A friend told me recently about an evening she’d just spent visiting an elderly uncle who was staying with her parents. Now this uncle, let’s call him Bob, is in his seventies, and is fond of telling stories about his past. This particular evening was no exception, and as my friend, her partner, and various other relatives (including his wife) settled down to chill out after a big family meal, Bob started off on one of his tales.

But this story turned out to be a bit different from the normal, everyday reminiscences the family was used to hearing: this one was about the time Bob was out in Libya doing his National Service, more specifically about the time he witnessed 6 or more of his colleagues line up and rape a young woman.

Apparently the soldiers had been given a night off and so had gone out to a small town close to where they were billeted. There, they’d come upon a local couple, and after a brief discussion among themselves about how they hadn’t seen a woman in ages, one of the group went over to the man and asked him how much he’d be prepared to take to let them have sex with his wife  The two men negotiated, and eventually the husband settled on a price.

According to Bob’s version of events, he then looked on as the rest of the group took it in turns to rape the woman.

When the soldiers had all had a go and were content they were finished, the husband asked them for the money they’d promised him. The soldiers gave him nothing, instead they beat him to the ground, and ran away laughing.

My friend sat in stunned silence as she listened to this story, and not just because of her horror over what these men had done: but because in his telling of it, her uncle gave no indication that he found the tale in any way problematic. Because in his telling of it, he recounted it in the same way he’d recounted all of his other old stories: and because when he finished, he sat back smiling as if he expected the assembled guests to find it as entertaining as he did.

I wonder how many other old soldiers have similar stories to tell.

My guess is it’s far more than many of us would care to imagine.

It’s long been recognised that rape is and always has been used as a weapon of war, and as a weapon of ethnic cleansing and genocide, as detailed here by Katharine MacKinnon in her account of the systematic rape that took place during the Bosnian/Serbian conflict:

“Like all rapes, these rapes are particular as well as generic, and the particularity matters. This is ethnic rape as an official policy of war: not only a policy to defile, torture, humiliate, degrade, and demoralise the other side; not only a policy of men posturing to gain advantage and ground over other men. It is rape under orders: not out of control, under control. It is rape unto death, rape as massacre, rape to kill or make the victims wish they were dead. It is rape as an instrument of forced exile, to make you leave your home and never come back. It is rape to be seen and heard by others, rape as spectacle. It is rape to shatter a people, to drive a wedge through a particular community. It is the rape of misogyny liberated by xenophobia and unleashed by official command. It is rape as genocide.

It is rape made sexy for the perpetrators by the defencelessness and youth of many of the victims and the rapists’ absolute power to select victims at will….It is rape made exciting by knowing that there are no limits on what can be done, that the women can be raped to death. Most of all, it is rape made sexually irresistible by the fact that the women are about to be sacrificed, by the ultimate power of reducing a person to a corpse, by the powerlessness of the women and children in the face of their imminent murder at the hands of their rapist. It is murder as the ultimate sex act. Do not say it is not sex for the men. When the men are told to take the women away and not bring them back, they rape them, then kill them, then sometimes they rape them again, cut off their breasts, and rip out their wombs….This is rape as torture and rape as extermination.”

From MacKinnon, “Crimes of war, crimes of peace” in Are Women Human.

Even in areas where there is no longer conflict, rapes and other forms of sexual violence continue to be perpetrated for months and often years afterwards. It seems that wherever conflict arises, and wherever armies march, increases in sex crimes against women, both in local populations and more recently within the forces themselves, will follow close behind.

And these aren’t ancient crimes; these aren’t long-forgotten narratives filched from the pages of history to provide evidence of the barbarity of our forefathers. No, these atrocities are modern and completely of our time. From the Red Army and the rape of Berlin, to Vietnam, Darfur, Bosnia, Iraq and Rwanda,  the 20th and early 21st centuries have been littered with the bodies of the victims of this abuse. Indeed, only in the past few weeks it’s come to light that there’s now photographic evidence of the rape and sexual abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib by American armed forces.

And the one common thread running through it all is the silence. Because far too often and for far too many people these are the stories they don’t want to hear told, the truths they don’t want to acknowledge. These are the victims in far off lands, the others, not like us and not of us, and their suffering isn’t ours.

Well it’s time for that silence to end.

As a follow-up to this NY Times article on the continuing mass rape of women in Liberia, Isis the Scientist, along with other US bloggers, has decided to launch an online initiative aimed at raising awareness of sexual violence, not just in Liberia but globally. They’re calling it Silence is the Enemy, and those involved are now donating all of their June blogging revenues to Medecins Sans Frontieres for the treatment and relief of victims of mass rape and other systematic sexual assaults.

Obviously the blogs need as many hits as possible over the next few weeks to generate that income, so spread the word and get clicking:

The list is likely to grow, so keep checking here for updates.

Hat-tip to theOlady.