Rape as a weapon of modern warfare

Bosnia highlights the growing use of sexual abuse as military strategy. By Caroline Moorehead
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The Independent Online
"WOMEN shall be especially protected ... against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault," says the Geneva Convention. Yet in almost every modern conflict, rape is seen as a legitimate spoil of war, and has become a recognised component of military strategy. From Somalia to the Balkans, from Rwanda to Colombia, soldiers have been encouraged to become rapists.

Surprisingly little attention was paid to rape during modern wars before reporters returning from Bosnia-Herzegovina revealed that the number of women being raped - in detention centres, refugee camps, prisons or even their homes - had reached tens of thousands. Last month, as first Srebrenica and then Zepa fell to the Serbs, survivors told in graphic detail of further atrocities. Meanwhile General Ratko Mladic appeared on television asking terrified refugees "Has anyone here been raped?" indicating to reporters that the stunned silence corroborated the Serb claim that such tales are, and have always been, a UN fiction.

A European Community report in January 1993 supported the allegations that Serbian troops had raped thousands of Muslim women and girls interned in more than 100 Nazi-style concentration camps. Most were raped as part of a deliberate strategy to force non-Serbs to leave their homes, the report said. One 17-year-old Muslim girl, whose story is told in Amnesty International's Human Rights are Women's Right, was taken from her village to a hut in the woods in the early summer of 1992. She was held there, together with 23 other young women, for three months. During that time she was repeatedly raped. "Rape," the UN special rapporteur on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia concluded recently, "was ... used as an instrument of ethnic cleansing ... designed to terrorise the population and force ethnic groups to flee." In Novi Grad, in June 1992, four Serbian women accused by their Croatian neighbours of giving shelter to Serbian fighters, were turned over to 15 men belonging to a group known as the Fire Horses. For five hours, the women were gang-raped.

It is not only during war that rape is considered an excellent tactic for control and repression, for the threat of rape, for many women, is the ultimate terror. Gurbetelli Erroz, 29-year-old editor of Ozgur Gundem, a paper started in south-east Turkey to present the Kurdish cause sympathetically, has been repeatedly arrested for her supposed links with the banned Kurdish Workers Party. During one two-week period in detention, she was kept naked and continuously tortured. But it was not until she was threatened with rape that she signed a "confession". Rape, she said later, was for her the final and unacceptable torture.

In Pakistan, human rights activists have told Amnesty International that they estimate that 83 per cent of the women taken into custody are subjected to sexual abuse. Because to report rape can so easily turn into an accusation against the woman of illicit sexual intercourse, few women are willing to register complaints, particularly when the rape has been carried out by policemen or powerful local men. In October 1992, a young girl called Parveen from a village near Lahore in the province of Punjab was kidnapped and raped by four prominent local men. She was rescued, but the four men had her rescuers arrested and filed criminal cases against them. The girl's father, who refused to be silenced on the matter, was shot dead.

The growing world population of refugees has brought in its wake endless stories of rape. After some 300,000 Somalis crossed into Kenya in 1991 and 1992, many were raped in the camps in which they had sought shelter. There are reports of girls as young as four being raped. Elsewhere in Africa, a refugee woman escaping from the Mengistu government in Ethiopia was stopped by two men. She was five months pregnant. Describing the incident, she said: "One pulled me aside and said, 'No safe passage before sex!'... He forced me down, kicked me in the stomach and raped me in front of my children."

In many parts of the world, women are now at constant risk from the security forces, simply because they are women. In Making Women Talk, Teresa Thornhill (a lawyer working with Palestinian women) has described the treatment of a number of Palestinian women and girls picked up in the late 1980s in Israel and held as "security detainees". Under the Israeli military judicial system, investigations are almost always limited to interrogation with the aim of obtaining a confession. Most of the questioning is done by members of Shin Bet, the internal intelligence agency which, unlike the police, is not publicly accountable.

Women who emerged after many weeks of solitary confinement talked of being deprived of sleep, food and even water, of being locked into boxes one metre square, of having revolting smelling hoods pulled down over their heads, and of being slapped and kicked. Then, after having been weakened by days of misery, they told of being tormented about the safety of their children, called "whore" and threatened with sexual torture. For an Arab woman, sexual humiliation is shameful both for her and her male relatives; men in traditional Palestinian society are seen as the guardians of female honour.

The Declaration of the UN World Conference at Vienna in 1993 stated that "The human rights of women and the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights". They are fine- sounding words, but it is hard to forget that, in many places, the lives of women still come cheap.

The above is an edited extract of an article in 'Index on Censorship', available from bookshops or by telephoning 0171-278 2313. The author is a writer and filmmaker specialising in human rights.