Just last week I watched a documentary, I Came to Testify, on TV. It was one of the most difficult things that I have ever watched and was the first of a series of five hour-long documentaries about Women, War and Peace. It was about the war in the Balkans and the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war against Muslim women. It tells the story of 16 Muslim women who not only survived months of rape, torture and virtual slavery, but who testified at the first international trial at which the crime of rape was defined for the first time as a crime against humanity. Somewhere between 10,000 and perhaps 50,000 women were raped by “Christian” soldiers and paramilitaries. It was not about sex; it was about power. But then, rape almost always is about power.
The stories that these 16 women told were awful in their details and in the apparent nonchalance with which the men holding them captive treated them. Part of the horror was that the town in which this happened was a town in which there had been no religious divide before the war. The people doing this were neighbours who had lived, partied, shared family lives as part of their normal activities. No-one believed that this town could be torn apart, but it was. Neighbour turned against neighbour and the worst in many people was brought out. It is always there, under the surface, in you, in me, but we keep it under control. It’s called civilized. Then Serbian leaders, anxious for power at any cost, started to broadcast about the differences between the Serbs and the “others”. Over time the message sunk in and people were encouraged to bring out their inner beast.
And I remembered … When I was a young combat arms officer in the Canadian military, we used to kid about the (not real) R&P troop. R&P stood for Rape and Pillage. And we used to crack jokes about the slow soldier who kept getting the sequence wrong: “No, no, Corporal Smithers, you always burn last, not first. Rape and pillage, then burn.” We always thought it was very funny. That was likely because in our wildest dreams, we never thought that we or any of our soldiers would conduct themselves in such an appalling way. We were professional soldiers and very proud of that fact. Treating civilians – any civilians, ours or theirs, in such an inhuman way was far beyond our understanding. Yes, we knew that it had happened in previous wars, but our war would be different. We were so incredibly naïve. We even used to joke with our equally young wives, “When rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.” They laughed too, but the laughter was brief and polite, not more. I think that they understood that we were, in fact, just joking, even if it was in dreadfully bad taste.
Then came Vietnam and the horror stories out of that war were dreadful. We still did not believe that our soldiers could be like that. But our jokes about the R&P troop indicated to the troops that the officers thought that it was all a joke. Older now, I realize that our behaviour was far beyond unprofessional. It actually encouraged the people around us to think of rape as a joke.
Watching the women testify at the trial, even though their faces and voices were disguised and they spoke through a translator, the devastation wrought on them was papable. It was dreadful to watch … and to watch the impassive faces of the three Serbian officers who were charged with the crimes. Their defence was that the sex, if it happened at all, was consensual. Consensual, with you holding a weapon and the women penned in buildings like cattle.
I wish that I could go back and undo what I did, unsay what I said, actually be a professional instead of a casual, shallow, callow youth who had no idea just how brutal the world could be. I can’t do that, of course, but what I can do is make sure that I never allow that kind of joking talk in my presence ever again. And that is my intention.