Our Bodies, Their Battlefields is a brutal, shocking, devastating read. And it could not be any other way. Christina Lamb, co-author of I Am Malala, has been a war correspondent for twenty-five years, and in this book she centres those who are often left out of war reporting and narratives: women. In interviews, history books and on war memorials we learn about the heroic acts and sacrifices of male soldiers; their wartime experiences are reported while women are silently being written out of history. If they occur, then it is on the “home front” as good wives waiting for their husbands to return, and as causes for war: as those who need protection. What is hardly ever spoken about is women’s suffering, how they are attacked specifically for and in their womanhood – rape, Christina Lamb asserts, is not something that “just happens” in wartime, it is a weapon of war systemically used as a tool of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Travelling to Rwanda, Nigeria, the Congo, Bosnia, Iraq and Bangladesh, Lamb documents the increasing, and increasingly brutal, use of gender-based violence in warzones. The journalist seeks out the women themselves, giving them voices and listening to their accounts of genocides past and present. These stories are harrowing and have probably shattered many a comfortable reader’s view of our world. Nothing of this is new, of course, but rape and gender-based crimes are not only underreported, they are also under-investigated. Very few women will see the perpetrators held accountable for their crimes; often, rape is included in general accusations of torture which still negates the victims the recognition of what was done to them. 1997 saw the first ever prosecution for rape in war, and not many have followed since. The accounts Christina Lamb presents in Our Bodies, Their Battlefields share a common theme: how ever difficult it might be to remember and recount the most violent experiences, many women want to share their stories, desperate for some acknowledgment of their suffering, for reassurance that they are not to blame.
Lamb excels in the compassion she offers to every person she interviews and the way she tells the subjects’ stories shows her long experience of war reporting. While reading there were certain moments at which I thought she had put too much of herself into her reporting. In retrospect, however, I believe her detailed descriptions of situations in which she encounters the women she interviews, help a reader without knowledge of war to bridge the gap in understanding to the stories that form the core of this book. As is so often the case with books that are difficult to read, the struggle it takes to get to the last page is what makes this book so important. These accounts of violence are real, and they happen to real people. The repetitiveness of Our Bodies, Their Battlefields shows just how prevalent gender-based violence is in the context of war. While this is necessary, I thought there were moments when the graphic accounts edged on the border of the excessive, in the sense that it got close to victimising the women even further. When I started this book I was hoping for more theoretical investigations into the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, but that might just deserve its own study. Overall, Lamb did what she set out to do brilliantly, and Our Bodies, Their Battlefields is an impressive, if painful, case-study, a much needed introduction to sexual violence in the context of war.
“Rape is the only crime in which society is more likely to stigmatize the victim than punish the perpetrator.”