Armed with pistols and machetes, Burmese soldiers stormed into Amina’s home, killing her husband with a bullet to the head. When her two-month-old son began crying, one soldier seized the child and dashed him against a wall. “My heart shattered into a thousand pieces,” Amina wept. Two soldiers then held her down as a third raped her. When she screamed, they choked her. “When they turned my head to the side,” she said, “I saw my son’s lifeless body lying there on the ground.”
I first met Amina in September 2017, when she arrived in Bangladesh. She'd come fleeing Myanmar’s military crackdown against Rohingya Muslims, which a UN fact-finding mission has described as having “genocidal intent”. Following her brutal rape, the Burmese soldiers set Amina’s house on fire – but with the help of her neighbours, she managed to get out alive. On her arms, the wounds she had sustained during the attack were still fresh.
In the past few years of reporting on the Rohingya crisis, I’ve met hundreds of Rohingya women like Amina. From schoolgirls to grandmothers, nearly every one has shared eerily similar, deeply harrowing stories of what they’ve endured at the hands of the Burmese military: of being forced to strip naked and herded into huts like cattle; of being handpicked and dragged away for rape at gunpoint; of discovering the mutilated bodies of their mothers, sisters, friends floating in muddy ravines.
It takes profound bravery to speak of the unspeakable. As eight-year-old Maryam told me how she was taken into a classroom and gang-raped by soldiers, I couldn’t help but cry. Before I left, her mother said to me: “We don’t need sympathy. We want justice.”
Tomorrow, Myanmar’s state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi will appear at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to defend Myanmar against the charge of genocide. Since rape has been central to Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya, it must be placed at the heart of the case. If it is, it will be the first time the ICJ will hold a state responsible for genocide through a campaign of systematic rape.. This has the potential to enhance feminist international law and strengthen justice and accountability in future cases of war-time rape.
Despite its commonness, rape has long been an invisible war crime. Gender-based violence seems to escape sanction as it continues to be conceived as a private crime, committed by individual men, rather than a public crime, committed by agents of the state; a matter of the home, not the battlefield. If women's human rights are to be respected in war and in peace, this imaginary border between the public and the private must be abandoned.
Rape committed during war is often systematic and intended to terrorise civilians, break up families and, in some instances, change the ethnic make-up of a population. During the Rwandan genocide, an estimated 250,000 women were raped in the space of three months, as Hutu leaders took AIDS patients from hospitals to form rape squads and infect Tutsi women. In the Bosnian war, Serbian forces used rape as a weapon against civilians; rape camps were established where women were raped repeatedly and only released once they became pregnant.
The Myanmar military's use of rape against Rohingya women is not simply a by-product of conflict: it is a strategy in it, one whose aim is to drive out the target population. Across continents and centuries, war-time rape victims continue to await justice. Thousands of women still struggle with the impact of rape without proper access to the legal, medical and financial assistance needed to rebuild their lives – all while the perpetrators go unpunished.
International treaties and mechanisms are only useful if they are implemented properly. Laws and policies only offer protection if they are respected – otherwise, they are little more than empty promises. The sexual violence committed by the Burmese military against the Rohingya is fundamental to the case against Myanmar, and the ICJ must take every action to ensure these crimes are properly investigated. Anything else will fail to deliver justice and undermine the court’s authority.
Rohingya women don't need sympathy, they need justice. The past 20 years have delivered pitifully little of it to wartime rape victims. The ICJ has the opportunity to change that.
Thaslima Begum is a human rights journalist with a focus on women, conflict and migration. She was recently nominated for Britain's Orwell Prize for her ongoing coverage of the Rohingya crisis