HIV and Sexual Assault in Times of War: Conscious Acts of Terror

War is a strong ally of HIV. It means we say goodbye to our communities and prevention strategies and we say hello to HIV and AIDS.

-- A Save the Children health worker in Burundi

I wonder where you're reading this. On your tablet on your way to work? Sitting with a glass of wine in the warmth of your home? In a café on the corner? Wherever it is, I would imagine most of you will be glancing at it in a position of comfort, with all mod cons around you, warm and well-fed, just as I am while writing it.

The reason I say this is because the subject of this article highlights the fact that there are broadly two sorts of HIV sufferers; the haves and the have-nots. The haves can take their meds, live where they choose and live a more or less, normal life span. They can moan about their daily lives, argue with the traffic warden, shout at the TV and fill their lives with the trivia of living in the developed world and yes, they can also have valid health problems and difficult times -- it's all relative. The have-nots on the other hand, have none of those luxuries, have done nothing wrong and have been caught up in a particular hell that's none of their doing. They are victims of circumstance, of their surroundings and of their birth but many are also tragic victims of the worst and most unthinkable aspects of human nature and there are literally millions of them. They're women and girls, and occasionally men and boys, and they are the faceless statistics of rape in wars where the penis is used as a loaded gun and HIV becomes a weapon of mass destruction. They have the same HIV that you do, and thinking about them should make you feel uncomfortable and fearful because there but for the grace of God go we all.

In the context of these people, the word "rape" takes on a whole new dimension. It's not simply a violent act to satisfy sexual need, it becomes a political tool to subjugate and undermine, to infect and destroy society for generations to come. It's meant to humiliate and demean and its effects and consequences are meant to be shared and passed on, so that norms and values disintegrate in the face of pain and nightmares.

The following account comes from a survivor of the Rwandan conflict of 1994 and speaks for itself.

About 10 of them came. They picked two of the women in the group: a 25-year-old and a 30-year-old and then gang-raped them. When they finished, they cut them with knives all over while the other Interahamwe watched. Then they took the food from the table and stuffed it into their vaginas. The women died. They were left dead with their legs spread apart. My husband tried to put their legs together before we were told to get out of the house and to leave the children behind. They killed two of our children. My husband begged them not to kill us, saying that he did not have any money on him, but that he had shoes and secondhand clothes that he sells at the market. He gave them all the clothes. Then, one Interahamwe said, "You Tutsi women are very sweet, so we have to kill the man and take you.

The woman's husband was indeed slaughtered and she was taken away to be repeatedly raped until she managed to escape. Those are the bare facts.

This is rape in war. There's no humanity here; it's a brutal act of possession carried out by human beings that are so emotionally desensitized, they cannot feel empathy for their victims. The victims must very often end up the same way.

Rape as a feature of war has always existed; it's not a 20th century phenomenon and before any unwitting racist conclusions are jumped to, it's not only a feature of black African history, it happens and has happened everywhere. As far back as the Japanese occupation of Nanking in 1937, where rape was a deliberate military tool; through the mass rapes of the Bangladeshi independence struggles in 1971; to the relatively recent Balkan civil wars, in which 20,000 Muslim women and girls were raped in Bosnia, as a deliberate attempt to ethnically cleanse, rape has long been used as a military tactic.

What is historically new, is the use of rape as a biological weapon. Again in Rwanda in that terrible conflict, a rape victim recalled being told:

We are not killing you. We are giving you something worse. You will die a slow death.

As a deliberate act, many women and girls were set apart, to be raped by soldiers who had HIV/AIDS.

They gang-raped women -- they used their weapons to tear them apart, causing internal tears resulting in fistula -- and they forced the families of the victims to watch gang rapes in progress. The stories were unbearable.

I think most ordinary people can't help but feel disconnected on reading this sort of account because it's almost too horrifying to make an emotional connection. How must it feel to be living your life one minute and to be surrounded by angry, wild-eyed, animalistic men the next? To perhaps watch as they slaughter your family, or people you know and then to come to the terrible realisation that they have something else in store for you! These are women or young girls; innocent and unprepared for the brutality of war. They're beaten or maimed and then physically invaded and degraded to the point where you can only hope they can somehow switch off from the situation. I'm a man and the thought already fills me with fear; little wonder that these women are physically and mentally damaged for the rest of their lives yet it's a major miracle that many of them do find the strength to return to life and try to pick up the threads afterwards. How is that possible?

I regret that I didn't die that day. Those men and women who died are now at peace whereas I am still here to suffer even more. I'm handicapped in the true sense of the word. I don't know how to explain it. I regret that I'm alive because I've lost my lust for life. We survivors are broken-hearted. We live in a situation which overwhelms us. Our wounds become deeper every day. We are constantly in mourning."

-- Women Under Siege

"You have to ask yourself why HIV has become a weapon. Is it any different to any other form of biological or chemical warfare? Is it any different to the bullet which maims but doesn't kill?"

The act of rape is destructive enough but if you then add HIV to the mix ...

You have to ask yourself why HIV has become a weapon. Is it any different to any other form of biological or chemical warfare? Is it any different to the bullet which maims but doesn't kill? It seems such a strange development in human behaviour; there must be a reason.

To begin with, many of the current conflicts where rape and HIV play a part, take place in patriarchal societies where the role of women is already both precarious but well-defined. Unlike in the first world, women must behave in a certain way, otherwise they can be rejected by their men and punished by their own communities. Sexuality is a very sensitive issue and a sexual disease can remove status at a stroke. Knowing this, an enemy is well aware of the effect rape will have on the community. The woman will be rejected and even cast out, irrespective of the fact that she was at no fault whatsoever. She's ruined; spoiled goods and in many societies, there's no way back. That's why rape has been such an effective fighting tool throughout history. If the rape also transmits HIV, then the damage is so much greater because it's a weapon that attacks the very fabric of the enemy society. If you think about it, it targets mostly women and children and the men that carry it out set out to undermine family structures, which in turn corrodes the values and beliefs of the society it's aimed at, whether a small village or a particular ethnic group. The individuals are left completely violated and often close to death and carrying the seeds of a disease that can spread out of control. It's a sad fact of life that a woman who has been raped is, despite the injustice of it all, often rejected by her immediate social group and is forced away from her home and often into prostitution to survive at all. If HIV travels with her and if she is pregnant, it moves into future generations. It's a truly vicious circle.

You have to wonder at the diabolical minds that instigate this sort of strategy in a war zone. At least the bullet brings a quick death; rape and HIV have much longer-lasting consequences and apart from the poor individual victim, her whole community is tainted forever. It's far too easy to assume that a community should look after its own in these circumstances. Even in the 1st world, with all its luxuries, a rape victim is too frequently viewed with suspicion and perversely stained with guilt. Add HIV to those prejudices and the traumas spread out like ripples on a pond.

The problem is internationally recognised but almost never acted upon. According to UNICEF:

The laws of war prohibit the use of all weapons or tactics of warfare that cause superfluous injury, unnecessary suffering, or violate "principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.'' Rape is a prohibited weapon or tactic of war under the criteria set by the laws of war.

Yet, however widespread rape is used as a weapon on the killing fields of the world, no state has ever been held to account for the use of rape as a military weapon and god knows, there's enough evidence! Just taking one example; the SF Gate reports:

"Some estimate that approximately 60 percent of combatants in Congo are HIV-infected and Zimbabwean troops there may be up to 70 percent infected. The group Women's Equity in Access to Care and Treatment has estimated that 67 percent of rape survivors in Rwanda are HIV-infected."

So given that HIV has added a whole new dimension to "collateral damage," why on earth aren't the world's international bodies, starting with the UN, doing anything about it? It may be because of something as pedantic as defining the term "weapon of war." According to the United Nation's women's organisation, there seems to be a lot of unnecessary quibbling about definitions:

"How is a "weapon" or a "tactic" of war defined under international law and where does rape fit in?"

War rape falls under the technical meaning of a "tactic" or "method" of warfare rather than a "weapon" or "means" of warfare under IHL. However the term "weapon" is frequently used by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and others as a broad term to cover both the means ("weapon") and methods ("tactics") of warfare, and this practice is followed in this FAQ. The criteria for assessing the lawfulness of a weapon (or a tactic) under IHL is the same for all practical purposes. The term "weapon" means the objects, materials or projectiles used for gaining military objectives, whereas the term "tactic" or "method" refers to strategies that may involve the use of legal items or weapons. For example, the deliberate starvation of civilians for military advantage is a prohibited method of war. The Security Council has characterized the use of rape in armed conflict both as a "weapon" and as a "tactic" of war, but the more correct term under IHL would be "tactic."

-- Global Justice Center

So believe it or not, the difference between the words, "weapon" and "tactic" may influence the amount of action international justice groups will take. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon reported in 2009 that twenty-nine countries were using, or had used rape during war. Now he strikes me as a man with a conscience who is frequently hampered by national interests blocking various courses of action but if the Secretary General of the UN is limited to quoting statistics, what chance do we stand of ever bringing war rapists to trial? To my mind, the key question is whether the deliberate transmission of HIV/Aids is effectively the use of a biological weapon. If we can establish that, then according to all international treaties, people responsible for using biological warfare can be brought to justice and made to pay for their crimes. The use of any microbial and other biological agents or toxins for military purposes, surely falls under the current Biological Weapons Convention? Irrespective of its weapon status or definition, it is the wilful spreading of a virus in order to win a conflict and that should be enough to keep the international courts busy for decades, yet there's still a reluctance to take the necessary steps. Maybe it's the sexual factor, or the fact that it's HIV we're talking about, that carries its own subtle stigma and stifles effective discussion and decision making. As Margot Wallström, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, says:

If we can ban cluster bombs, we can ban sexual violence in war and conflict.

Either way, until it becomes a subject of discussion at the world's breakfast tables, the current indiscriminate use of rape as a biological weapon goes on unabated. We should be ashamed.

"It's much too easy to label this problem as being African, or Middle Eastern or wherever there's a conflict at any particular time; it's not ..."

We have recently seen how combatants in war are brainwashed and radicalised. We've seen beheadings and executions and schools and hospitals blown up without a hint of remorse and yes, rape is currently being used as a weapon of war in Syria and Iraq too. According to Dr. Baran Yilmaz, a specialist in the "Medical Park" hospital in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, around 70% of combatants who are fighting in the area and end up wounded in Turkish hospitals, are carrying an STI. Shockingly, around 30% of those men are also carrying HIV! Given that young Muslim women are being brainwashed into believing that serving these militias sexually is an act of true faith and given the fact that conquered peoples from divergent religious groups are being indiscriminately sold for sex and raped by these so-called soldiers of God, you can only imagine what the ramifications will be down the line.

It's much too easy to label this problem as being African, or Middle Eastern or wherever there's a conflict at any particular time; it's not, it's a human problem that's worldwide and a military tactic that has been used throughout history but that's no excuse for its inherent obscenity and inhumanity! The difference since the early 1990s and the Rwandan civil war, is the addition of HIV to the arsenal of rape. It has become a weapon of genocide, with the explicit intent of helping wipe out a whole population.

In the one hundred days of genocide that ravaged the small Central African nation of Rwanda... an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were raped. ... Sexual violence occurred everywhere, and no one was spared."

-- Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Sandra Ka Hon Chu: The Men Who Killed Me: Rwandan Survivors of Sexual Violence (2009)

So given the facts, let's look at what this really means and ask ourselves how we can live with this knowledge in 2014. Leaders of opposing factions, (primarily men) are making conscious decisions to identify their own troops with HIV and then use them to deliberately infect the women and children of the opposition by means of rape. This requires an abandonment of the normal human emotions of empathy, mercy and sympathy, in favour of calculated discussions as to how best and easiest to eliminate the enemy and destroy the enemy's culture and society from within. It must take a particularly callous heart to think this up but it's happening in war zones across the world and independently of each other. HIV has become a sophisticated weapon of demoralisation, guaranteed not only to kill by disease but also to erode hearts and minds.

According to Juan E. Méndez, the U.N. secretary general's special adviser on the prevention of genocide: "Trying those accused of rape, and punishing those guilty, is a necessary step toward eliminating rape as a weapon of war, and its terrible consequences."

The perpetrators of these crimes themselves fall under the spell of the twin seducers of religious and ideological fervor and YouTube infamy. These people often claim to be martyrs to their cause but because their humanity has been drilled out of them, all that's left is the beast that's below the surface of us all. The true martyrs are their victims and they are martyrs to innocence, something that is as ephemeral as a mayfly in today's cruel world.

It's possible that you're feeling somewhat manipulated after reading such emotive descriptions. They are confrontational but you can't deny the awful ironies here. Thanks to modern media opportunities, we are constantly manipulated through forms of propaganda, which are greater features of modern war than ever before. News and images are so instant and evil people make grateful use of that fact.

However, it really still is a question of the haves and the have nots; the privileged and the dispossessed. We have our murders, our tragedies and social upheavals in the 1st world and we have our problems with HIV too but there's no comparison with what's happening to so many women and children in war-torn areas. We have it so good and if all we can do is recoil in horror at the stories of rape and HIV in other parts of the world then that at least is the beginning of awareness and the setting in motion of our consciences. We may not be able individually to effect any sort of change in the use of HIV as a weapon but we can exert moral pressure on our leaders to stop seeing these wars as nothing more than strategic elements in a commercial global chess game. We have to be horrified in order to avoid apathy and detachment and we have to protest at the fact that so little is done to stop it, or what have we become as human beings?

As Angelina Jolie states via this YouTube video link, "What is needed is political will." Let's hope that the acceptance of the resolution is not just an empty gesture.

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