Christina Lamb first met the Yazidi survivors of ISIS in August 2016 in a derelict mental asylum on the Greek island of Leros, which the European Union had declared a “hotspot” in the refugee crisis. It was there that she heard stories from young women who had been bought and sold, raped and traded dozens of times over by ISIS fighters intent on exterminating their people. Their experiences, she says, were worse than anything she had heard in more than three decades of working as a foreign correspondent.
It was an unexpected invitation to a wedding in Pakistan in 1987 that led to Lamb becoming a “war correspondent by accident.” She joinedThe Sunday Times in the U.K. as a foreign correspondent in 1994 , reporting everywhere from South Africa to Syria. In 2013, she was awarded an OBE by the Queen for services to journalism. Lamb’s latest book, Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women, draws on her lifelong interest in telling the underreported stories of women, particularly in the male-dominated world of foreign correspondent journalism. Lamb spent years in Afghanistan, covering the Soviet-Afghan War and the U.S. invasion, detailed in her 2015 book Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan To A More Dangerous World. “So many people were trying to still have as normal a life as possible: getting married, looking after children, looking after the elderly — and the majority of people doing that were women,” Lamb says. “To me, that was equally, or more interesting, than the men doing the fighting.”
In her new book, Lamb goes further to explore the hidden costs of war on women. The U.N. estimates that for every one rape reported in connection with a conflict, a further 10 to 20 cases go undocumented. (It is difficult to collect accurate data on rape in wartime due to the stigma around sexual violence and the instability of police and authorities during crises.) In countries including Burundi, Colombia and South Sudan, the U.N. found that gender-based violence had increased significantly in a 2019 report; reporting rates in Yemen increased by as much as 70% in some areas in 2018.
Our Bodies, Their Battlefields spans several different countries and instances where rape has been used as a weapon of war and conflict, whether it’s in the case of Yazidi women imprisoned by ISIS, or the Chibok schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, or the Rohingya women fleeing genocide in Myanmar. With each of these cases, Lamb interviews survivors of atrocities, dedicating space to their harrowing individual stories in their own voices. She speaks to doctors, experts, lawyers and ordinary people, all pursuing justice for crimes that have for too long and too often gone unpunished. TIME spoke to Lamb about her experience of foreign reporting, survivors’ pursuit of justice, and what gives her faith in humanity.
TIME: Histories and contemporary reporting on conflict is usually dominated by white men. What gets lost when we only have one set of voices telling these stories?
Lamb: It gives a really distorted picture of what is going on. War isn’t just the fighting, it is people trying to keep their lives together when all hell is breaking loose around them. I think that’s more interesting to me than the actual “bang bang.” When I started, there was no Internet, no mobiles and I never saw the papers that I was writing for. I didn’t have much sense of what other people were covering. I would say in more recent years, I realized that there were not so many women reporting these things and that I had a responsibility to tell those stories.
Why do you think that you have witnessed more brutality against women in recent years compared to the rest of your career?
Unfortunately it’s very easy to use rape or sexual violence as a weapon of war. It’s very effective, and it’s very cheap: it doesn’t cost anything. In the last few years, I’ve just seen much more horrific brutality against women than I had seen in all the previous years and decades I had been reporting. That seemed really odd to me, that in the 21st century, this is a war crime and yet it seems to be happening more and more. It was the Yazidis that really impacted me, because those girls had been taken very young, and had been traded in latter day slave markets with ISIS fighters who had come and chosen them.
At the same time, the Chibok girls were kidnapped from a school and that became a big story, but actually when you went to northern Nigeria and investigated, you found that actually tens of thousands of girls were being abducted by Boko Haram and kept as so called “bush wives” and, again, rapes and terrible things were happening to them. And then, in 2017, the Rohingya women coming from Burma into Bangladesh; I went there and met them and heard their stories of how they were tied to banana trees and gang raped by Burmese soldiers. So these things seemed to be one after another. It made me very upset, very angry, and also baffled, because it wasn’t as though people didn’t know. We were all reporting this, and yet it didn’t seem to make any difference. That’s why I wrote the book because I thought that somebody needs to document just how wide scale it is and ask: Why is it still happening? Why is it so difficult for people to get justice?
You write that “women have long been seen as spoils of war.” What has been the historic attitude towards rape in conflict, and are these attitudes are changing?
Some people will say, “well, there’s always been rape and war and always will be.” In some senses, that’s true: in a war, normal laws don’t apply anymore. But the recent cases that I was looking at were deliberate. Rape was actually deliberately used as a weapon. In the case of ISIS ideologically, people were ordered or told that the Yazidis were devil worshippers and that they should be raped and kept as slaves. In each of these cases, there were specific orders to do this. That’s quite different in a way than people just taking advantage of the chaos.
Our Bodies, Their Battlefields features voices of survivors of atrocities from all different parts of the world, who endured trauma under different circumstances and at different points in time. On the individual level, were there any commonalities between their experiences?
I talked to women from so many different countries, and although they had gone through different experiences, the most important thing said they wanted justice. That meant different things to different people. For some people it meant acknowledgement of what happened to them. Others wanted the person brought to justice and locked up, and make sure that he’s never able to do it again. Many of them said that they would rather have died, because what happened to them was so awful. That’s really terribly sad.
Where people have found things that help the women to start new life, often those are the same things. What happened to women in Srebrenica was 25 years ago, and yet they discovered that working with horticulture and growing roses was very therapeutic. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the women I was talking to said that it’s helpful for women to grow things. It feels like people are trying different things and coming to the same conclusion. But there’s not enough communication. There’s a lot of people in different countries going through this.Simon & Schuster
From your experience, are there any cases that give you hope that there can be an end to rapists’ impunity?
When you go back through history and look at even recent history in the Second World War, it’s very shocking because there was no justice. There was no justice for the so-called “comfort women” kept by the Japanese army, or the more than a million German women raped by the Soviet Army during World War Two. And yet people look at the Nuremberg trials as an example of international justice, and that really brings home that at the end of wars, people often don’t think about the women. They just think about the end of the crisis, and that goes to the whole issue that there’s not enough women in peace negotiations.
But there have been some positive cases. I was surprised that the first place to ever get rape prosecuted as a war crime was in Rwanda in 1998, where a group of women managed to get prosecution of the mayor of a small town called Taba. Five really brave women went and testified about what happened to them at risk to their life, and they managed to get a historic conviction in international law. I went to meet those women and they feel very shocked that years on, there are still women like the Yazidis and the Rohingya, and all these other many cases around the world, because they thought that what they had done would stop this. What they did was important, it set a precedent in international law and it has made a difference, but it didn’t stop it.
There have been a number of successes in different places, in recent years: Guatemala, Colombia, Chad. But each time it’s been where the woman or women involved have been incredibly courageous, and incredibly persistent. There isn’t any institutional change, or major international movement to try and help these women. That’s what we need to be doing. It’s not enough that you occasionally get a success because somebody fought endlessly.
You mention in the book one example of a Rohingya refugee woman living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, who had been raped. A queue of journalists were lining up to hear her story. What would you say about the ethical responsibility of foreign correspondents when covering crises like those you have covered?
This is a really important issue. We’re not trained as psychologists or trauma specialists, but very often, we’re the first people to speak to victims or survivors of terrible things. A good example is the Rohingya. They’re fleeing into Bangladesh, and we’re all there taking notes on all these terrible atrocities. I think it’s actually really important that there is some training for journalists, because the last thing you want to do to these people is re-traumatize them. They’ve already been through the worst possible thing that could happen to them.
Is there a responsibility for readers, too, when reading these stories?
I’ve written a book which is difficult to read. But just because these stories are uncomfortable doesn’t mean that we should ignore them. They have been ignored for too long. I felt frustrated as a journalist that I couldn’t get these things into the newspapers. I do feel really strongly that things may not be nice to read about but things won’t change if we don’t read about them and make a difference.
Many of the experiences shared with you in the book are traumatic, and we know from studies, even studies that have focused on COVID-19, that there is a psychological toll of covering trauma on journalists. What has the impact been like for you?
Listening to these stories is really difficult, but all the time, we’re very conscious of the fact that it’s nothing compared to the fact of actually going through these experiences. What helped me was the fact that I felt strongly that I wanted people to know. The hardest thing I find as a journalist is covering things and feeling like it doesn’t make a difference. In a strange way, it’s in the bad places that you find people doing the most miraculous and amazing things, like Dr Denis Mukwege in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. In a strange way, it gives you more hope about humanity.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I was much more optimistic about our ability to get through something like that, because I see communities in terrible situations doing incredible things all the time. Like the women under siege in Aleppo, who kept their kids warm by tearing down window frames and making fires and making sandwiches out of nothing. Those women probably never would have imagined they would have been able to survive in a situation like that, but actually, they did. Although I cover bad things, I have a lot of faith in humanity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity