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Spoils of war

By Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
26 February 2022   |   2:33 am
As we are possibly on the brink of World War 3 with Russia invading, as much as I worry about the impact of conflict on an already fragile world, I can’t help but feel infuriated by the so-called jokes...

As we are possibly on the brink of World War 3 with Russia invading, as much as I worry about the impact of conflict on an already fragile world, I can’t help but feel infuriated by the so-called jokes on social media about Ukrainian refugees – often an image of a blonde girl or blonde girls in bikinis, with copy above that reads, “I am willing to personally host 300 refugees from Ukraine” often shared by men, regardless of their nationality or geographical location – I’ve seen these shared in tweets and Facebook posts shared by men across the world.

Not too far from the gates of Europe, there’s a humanitarian crisis brewing and some men can only see the “funny” side with crude jokes, sexualising female victims of war. How little empathy, compassion and human kindness do some people have that they can laugh at another’s misfortune? As funny as some people may find jokes about ‘doing their part’ in helping ‘Ukrainian babes’, it is crude to crack jokes at the expense of a demographic far worse affected by war and conflict not just in eastern Europe but across the globe.

In her book “Our bodies, their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women”
Christina Lamb, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, writes is the “most neglected” war crime of the 1949 Geneva Convention. It’s rarely prosecuted. It’s rarely written about. One of the most harrowing examples in her book is the rape of 7-month-old baby. A mother returns from working in the fields in eastern Congo to find her house ransacked by a militia group and her daughter wailing from pain. The mother notices a red gash on the baby’s bottom and takes her to a nearby medical centre. From there, the pair is sent to the town of Bukavu, 160 miles away, to a hospital that has treated 55,000 victims of sexual assault since 1999. Even to the doctor, who has treated many such cases, the assault is shocking: The infant’s anus has ruptured from the force.

There is a multitude of other harrowing stories of sexual violence Lamb covers in her book: Bangladeshi women who were tied to banana trees; ISIS militants who pulled the names of Yazidi women out of a bowl and sold them as sex slaves for thousands of dollars, like used cars; Bosnian women who, imprisoned in a spa hotel, went mad from being subjected to nightly gang rapes.

There are those we have learned about in history books too: According to some estimations over 100,000 women were raped by Soviet soldiers in Berlin during and after The Battle of Berlin while during the Nanking Massacre, according to the prosecution, in excess of 20,000 women and girls were raped during the first weeks of the Japanese occupation of the Chinese city of Nanking.

Despite this, Lamb writes that the first prosecution of rape as a war crime occurred in 1998, at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, half a century after the Geneva Convention declared it such. Created in 2002, the International Criminal Court has secured only one conviction for sexual slavery and rape, in the 2019 case of a Congolese warlord. (A previous conviction was overturned.) More than half of the 90 war criminals convicted by the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were found guilty of sexual violence, but this, Lamb writes, is a “fraction considering the tribunal received reports of more than 20,000 rapes.”

While you scroll past another meme about Ukrainian women today, perhaps a Ukranian woman will lose her life, or her baby, or she will be brutally gang-raped. Her rapist will walk free as she will be seen as a spoil of war, left battered, bruised, beaten in a ditch. Women are sexualised enough as it is even in peacetime; let’s not perpetuate their sexualition in conflict too.

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