At the very end of Christina Lamb's devastating account of rape in modern conflict, she wonders why women's names are not written on war memorials. If you can make it through the harrowing accounts of sexual violence in Our Bodies, Their Battlefield, it is a question you will find yourself asking, too.
Christina Lamb, a celebrated foreign correspondent and writer, has spent 30 years covering combat, reporting on men fighting at the frontlines and long despairing at the comparative lack of coverage of women's stories, particularly the use of sexual violence in war. In this new book, the first major account to address the topic, Lamb sets out to redress that balance.
The 15 chapters cover stories from the Middle East, Africa, South and East Asia, Latin America and Europe. We meet young Yazidi women traded as sex slaves by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the families of the Nigerian schoolgirls snatched by Boko Haram in 2014, Congolese infants who have been horrendously abused, kidnapped Argentine dissidents and bereaved parents, and elderly Filipina women who were imprisoned and raped by the Japanese Imperial Army almost a century ago.
Individually, the stories are horrifying. Collectively, they are enraging. This is due to both how often these women are silenced - by themselves and by their communities - and how rarely any kind of justice is brought on the perpetrators. In the 22 years since rape was established as a war crime, there has yet to be a single upheld conviction at the International Criminal Court.
As recently as 2018, Lamb tells us, the Japanese city of Osaka overturned 60 years of being twinned with San Francisco in protest of a statue in San Francisco's Chinatown depicting comfort women. Editors at NHK, the Japanese state broadcaster, were banned from using the term "sex slaves" and must instead say "people referred to as wartime comfort women". Lamb's vivid depictions of the young women taken from their families and subjected to repeated gang rape brings home the insult of that euphemism.
The book goes some way to explore the motivation for sexual crimes and considers whether rape is just an inevitable part of the chaos, lawlessness and desire for vengeance that characterise warfare. (Lamb comes to the conclusion that it is not.) 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. Rohingya refugees wear "inappropriate clothes from well-meaning donations, a boy in a belted women's cardigan of cream wool with a fur collar, a girl in a fairy dress with pink tutu and high heels like boats for her tiny feet". A heroic figure in Aleppo is "perched owl-like on the edge of the sofa in the dim lounge of the Dilshad Palace hotel, between a garish statue of Long John Silver and a fish tank encrusted with dirt".
There are also a few glimmers of hope in the story. At the City of Joy rehabilitation centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape survivors are taught to look after themselves and go back to their communities with a new sense of purpose. In a forest in southern Germany, former Yazidi sex slaves receive therapy. Some are so traumatised they need a year there before they can speak again, but none of them have killed themselves, which in these circumstances counts as success.
There is legal progress too, with the cases of the Yazidis and the Rohingya being taken forward as well as victories in Latin America and Africa, but ultimately there is little recourse. Lamb quotes Pramila Pratten, UN special representative on sexual violence: "Impunity remains the rule and accountability the rare exception."
Working as a female journalist in conflict zones, these were the stories I most dreaded covering, with their bleak facts and bleaker outlook. Women were victims first of the individual crimes against them, and then of the strictures of their societies.
Lamb's book is a timely reminder that better outcomes will come only when we start insisting that these stories are heard.
"As long as we keep silent," she reminds us, "we are complicit in saying this is acceptable." Or in the words of Rojian, a 16-year-old Yazidi woman beaten and raped every night by her fat Isil captor, "It is hard to tell, but even harder for people not to know."
© The Telegraph