Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Rape; an all too common weapon of war

The Central African Republic is the latest casualty. Sadly mentioned only in passing by the much of the media - with the very honourable exception of excellent work by Alex Thomson of Channel Four News - the country is disintegrating, verging on a genocidal disaster, continuing to pay for the crimes of colonialism, post-colonial excess, corruption and exploitation.

Seleka rebels

The country has been a desperate case for years of course and has been pretty much forgotten by the rest of the world. It suffered under the flamboyant, cartoonishly self-indulgent, grotesquely bloody, regime of ‘Emperor’ Bokassa and, as coup has followed coup, its government has barely improved since. A failed state, scarred by corruption, instability and violence - both within the country and overspill from neighbouring conflicts - with hundreds of thousands of people displaced. It has amongst the lowest healthcare professionals-to-population ratios in the world, with just three midwives to every 1,000 live births and 0.5 doctors to every 1,000 people.

Violence begets violence and the latest conflict sprung up in CAR last December. Séléka, a disparate coalition of rebel groups, took on and deposed François Bozizé's government, himself imposed by a French-backed coup. This coalition has now disintegrated and both the UN and the French - who have dispatched troops - warn the country is on the verge of genocide as Muslim and Christian militias confront one another.

With this violence comes a horribly ugly feature that seems to occur all too frequently; rape as a weapon of war. A Human Rights Watch study in May reported this:

‘I was in my house, where I live with my younger sister … when many Seleka fighters entered the quarter. I am 33 years old and my sister is 23. She was eight months pregnant when they raped us on March 25. They were shooting in the air in front of our house. Two armed men entered the house, threatened us, and forced us to get undressed and lay down on the ground. … They both raped us, one after the other. They were shouting bad words in Sango and in Arabic. One of them was shouting the Arabic word charmouta (prostitute in Arabic) while raping me. Then, they left the house. Our neighbor took us to the community hospital, where my sister lost her baby the day after.’

Another witness report read:

’I was at home with my children when a large number of armed men arrived in pick-up vehicles in front of my house. Three of them came into my house, pointed their rifles at me, tied me up in front of my children, and raped me. After they had raped me, they looted my house and left. I’m now alone with my children. My husband abandoned me the day after the rape. I feel pains in my body.’

It all sounds horrifically familiar. South of the Central African Republic is the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country which has been raped and pillaged literally, figuratively, metaphorically and continually.

A study earlier this year found 12 per cent of Congo’s female population had been raped, with roughly 1,152 victims suffering every day - 48 victims every hour. Women are not the only targets; children, men, even babies, are not safe. To read the detailed reports by human rights’ observers is a glimpse into a level of violence one would hope had been left in mediaeval times. It's a dehumanised state; a country broken after two hundred years where excessive, gratuitous, tortuous, casually brutal violence has been a daily norm. Under the rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II, a slave who failed to collect sufficient levels of rubber would lose their hand; now militias threaten rape, disfigurement by machete and, what Anthony Burgess would call, ’ultraviolent’ death.

King Leopold II's violent legacy

Reports of rape as a weapon of war now emerge from most of the world’s war zones and violent hotspots; Syria, Afghanistan, Mexico, Egypt. 

The horrific attacks in India – it is in fact the anniversary of the fatal attack on the 23-year-old medical student who was targeted on a bus by a gang as she returned home – have focused attention on attitudes towards women there, only too late for too many victims.

Demonstrations in India calling for action to tackle rape

It is worth taking time, at this point, to pause and salute Foreign Secretary William Hague, who, with the high profile support of Angelina Jolie, is pressing the world’s governments and the UN to focus more on these horrors.

In The Times last year Mr Hague wrote (£):

’From Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of Congo we have seen rape used as a terrifying weapon of war. Inflicted systematically and sometimes to order from the highest levels, it is as much a means of waging war as are bullets or tanks. And more often than not it is carried out not by invading armies but by one group against another: deliberately to destroy, degrade, humiliate and scar political opponents or entire ethnic and religious groups.

’The number of victims involved is utterly chilling. In Rwanda alone, up to 400,000 women are estimated to have been raped in the 100-day genocide of 1994. The vast majority of victims are women and children, but men are often targeted too.

‘Guilt lies with those who commit these crimes, but the shame falls on the whole world. For we have failed to act in a concerted way against this problem and have allowed a culture of impunity to develop. The shocking truth is that very few perpetrators have ever been put on trial for rape in conflict and even fewer have gone to prison. In wartime Bosnia, up to 50,000 women were raped, but only 30 men have ever been convicted. Given this record, the government forces and militia committing rape in Syria today probably expect they will simply get away with it.’

It's a thankless task. And it won't be an election winning issue but it’s the right thing to do and needs applauding and supporting. Certainly, Hague, as foreign secretary, has confirmed he is a thoughtful and able politician, with the gravitas of age and experience, a long way from the baseball cap of leadership.

Next year London will host a summit on this painful issue; the UN is throwing its weight behind the campaign. It won’t succeed. These awful crimes will tragically continue. But Hague and his campaign may start to make a difference, to send the message that such violation isn't an acceptable battlefield tactic of terror, to help start holding those committing these crimes responsible. We can but hope it becomes the exception rather than a normal aspect of war – or, indeed, a common feature of a destabilised state.

Friday, 6 December 2013

When Mandela came to Camden Town

Plaque unveilings to the great and the good are frequent enough occasions. If planners are lucky, a photographer from the local press might turn up to take a few quick shots of the curtain being pulled to gentle applause from a small gathering of friends and fans of a once famous comedian, writer or artist.

Rarely do they attract international statesmen, crowds of hundreds, singers and a paparazzi pack that wouldn’t be out of place at the Cannes Film Festival.

But early on a bright, warm July morning in 2003, Lyme Street, Camden Town, was the stage for this special English Heritage occasion. Nelson Mandela, in London ahead of this 85th birthday, rearranged his schedule so he could be there, to remove a curtain to reveal the plaque dedicated to anti-apartheid campaigners Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who lived in the terraced house between 1966 and 1978.

At the time I was working for the Camden New Journal*. It was a far bigger picture job than I was normally used to but when the editor, Eric Gordon, asked for a volunteer I jumped at the chance. Despite its being a press night the evening before, I was up before six and was in Camden Town just after 7am. I’d borrowed a step ladder from a colleague and found my way to Lyme Street.

Hardened paparazzi photographers were already there, but there was sufficient space for me to erect the stepladder and squeeze it along the front row by the railings, just a few yards from a little rectangular red drape, behind which was the plaque.

Several colleagues from the paper turned up, not to do any work but to experience something unique. Eric sauntered along, in a fedora, and chirpy despite the early hour; it wasn’t a time we often saw him. The accountant and the head of advertising had also made the short journey down the road. And while the unveiling hadn’t been widely publicised, it was clear the message of what was happening that Friday morning was echoing around the area; at first there were tens of people, soon there were hundreds.

Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm appears to have been among the crowds

Sash windows in houses on the other side of the road were open fully and in some people sat precariously on sills, legs dangling beneath them. Parents carried their children on their shoulders; people climbed on top of walls and up poles to try and get a glimpse of what was happening. Behind railings near the plaque dignitaries were arriving. Frank Dobson MP was joined by Loyd Grossman – his role was, remarkably, compere of the occasion. Doreen Lawrence was there. Somewhere around was Alastair Campbell, as I later discovered when we bumped into each as the crowd dispersed.

The young Camden mayor Nasim Ali arrived, resplendent in robes and adorned with the traditional gold chain. He was effervescent. He bounded over and asked me to get a good photograph of himself with Nelson Mandela; later, as he hugged the former president, I tried to get the shot but found too many heads in the way. I always regretted not supplying the perfect shot for him though looking at the pictures now there are several shots he would enjoy.

Mayor Nash Ali greeting Mandela, under the watchful eye of Zelda la Grange

Many in the crowd were getting a bit agitated; they could see little of what was about to happen with so many photographers on ladders. A cry went up 'get down, get out the way'. The photographers were unwilling to move, but such became the pressure eventually we all got to the ground.

Soon, police wearing hi-vis jackets appeared at the corner by Camden Road, a series of cars turned the corner and there, was Nelson Mandela, walking with a stick, accompanied by his reliable - and fearsomely protective aide Zelda la Grange. He was first greeted by Gillian Slovo, the writer and daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First.

Mandela's speech wasn't long, but it was witty, affectionate towards his old comrades in arms and full of cheek. Ruth First, he recalled, was a 'sharp lady' who didn't suffer fools gladly. He still had the 'scars' on his back to prove it.

When Mandela pulled the cord, to loud whoops and applause (had this noise ever happened at an English Heritage plaque unveiling before?), and, on stairs leading up to the front door of a neighbouring house, a South African choir, singing with gusto, all with broad smiles.

There was security of course. Hefty numbers of police marked the street, English Heritage officials stood by the railings and Mandela's own easily identifiable guards - hair hard cropped, sunglasses, all white - watched attentively. But it wasn't overbearing.  People danced and waved, jumped with joy, yelled out Mandela's name with glee. The former president himself smiled, waved and joined in with the merriment. He left to music, laughter and joy. He was probably on the scene for no longer than 20 minutes, but it was a moment no-one there would forget the occasion. I felt privileged just to see the man and take his photograph.

*The Camden New Journal's report of the day can be found here.

A final aside

While the majority of the photographers were in the pen with me, some, like The Guardian's David Sillitoe, looked for different angles. Below is the picture which ran in his paper:

Towards the left hand side, I'm one of the few members of the press pack who can be identified, with my long blonde hair, I'm captured just looking to my right.

For some reason, we got hold of an international edition of The Guardian that week and the same photograph ran. Except, there appears to have been a bit of a cropping error. While I can still be seen looking in the wrong direction, Nelson Mandela has been removed from the image almost entirely; just his right hand survived the chop.  Oops!