state of the planet: women in war, rape as a weapon

The ordeal of Jamie Leigh Jones - and her willingness to be public about it - has inspired many other women to speak out. Jones, you'll recall, is the former KBR employee who was gang-raped by other employees, then her employer - with the help of the US government - covered up the crime.

Writing in The Nation, Karen Houppert tells the story of "Lisa Smith" (a pseudonym), a paramedic working for the private contractor in southern Iraq. The story is here. Warning: Rape survivors with sensitive flashback mechanisms may want to proceed with caution or save it for the right time. There are graphic details.

From Houppert:
Smith felt very alone. But she was not.

In fact, a growing number of women employees working for US defense contractors in the Middle East are coming forward with complaints of violence directed at them. As the Iraq War drags on, and as stories of US security contractors who seem to operate with impunity continue to emerge (like Blackwater and its deadly attack against Iraqi civilians on September 16, 2007), a rash of new sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints are being lodged against overseas contractors--by their own employees. Todd Kelly, a lawyer in Houston, says his firm alone has fifteen clients with sexual assault, sexual harassment and retaliation complaints (for reporting assault and/or harassment) against Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC (KBR), as well as Cayman Island-based Service Employees International Inc., a KBR shell company. (While Smith is technically an SEII employee, she is supervised by KBR staff as a KBR employee.)

Jamie Leigh Jones, whose story made the news in December--when she alleged that her 2005 gang rape by Halliburton/KBR co-workers in Iraq was being covered up by the company and the US government--also initially believed hers was an isolated incident. But today, Jones reports that she has formed a nonprofit to support the many other women with similar stories. Currently, she has forty US contractor employees in her database who have contacted her alleging a variety of sexual assault or sexual harassment incidents--and claim that Halliburton, KBR and SEII have either failed to help them or outright obstructed them.

The "Lisa Smith" story offers an excellent and rare insight into the heart and mind of a recent rape survivor. It concludes:
Smith, who says she cannot sleep, appears exhausted. She tells her story without affect, little inflection and tamped emotion. She only tears up twice, most visibly when speaking about one of her sons, a 22-year-old US soldier who served in the Middle East recently. While she was in the process of debating whether--and how--to go about reporting her assault, she contacted him to see what his feelings were on the matter. "I didn't want him upset with his mom," she says, explaining that she was very loyal to the mission in Iraq and that he was similarly loyal to his service. "I was assaulted by somebody who was wearing the same uniform as him, and I just didn't want him to think bad of me. My children are pretty much my world." Smith's eyes fill with tears, and she pauses to collect herself. "I didn't want him to be upset because I was calling out somebody who was wearing his same uniform. They're supposed to be proud of what they do. And I'm proud of my sons. And in my mind, I live that war every day. I can make all sorts of excuses under the sun for bad behavior."

Her son advised her to make the formal complaint.

"He was like, 'Of course you're going to talk to CID, Mom. Of course you are.'" Smith smiles. "He doesn't think people should be allowed to wear his uniform and act like that. He's been in the war too and says it's no excuse. They're better trained than that. That's what my son thought. And he's not angry at his mom."

Rape has been a weapon during wartime for as long as there has been war. The classic Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller was probably my earliest education about that. But my more recent exploration of the nature of war has also helped me understand it (as much as such a thing can be understood). In War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges writes about the dehumanization, the atmosphere of violence and aggression, the numbing of all empathy and compassion, that overtakes most people in war, where sex becomes another weapon of submission.

In the movie "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo", filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson documents rape on a scale almost too large to comprehend. Jackson is herself a rape survivor, and she travelled to The Congo to hear the stories of survivors of mass rapes.
It became so much woman to woman. I very quickly lost that sense of them being 'other.' It made it easier, but it also made it harder. . . there were a lot of tears alone in my room at night, . . . I would find myself, at Panzi or in the bush for instance, and there were entire villages of women who had been raped - there was not a woman there who had not suffered."

I spent more than two years, on and off, interviewing rape survivors and people who minister to them. I thought I could do that without the stories touching memories of my own assault, or perhaps I needed to think that to begin. I also interviewed several social workers who specialize in sexual assault, especially child sexual abuse. I was interested in what happens to people who are absorbing all that pain. I really admire the work Jackson did to make this film. I'm especially impressed (and amazed) that she interviewed men who committed these crimes.

From Women Make Movies:
Shot in the war zones of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this extraordinary film shatters the silence that surrounds the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. During the decade-long brutal war in the DRC, many tens of thousands of women and girls have been systematically kidnapped, raped, mutilated and tortured by soldiers from both foreign militias and the Congolese army. A survivor of gang rape herself, Emmy-Award winning filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson travels through the DRC to understand what is happening and why.

This moving, award-winning documentary, produced in association with HBO Documentary Films and the Fledgling Fund, features interviews with activists, peace keepers, physicians, and even – chillingly – the indifferent rapists who are soldiers of the Congolese Army. But the most moving and harrowing moments of the film come as dozens of survivors recount their stories with an honesty and immediacy pulverizing in its intimacy and detail. A profoundly disturbing portrayal of the ways that violence against women is used as a weapon of war, this powerful film also provides inspiring examples of resiliency, resistance, courage and grace.

The Greatest Silence premieres on HBO this week, and I imagine it will soon be available on DVD. This is the kind of film that I must force myself to see, but I always do, eventually.

I often hear people say they don't like to see movies that are so disturbing. I think, how else can we learn about other people's experiences? And if we don't learn about them, how will we empathize? I think of it this way: if people can live through it, the least I can do is bear witness.

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