The New York Times
June 14, 1998
An Old Scourge of War Becomes Its Latest Crime
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
UNITED NATIONS – They strike without warning, bringing terror to an apartment in Algeria, a Chinese shop in Indonesia, a squalid refugee encampment in Africa or a Balkan farming village under siege. They are shadowy men with causes so blinding and hatreds so deep that they have transformed modern warfare into orgies of primordial savagery – raping, brutalizing, humiliating, slashing and hacking women and girls to death.
More civilians than soldiers are being maimed and killed in the wars of nationalism and ethnicity that are the hallmark of the century’s end, wars fought in neighborhoods rather than battlefields.
More to the point, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the new style of warfare is often aimed specifically at women and is defined by a view of premeditated, organized sexual assault as a tactic in terrorizing and humiliating a civilian population. In some cases the violators express a motive that seems to have more in common with the tactics of ancient marauding hordes than with the 20th century – achieving forced pregnancy and thus poisoning the womb of the enemy.
International attention first focused on the use of rape as a tactic of warfare in Bosnia, where a U.N. commission and human rights groups found that ethnic Serb paramilitary groups had systematically tolerated or encouraged the raping of Bosnian Muslim women as part of the effort to drive Muslims from their homes and villages between 1991 and 1995.
Rape was also employed by Hutu troops against Tutsi women in the genocidal campaign Hutu leaders conducted in Rwanda in 1994. Last year, women who have identified with secular culture in Algeria accused desperate rebels fighting in the name of Islamic revolution of kidnapping them and making them sex slaves.
In Indonesia, reports are surfacing that suggest members of the security forces may have been among the men who raped ethnic Chinese women during rioting last month.
And in the Balkans, Serbs are again emptying towns of a rival ethnic group – this time Albanians in Kosovo – and human rights and women’s groups are monitoring the growing violence for the possibility that rape will again be one of the techniques.
None of this is the essentially random rape that traditionally follows conquest, intolerable though that is; it is different even from forcing conquered women to be prostitutes for the victors, as Japan did in Korea during World War II.
The difference is that in all four recent cases, sexual degradation and intimidation – often public – seem to have been used as a strategy of ethnic or religious conflict itself.
This use of rape as a premeditated act of warfare is challenging anew the efforts by nations of the world to organize effectively to prevent and punish crimes against humanity, a monumental task that moves into new territory tomorrow with the opening of a treaty conference in Rome to create the world’s first international criminal court.
Largely because of the systematic use of sexual assault in ethnic wars in the Balkans and Rwanda, the court is expected to rank rape as an internationally recognized war crime for the first time in history, alongside violence against noncombatants, mistreatment of prisoners, torture and other unusual punishments.
Widney Brown, an advocate with the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, echoed other experts when she said that rape “has probably been an issue in every major conflict, but what happened in Bosnia, particularly with the creation of the rape camps, really brought it to light.”
In the Balkans, where soldiers of every faction were accused of rape, the discovery of areas where Serbian soldiers confined Bosnian Muslim women to be raped shocked many. “In Yugoslavia rape was a part of ethnic cleansing, because the message that you got was if you stayed, the men would be murdered and the women would be raped,” Ms. Brown said.
“That was followed very quickly by what happened in Rwanda, where we have similar widespread allegations of rape and mutilation,” she added. “In fact, part of the preliminary campaign that created the atmosphere that allowed the genocide to happen was the demonization of Tutsi women as oversexualized creatures who were seductresses. It’s not surprising that during the conflict they were subjected to rape, and a lot of sexual mutilation. Mutilation is another way of saying, ‘We don’t perceive of this person as a human being.’ "
For about five years now, ad hoc tribunals have been hearing allegations of war crimes, first in the Balkans and later in Rwanda, and these tribunals have already decided to consider rape a war crime in those conflicts. Since they have been serving as small-scale models for the permanent international court that is just being formed, that court is expected to follow suit.
“These tribunals were literally forced to pay attention to a series of petitions and pressures from women’s organizations demanding that rape be recognized,” said Felice Gaer, an expert on human rights and international organizations for the American Jewish Committee. Ms. Gaer said that ultimately the support of Justice Richard Goldstone, the first war crimes prosecutor for the Balkans and Rwanda, succeeded in elevating sex crimes to the level of genocide and crimes against humanity.
This was the first step taken by nations trying to tackle collectively this new scourge of war. But women are drawing up a longer list of gender-related crimes in wartime, and promise a battle to have them recognized by the International Criminal Court.
Ken Franzblau, who tracks the sexual exploitation of women for Equality Now, a New York-based organization that aids women in poor nations and immigrant women here, said rape is so widespread now because it is so effective in ethnic wars.
“It has such devastating effects on communities, particularly in traditional societies or very religious communities where the virginity and the fidelity of women can be central to the makeup of that society,” he said. Rape is a psychological grenade thrown into the middle of daily life to provoke maximum terror. “That’s why you see a fair number of these rapes committed in front of family members of the girls or women involved,” he said.
Some analysts believe that the fast pace of international communications today may be a factor in the rapid recurrence of the use of rape as a tactic of war in such widely separate parts of the world. But if that is true, it is also evident that rapid international communication has played a role in stirring international outrage about the tactic.
Over the last decade, there have been significant changes among the vulnerable women themselves. Women who were the victims of sexual abuse in the name of ethnic purity, nationalism and sometimes religious zeal have begun to speak out, often aided by human rights organizations and women’s crisis centers. For many, this has been a revolutionary change.
“Lots of women just committed suicide in the past,” said Charlotte Bunch executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers. “That’s one very clear thing that’s beginning to emerge now. In this decade, the outrage that women have been able to raise about the issue means that people are reporting it. But the truth is that there is also a backlash about women speaking out. There may be some moments before we reach a point where there is enough outrage to get the phenomenon under control.”
The phenomenon takes human form in a number of recent accounts reported by journalists. Take the story of Nawal Fathi, who was captured by militants in Algeria in 1996, made into a sex slave and raped by a score of men before being rescued by government troops. A psychiatrist who treated her said that despite a year of medical treatment, Ms. Fathi committed suicide at the age of 24 last year.
In Jakarta, aid workers were quoted last week as saying that hundreds of ethnic Chinese women had been sexually assaulted during the looting of Chinese neighborhoods, apparently by organized gangs that may have had links to security forces. “Some of the attackers said, ‘You must be raped because you are Chinese and non-Muslim,’ " one woman recalled. Again, a number of women have killed themselves rather than live in shame.
Although militants in Algeria and roving gangs of rapists in Indonesia are Muslims, the phenomenon is probably not related to religion, though radical religious views may provide justification to an elemental misogyny.
The Taliban movement in Afghanistan, for example, has repressed women but its holy warriors have not abused them sexually, as their predecessors in the Mujahedeen armies were frequently accused of doing, Afghan women say.
Roman Catholics butchered other Roman Catholics in Rwanda and Burundi. Sex slaves are also a hallmark of the vaguely evangelical Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Burmese troops in Myanmar, a Buddhist country, are accused in a new report from the human-rights group Earthrights of using rape as a weapon against women from 20 or more ethnic minorities or student groups that oppose the military regime.
Because women displaced by ethnic warfare or other forms of mass violence are often not safe even in refugee camps – or arrive there pregnant through rape – United Nations relief agencies and some private groups have begun to offer gynecological services and the “morning after” pill, which prevents conception.
Although this practice has been sharply criticized by anti-abortion groups in the United States, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, and others have continued to provide help to abused women.
At Equality Now, Franzblau said the kind of sexual abuse that took place in Bosnia, where Serb rapes of Muslim women were numerous and intense personal hatred was directed at neighbors, not some distant stranger at an enemy gun emplacement, makes the impact much worse and stokes the fires for the next round of strife.
“That’s why it is going to be very difficult to reconcile these communities,” he said. “How can you move families back to homes where a mother or daughter or sister was raped by a next-door neighbor?”