WMC Women Under Siege

Re-conceiving war: Stopping a cycle of violence depends on how we prioritize it

A young woman seems to have attached herself to me one sun-blasted day at Zaatari, a refugee camp holding at least 120,000 Syrians in the middle of the Jordanian desert. Her name is Abeer and she is the less obviously beautiful, older sister to a 16-year-old girl who has just been married off to a much-older Libyan food distributor. He gave the girl, Reem, a watch, perfume, and water when they first met. They then married in front of a couple hundred guests at a wedding hall in the nearby town of Irbid, staying there for a month before Reem returned to Zaatari. 

Now she’s waiting for him to come back; he’s busy in Tripoli securing her a passport, she says. That he calls every couple of days may indicate he actually plans to return, but I’d been told that many men pass through Zaatari, taking on brides for just days or a month or two. 

Wearing only a dented gold wedding band for jewelry and with her hair covered by a pink leopard-print hijab, Reem shyly smiles when I ask if she wants to go to Libya. Yes, she says, she does—because her husband tells her it’s like Syria: “green, with lots of water.” Will she miss her family when she moves to Libya? “Definitely,” she says. 

Abeer, however, has no such out. Swathed in a sweltering polyester abaya, she says she used to be a hairdresser in Syria. She can’t do that here, though, she says. No equipment. No scissors, no styling products, no hairdryer. And no money to buy any. Abeer sits, day after day, sweating in a caravan in the desert, not knowing when she’ll ever leave, how she’ll ever make money, and what she’ll ever do every day that is worth more than this. The Syrian war has left her nothing. Like millions of her fellow refugees, she has nothing. Nothing is the present, nothing is the future, and the past—the past is too painful to think about. Instead, Abeer sits.

In a room far away in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a girl named Mireille, 16, holds a small baby in her arms and cries so hard that the room begins to cry with her. “My tears never dry,” she says. “My name has become tears.”

Women gather in Maman Shujaa's office in Bukavu, seeking to make their stories heard through the media. (Lauren Wolfe)

She is just one of many women in the area who have been raped and mutilated by a militia group run by a man named Morgan. There were so many men who assaulted her over the course of her eight-month captivity, she says, she doesn’t know how to count them now. They took her to a strange forest she didn’t recognize and “every day there were doing the same to us. They would come even 10 men at once.”

Her crying turns to hysteria as she describes how she possesses next to nothing. No physical belongings, nor even the knowledge of who her son’s father is.

“Those people took my things and I don’t even have clothes,” she says. “When my child grows up, I don’t know who I will tell him is his father. My child is saying, ‘Daddy,’ but I don’t know which daddy he’s calling.”

There is no hopeful ending to her situation, confirms a psychologist treating Mireille. There is little money and few legal, psychological, or social remedies in place for women who have been so brutalized.

“Please help me,” Mireille begs of no one in particular. “Please don’t leave me.”

In April, the Congolese government killed Morgan, whose real name was Paul Sadala, in “disputed circumstances.” Still, his death does not help Mireille or other women like her. He was just another man, like the dozens of others ready to take his place in a convoluted, collapsed country.

These are just a couple of the hundreds of girls and women I’ve met who are living the reality of war around the world. Their existence tells me that war is not what the media makes it out to be—war is not bombs (or not just bombs), be they barrel bombs, cluster bombs, or bombs dropped by drones or lobbed over walls. War is Abeer. War is Mireille. War is what happens to the people caught in the war zone, and those people are mainly civilians, often refugees, who are thought to make up nearly 90 percent of casualties in conflict now, according to researchers.

War is trauma. And it is the lack of mental health care that accompanies it.

War is rape. And the silence and suffering that surrounds that stigmatized act.

War is acknowledgment of injured soldiers as worthy of reparations but rarely for civilians who have been sexually violated or for their children born of these acts, like the whole generation of kids now living in Rwanda.

Public imagination, shaped by media and government statements, envisions troop movements and weapons deployed and soldiers killed but not much about any of these other things. Do we ever see a woman like Mireille on the nightly news?

What would changing this presentation of war mean for the women, children, and men caught in the middle?

What if we conceived of this “soft war”—the one that includes civilians—as the predominant feature of fighting in the 20th century?

And why is what happens to women and children considered “soft” in any case? “Soft” or “pink” stories are traditionally off the front page and have a limited media appetite. Is it because a media run by men reflects and prioritizes male experience?

Are we still so unwilling to accept that women not only fight alongside men in much of the world but that they suffer great cruelty—as well as great triumphs—as civilians?

And it’s not just about what happens to women and children. Why do we not talk about what happens to former soldiers in places like Congo, where it has been shown that men not given counseling and properly reintegrated into civilian life after demobilization will go on to commit rape? Why does our coverage of war end when the bullets stop flying and the bombs stop falling?

The reality is that this kind of disconnect, exacerbated by a lack of media coverage, exists all over the world. From Guatemala to Afghanistan, we hear about only a slice of what makes up “war.” And, importantly, media attention shapes diplomatic and military response. So when the media gives its airtime or column inches to something like chemical weapon use in Syria rather than rape as a weapon of war, that is what will draw a possible intervention or even medical aid. One is a red line; the other is not.

Justice for survivors of conflict means making these stories a priority. And justice, or an end to impunity, helps toward preventing future wars. Accountability heals survivors and creates a society that disavows atrocity—a healthy society. The fact is, though, that justice is utterly unobtainable for women who have been violated in war in many parts of the world. Knocked aside by the larger issues of conflict, her own pain remains unprosecuted, unmitigated by justice or even the sense that anyone is listening to or cares about her story. There are still major problems in tribunals and with witness protection that prevent women from wanting to come forward. At a more local level, there is the problem of police: They laugh, bribe, or re-rape women seeking an arrest.

The unceasing cycle of violence, in part, depends on how we prioritize it. If we pay attention to all facets of conflict, as a select few are doing, can the world become a more peaceful place in which both women and men’s lives are valued equally?

Will we ever find out?

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: War, Rape



Lauren Wolfe
Director, Women Under Siege
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