Rwanda Posts

Christina Lamb, “Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women”

In 2005, I had worked as part of a global team on a seminal report published by UNRISD called Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World. The particular section that I had researched was “Gender, armed conflict and the search for peace”. It was an extraordinary eye-opener for it highlighted the horrendous levels of violence perpetrated upon women and girls, across the world. Somehow conflict situations become an arena where the wild lawlessness thrives and the stark reality of the violence women experience is gut-wrenching. The women are treated worse than animals. Just flesh  They are easily dispensed with once the women outlive their utility which in most cases is that of being sex slaves. The UNRISD report went a step further than merely discussing the violence but also documented the various methods of peace that were initiated by women or with the establishment of institutions such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and of course, the International Court of Justice.

Award-winning war reporter Christina Lamb in her book, Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women reports from various war zones around the world. She travels far and wide meeting women who have been victimised, abducted, raped, sold by one soldier to the next, etc. She met people like the Beekeeper of Aleppo, Abdullah Shrim, and Dr Miracle or Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr Denis Mukwege, who have helped women. Or the incredible Bakira Hasecic, Association of Women Victims of War, who said her hobbies were smoking and “hunting war criminals” and she was not joking, having tracked down well over a hundred. Of these, twenty-nine were prosecuted in The Hague and eighty in Bosnia. Abdullah Shrim has rescued hundreds of women who were kidnapped by the ISIS and reunited them with their families. He has run extremely dangerous operations and created a vast network of safe houses and carriers who would help bring the women to safety. It has been at great economic  cost to the women’s families, who at times have had to fork out sums as large as US $70,000. Dr. Mukwege, meanwhile, has helped reconstruct and fix women victims of sexual violence.

…either suffered pelvic prolapsed or other damage giving birth, or were victims of serial violence so extreme that that genitals had been torn apart and they had suffered fistulas — holes in the sphincter muscle through to the bladder or rectum, which led to leaking of urine or faeces or both.

In twenty years of existence, the [Punzi] hospital had treated more than 55,000 victims of rape.

He is recognised as having treated more rape victims than anyone else on earth. As a trained gynaecologist, he had set up multiple maternal hospitals around Congo so as to tackle the growing menace of maternal mortality, where women uttered their last words before going into labour as they were never sure if they would live. Once the Rwandan genocide occurred, Dr Mukwege, he began to help women victims.

Each group seemed to have its own signature torture and the rates were so violent that often a fistula or hole has been torn in the bladders or rectums.

‘It’s not a sexual thing, it’s a way to destroy one another, to take from inside the victim the sense of being a human, and show you don’t exist, you are nothing,’ he said. ‘It’s a deliberate strategy: raping a woman in front of her husband to humiliate him so he leaves and shame falls on the victim and it’s impossible to live with the reality so the first reaction is to leave the area and then is totla destruction of the community. I’ve seen entire villages deserted.

‘It’s about making people feel powerless and destroying the social fabric. I’ve seen a case where the wife of a pastor was raped in front of the whole congregation so everyone fled. Because if God does not protect the wife of a pastor how would he protect them?

‘Rape as a weapon of war can displace a whole.demigraohic and have the same effect as a conventional weapon but at a much lower cost.

The accounts in this book are meticulously documented. Christina Lamb even manages to speak to some of the victims. One of them, Naima, who had been abducted by the ISIS recalled the name of every single abductor she was sold to. It even astonished Christina Lamb that Naima was able to recall in such detail. ‘The one thing that I could do was know all their names so what they did would not be forgotten,’ she explained. ‘Now I am out I am writing everyting in a book with everyone’s name.’ Lamb travels and meets people in Argentina ( the Lost Generation and the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), Nigeria and the Boko Haram, Bangladesh and the birangonas or brave/war heroine, the ethnic cleansing of the Muslims in Bosnia, the Rohingya camps of those who fled Myanmar, the Rwandan genocide between the Hutu and the Tutsis, the women abducted and kept by the ISIS, the former sex slaves of Japan or the rape of the German women by the Red Army during the Second World War etc. The list is endless and exhausting.

The graphic descriptions in the book are vile but most likely tamer versions of what was really said, shared or documented since it is impossible to collate it as is for a lay readership. The anger and revulsion that Christina Lamb feels and conveys in her documentation regarding the sexual crimes perpetrated against women is transmitted to the reader very clearly. The mechanical manner in which the women are raped over and over again, leaving the women numb and injured is blood curdling. It is also imbued with a sense of helplessness trying to understand how can this wrong be ever corrected — Why are women pursued in this relentless manner, used and discarded? Or even seen as war trophies. What is truly befuddling is the ease with which men rape women or conduct mass rapes. It is not only the systematic violence that is perpetrated upon the women but the horrifying thought that this attitude probably exists in a daily basis. Men see women as dispensable, as a sex that they have limitless and unquestionable power over and the authority and prerogative to do what they like. War crimes only bring to the fore that which already exists already. It is not a gargantuan leap of imagination by men that requires such methodical violence perpetrated upon so many women in this brutal and agressive manner. What is even more chilling from the facts Lamb unearths is the despicable manner in which the rapists are rarely convicted, and if they ever are convicted it is usually for war crimes. Their convictions are carried out on the strength of the ethnic cleansing that they perpetrated. The absolute lack of respect or value accorded to a woman survivor’s testimony, if some of the victims agree to testify, is atrocious. Instead as Bakira points out that if you do not testify it’s as if it never happened. “Women should be allowed to say things the way she wants, tell the story how she wants.” Unfortunately what emerges is that even the institutions of justice and remedial action are so patriarchal in their nature and construct that they do not wish to acknowledge the ghastly trauma women suffer. Chillingly “in Bosnia it’s better to be a perpetrator than a victim. The perpetrators’s defence are paid by the state while we [the women] have to pay our own legal costs. And there’s still no compensation for victims.”

Our Bodies, Their Battlefield is not easy reading. There is a visceral reaction to reading the accounts. But as Lamb points out  that this is a very dark book but she hopes that the reader too will find the “strength and heroism of many of the women inspiring”. She continues, “I use the expression ‘survivors’ to emphasise the resilience of these women, as after all they have survived, rather than ‘victim’ which has a more helpless connotation and some see as a dirty word. Meeting all these women, the last word I would use about them is passive. However, while I do not want to make ‘victims’ their identity, at the same time they are victims of an appalling brutality and injustice, so I do think the word has some validity. In some languages, such as Spanish, the word ‘survivor’ means survivor of a natural disaster. Colombian and Argentinian women I met told me it made no sense to refer to them as survivors. So I have used both where appropriate. In the same way, Yazidis told me they did not object to being described as sex slaves, as long as that was not seen as their identity.” Gender divisions are an age-old phenomena. Seeing women as loot, especially at times of war is also many centuries old. But the fact that these ugly, ruthless, mindless, violent practices continue to exist despite there being so many conversations about gender equality and sensitivity is extremely painful. It is as if those who believe in the dignity of women and in gender equality are expending energy on a losing battle. When will it stop? Will it ever cease? And surely these are learned behaviours and attitudes towards women, so how and when are the younger generations of men being indoctrinated and encouraged to behave in this abominable fashion? It is true that many men still believe firmly in the idea of masculinity being that when you prove your supremacy as an individual upon women, but seriously, can this old-fashioned attitude not stop? War zones are a stark reminder that these attitudes are not going away in a hurry.  My only objection is to the cover design of this book depicting women wearing head scarves. Thereby signalling that the violent behaviours documented by Lamb exist more or less within one specific community, ie. the Muslims, who are equally conveniently seen as terrorists. This is wrong. The cover design should have been either an illustration depicting conflicts and different scenarios or had a montage of images from different regions and communities. This striking black and white image does a great deal of disservice not only to the community it represents but also to the book.

Nevertheless, please read this extremely powerful book.

25 Feb 2021

On Gael Faye’s “Small Country”

I read Gael Faye’s extraordinary Small Country earlier this year. It left a powerful impact upon me and months later, after much other reading, I still cannot forget this slim book. At the time I had written to the brilliant translator, Sarah Ardizzone. Unfortunately Sarah is convalescing and is unable to reply to the questions at the moment. But she did manage to reply to the email I sent upon reading Small Country. This is what she wrote:

” Dear Jaya, What an amazing e-mail!
Thank you for your extraordinarily heartfelt response to
Small Country.
I’d be delighted to answer your questions once I’m back.

So while I wish Sarah a speedy recovery I thought it best to post on my blog edited excerpts of the email lest I forget that this was one of the fascinating books I read in 2019.

****

Dear Sarah, 

I simply had to write to you after reading Small Country. What an extraordinary book! I marvel at your translation abilities. A lot must have been called upon you to invest in this translation. To delve into another languages, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but you have done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading. 

Gael Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text. 

In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gael Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always  speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gael Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gael Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide ? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? Then I wondered how on earth did you translate it, Sarah? This is not an easy passage to translate and the kind of engagement that is required of you will, I suspect, forever haunt you, Sarah. 

The fluidity of the prose is breathtaking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening, Sarah. It is ever more real for us in the subcontinent as these are many of the incidents occuring here too. The video clips showing lynching of innocent people has resulted in WhatsApp changing its global policy of forwards. So instead of being able to forward messages to 250 people at a time there is a restriction — now messages can be forwarded to only 5 people at a time. Anyway, I digress.
The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve.  But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her neices and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. While I have a zillion questions for Gael on why this book? How did he come to write it? How did he choose the point of view? Why a boy-narrator? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement? Although this book has been launched as a debut novel the title refers to a song he wrote. When he is intentionally blurring the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why does he choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt. 

While there are many questions to be asked of Gael Faye, I could not help but marvel at your professionalism too, Sarah. What extraordinary reserves of inner strength it must have required to translate this slim novel. In fact its slimness belies the powerful storytelling and the pure, senseless, mad hatred man has for man. Sadly this is seen everywhere now in the world. I truly am amazed at how you stayed with this book and translated it, Sarah. Some of the questions that I wanted to pose to you while reading the book were:

  1. How and why did you select this book to translate? 
  2. How long did it take to translate Small Country
  3. When you translate a book such as Small Country do you only focus on the text or do you also have to read around to ensure you have captured the nuances?
  4. Did you keep Gael Faye in the loop at every step of the translation? When do you begin your conversations with the author regarding your translations?
  5. What is the nature of these conversations? What are the topics that are discussed most often while translating a book? Were there some exceptional insights to the writing and translation process for Small Country
  6. Would you know if subsequent translations of this book in other languages rely upon the English translation or do they read the text in French? Have you had conversations with translators of other languages of this book? 
  7. What is it that you seek in a good translation? 
  8. How do you choose the books you wish to translate? 
  9. How did you become a professional translator? 
  10. Which are the translated texts that you would consider your gold standard in translation? Who are the translators you admire? Do you think the “rules” of translations change over time?  

While reading Small Country, I was reminded of Fiston Mwanza Majila’s Tram 83 which I reviewed some years ago ( after which the rights to it were bought and an Indian edition was published). His performances at various book events involved a lot of music — fascinating performance poetry. 

One day I hope we can meet in person, Sarah. 
With warmest wishes,
JAYA

8 November 2019

“Stalking the Story” and “Journalism as Genocide”

It is an uncanny coincidence that today two seminal articles have been published online analysing journalism as we know it today and its complicity with the powers that be even if it means resorting to unethical practices and compromising their positions. Both articles are by reputed journalists. The first is by Rafia Zakaria in the Baffler called “Stalking the Story” or what she sees as the calling card of predator journalists. The second is by Suchitra Vijayan as a part of The Polis Project called “Journalism as Genocide” tracking hate speeches, fake news etc as propaganda tools to ultimately result in hate crimes such as genocide or other forms of violence like lynchings and the attempted assassination attack on student activist Umar Khalid.

Umar Khalid

Posted by Nadeem Khan on Monday, August 13, 2018

Rafia Zakaria says in her concluding remarks:

The predator journalist is a creation of the War on Terror, whose narrative requires all that is Western to be anointed while everything else is reduced as a tool in service of it. The journalist who sets out to “unravel” its mysteries is thus as much a warrior in service of this narrative as the soldier who visibly enacts its agenda. All this would at least be less objectionable if it were owned and admitted, if those searching for rape stories among Yazidi women or taking pictures of women attending secret schools did not pretend to be journalists or aligned with a code of ethics that requires consent of subjects, respect for their humanity, and a commitment to confidentiality.

The lethal aspect of the predator journalist is the pretense, the implication to readers that they are in fact “objective,” bound by ethics, even when no such moral restraint inhibits their actions. This is a debasement of the idea of truth, now reduced to an outmoded goal of journalisms past, whetted by a now-debunked idealism. The remainder is a crass predation, a reduction of insight to access, and deeply reported stories to orchestrations of pressure and predation on hapless subjects. In the theater of the War on Terror, the United States need no longer send predator drones; it can avail the talents of predator journalists, whose sly shape-shifting is a much sleeker and at times a more lethal weapon.

Suchitra Vijayan says:

Upon analyzing witness testimonies from the Nuremberg, Yugoslavia and Rwanda trials, two things become increasingly clear. First, truthful reporting of facts, analytical investigation of issues, and a stand against violence by journalists in all these instances could have both changed the behavior of the perpetrators, and in some instance even prevented the slaughter. Second, when airwaves become a platform for ideological, socio-religious-nationalist populism, there are clear roadmaps with milestones and perfected patterns of hate that lead to eventual violence and destruction of a society. Some of these milestones include:


While the list enumerated above is a repetitive pattern of behavior gathered from over hundred witness testimonies from Nuremberg to Rwanda, their relevance resonates for India today, as we are birthing a new dystopia of hate and bigotry. This list holds up a haunting mirror to the ugliness on display and the vileness employed by some Indian news channels, anchors, and journalists. It is as much a war over the minds of the people, as it is a war to enact extrajudicial and unconstitutional laws that encroach into and legislate the private lives of citizens. The absolute essence of this priming is the stamping out of pluralism in all its forms – pluralism of ideas, opinions, faiths, beliefs, memories, myths and even gods.

Sudhir Chaudhary, editor, Zee News, in an interview to Outlook magazine stated that: “It has become necessary for media houses to take a stand on certain issues. It has to be a nationalistic approach. That benefits the people of India. What do you call neutral and secular? No one is neutral anymore. I will pitch for a nationalistic reporting, …” He further states, “If you want to live in India and want the breakup of India, then why do you want to live here? Leave the country and go.”

What happens to journalism when it willingly wraps itself in a flag? To borrow from Adorno it facilitates a politics of murder and destruction.

While nationalism will continue to mediate many facets of our life, it cannot become the prism through which we understand the complexities of the world. Chaudhary, and many like him, hold an immense power of persuasion and present a position of unthinking hawkish nationalism that uncritically propagates a retreat to banal patriotism. This excludes the possibility of criticising the state and its political projects. Journalism is not the witch’s brew from Macbeth, and journalists cannot become the agents of chaos and conflict. Journalism demands detachment and objectivity that allows for dissent, disagreement, and freedom of expression. In the absence of such ethics, it clears the ground for violence and does a great disservice to the democratic way of life.

While handing down its judgment in the media trial, the ICTR rightly criminalized the hate speech of a powerful media against a vulnerable minority. The great fight for individual humanity against crimes by the state – and the journalists who defend it – has to begin with accountability. To rephrase what Rwandan journalist Thomas Kamilindi testified at the war crimes’ tribunal, how should we hold journalists accountable for their actions, and if need be prosecute them, if they knowingly caused harm, and incited violence. We must find a way to articulate and respond to such abuses of power without violating the principles of freedom, which are an indispensable cornerstone of democracy.

14 August 2018 

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