discomfort at seeing statues of military heroes in stations and town squares and the names of those who fought in battle in history books. Yet those who have suffered most have done so in silence – unmentioned, glossed over and ignored. Our Bodies, Their Battlefield provides a corrective that is by turns horrific and profoundly moving. Lamb, the chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Times whom I have known and admired for years, is an extraordinary writer. Her compassion for those she talks to and deep understanding of how to tell their stories makes this a book that should be required reading for all – even though (and perhaps because) it is not an enjoyable experience.
Our Bodies, Their Battlefields then goes on to prove – by evidence – that shocking brutality against women in war is widespread, worsening and worth doing something about. Worryingly, Lamb observes that the violence she has witnessed in the past five years eclipses what she saw in the previous three decades of her career. Lamb is a gifted writer and shares moving descriptions of places she visits, vivid pen portraits of the people she meets, and deft observations of the often-surreal quality of life in war zones.
Rape, Lamb writes, is the only crime in which society is more likely to stigmatise the victim than punish the perpetrator. There are some glimmers of light in this appalling story. The brave Tutsi rape victims who did dare to speak out, helped to bring the first conviction for rape as a war crime ever: in 1998 Rwandan Mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, was sentenced to life imprisonment for atrocities against the Tutsi ethnic group, including rape.
Throughout Our Bodies, Their Battlefield, it’s noticeable that Lamb lets interviewees speak for themselves. She includes pages of direct quotes during almost every story. In a book aimed at elevating the voices of women, it’s an effective and powerful touch. Many of the interviewees have long been isolated for years or decades because of what they went through, but they speak openly to her. The mass of testimonies feels like a display of strength. “The longer I have done this job, the more disquieted I have become, not just at the horrors I have seen,” Lamb writes. “Even now, histories of these conflicts are mostly told by men. Men writing about men. And then sometimes women writing about men . . . It’s time to stop only telling half the story.”
This retelling of some of the world’s worst wars highlights a dark seam of human history suppressed by shame, impunity and the unwillingness of so many even to listen to horrific accounts of systemic mass rape. Even more, there is a shocking failure to do enough to stop it – to this day. “The more I read, researched and talked to women, the more I wondered about everything I had learned in history,” the Sunday Times chief foreign correspondent Christina Lamb writes as she takes readers on her own journey, looking back to ancient times and crossing four continents, to revisit atrocities.
Meticulously researched and carefully written, Our Bodies Their Battlefield is almost unbearably difficult to read, which is exactly as it should be. Showing admirable patience and empathy, Lamb visits Yazidi women who were traded on internet forums and Nigerian mothers whose daughters were kidnapped by Boko Haram. She listens to Rohingya women who were gang-raped by Burmese soldiers, and Bangladeshi women attacked by Pakistanis during the war of 1971.
Lamb’s book should certainly provoke much debate and I hope it will also clarify some thinking. Perhaps the phrase ‘rape as a weapon of war’ has become too much of a standard term. In many cases it is correct, although a more accurate version would be ‘a weapon of terror in conflict and ethnic cleansing’. Yet much depends on whether the ‘weapon’ is a deliberate military policy. It certainly was with the Pakistani Army in Bangladesh, Franco’s Army of Africa, the Japanese Army and the Myanmar Army, along with all the other acts of ethnic cleansing.
Lamb doesn’t dwell on the psychology of the silence over rape, preferring to stay with the raw evidence of survivors. Distressing as this is to read, it must have been far more so for her to record and write. Against which discomfort we must, all of us, balance the fate of the victims. Humiliated, degraded, outcast, many were left with gynaecological damage and profound trauma. In Bosnia, women found the stress caused hormones to rise to abnormal levels and their reproductive cycles stopped permanently. Like a chemical weapons attack, sexual violence brings immediate harm and long-term harm.
At times, Lamb worries that she is being intrusive, but she is also careful not to be credulous. An experienced journalist, she can tell when something doesn’t smell right – one Rohingya woman in a camp in Bangladesh has a long story that doesn’t add up. In the age of #MeToo, the impetus is to believe women and on the whole, she – quite rightly – does, while never losing her journalistic rigour. The litany of pain she recounts is all too believeable. I know because I have heard it too.