Christina Lamb longlist author interview
Christina Lamb, author of Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women speaks on how history overlooks the victims of war rape.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
Lots of people had said to me no one would want to read a book about war rape so I was so thrilled I was almost dancing!
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
It’s so hard to choose just one book. If I really, really had to, I guess it would be The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexeivich, an extraordinary oral history of Russian women who fought in the Second World War. A million women fought in the Red Army yet as always with women in war, their story is rarely told. Not only did she speak to the women snipers, gunners and pilots but also thousands who supported them – the phone operators, cooks and laundresses, to create a pastiche of individual voices and everyday details unlike anything I had ever read.
How did you conduct your research?
I have been a foreign correspondent mostly covering conflict for 33 years and was always more interested in what happened to women in war as it seemed to me the people trying to keep life together while all hell was breaking loose was more interesting than the actual fighting. But there is also a dark side which is the brutality against women and in particular the use of rape as a weapon of war.
For the book I went back to places where I had reported and spoke to women in 12 countries across four continents. I met them in refugee camps, hospitals and through organisations trying to help them, as well as with lawyers and prosecutors helping them fight for justice.
Why do you think there is so much silence around war rape despite its constant use across time and continents?
How often do you see women’s names on war memorials? Just as history tends to be written by the victors, it also tends to be written by men who see it as a side issue (with a few recent exceptions of Antony Beevor and Paul Preston who have highlighted the widespread rape by Russian soldiers in the Liberation of Berlin and by Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War). Yet it has been going on throughout history - the very first written history by Herodotus opens with the abduction of women by Greeks and Phoenicians and there are famous representations in art such as Rubens’ Rape of the Sabine Women and even outside the EU headquarters with its bronze statue of Europa riding the bull but we pass these things without thinking what they mean.
Rape in war is a war crime but the failure to acknowledge it, let alone bring justice has given licence to people to use it more and more. I have seen far too many horrendous things as a reporter but nothing is more shocking than seeing the rape of women and children, even babies – this absolutely should not be happening in the 21st century.
What are you working on next?
Like everyone, Covid-19 has completely changed my life – it’s not a great time to be a foreign correspondent! So I have turned my attention to my own country and some uncomfortable truths being exposed by the pandemic…