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Women's war wounds never really heal
By Kirthi Jayakumar
For Ameena Sawwan, the survivor of a chemical weapons attack in Syria, it was the Arab Spring that turned out to be the beginning of a nightmare in which she is trapped even today. What started off as peaceful protests against a repressive regime soon gave way to a series of retaliatory attacks by the government forces. These days, there is a civil war raging in her country, which has exposed countless citizens, particularly vulnerable women and children like Ameena and her little nieces and nephews, to mind-numbing violence. "The United Nations, the US, and countless other countries all know about what is happening to us. Everyone has acknowledged [the atrocities] publicly. We are peaceful people and we are being killed mercilessly," she states.

Like Ameena, the throes of conflict has also left Divine, a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide and sexual violence as a refugee in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), in the murky waters of trauma, while Siah (name changed), a rape survivor in the 1991 Kunan Poshpora incident in Kashmir, has spent years on end struggling for survival and fighting for justice.

Despite the fact that Ameena, Divine and Siah are separated by geographical boundaries, their gruesome realities clearly reveal that conflict leaves a lasting impact on women and girls. If physically they have to cope with debilitating injuries, psychologically, they carry the burden of post-traumatic stress disorder; not many are able to get access to the professional help needed to adjust to the crippling pain. Added to these, is a third dimension - social discrimination. Rape survivors and those who have been subjected to other forms of sexual violence are often either thrown out of their home or discriminated against not just by their own family members but also by the community at large.

In DR Congo, where the army has been fighting rival militia groups for over a decade now, rape has systematically been used as a weapon of war. In fact, it is estimated that there are as many as 200,000 surviving rape victims in the war-torn nation and each one of them has a harrowing account to share. Divine, who hails from Walungu, is one of them. "Though several years have passed, I can't forget the pain I had to endure because of the ill-conceived behaviour of so many men. I am one of many women who have been wronged in this way - and [the great tragedy is that] this is still going on. I survived because I fought every day, every minute every possible problem that came my way. But I know that not everyone can muster the kind of strength and resilience needed to overcome such unrelenting torment," she remarks.

Medical professionals like Dr Denis Mukwege, a renowned surgeon at Panzi Hospital in DR Congo, who has been "treating one woman after another, sending them back to a war zone only to be raped again or ostracised by their communities", and Dr Ketki Adams, a UK-based gynaecologist, who has extensively served on missions in Congo as well as Rwanda, have seen hundreds of thousands of women like Divine trying to grapple with physical pain and fear. According to Dr Adams, "During conflict, there is no law but the law of brutality. This is why conflict rape is a war weapon; it destroys the very fabric of society. I have seen several cases where girls have come into our tents with torn privates. Some were so horribly disfigured that I would often be reduced to tears after the reconstructive surgery."

If Divine is unable forget the tough times she has lived through, then Ameena is unable to get that dark night out of her mind when her hometown, Moadamiya in southern Syria, came under fierce fire. She recounts how even though the protests in her country began peacefully after the government's brutal response all hell broke loose. Her district was put in the crosshairs of a deadly chemical weapons attack in which she ended up losing her brother, his wife, and their three children. "On the night of the attack, I was awake until the wee hours of the morning. It was 2 am and I was online checking out a link for a series of videos on chemical attacks that my friend had sent. The images were ghastly. People were convulsing and trembling weirdly. I had never seen anything like that before; it was just horrifying. I remember wondering how they could do it, how anyone could hurt people like this. Three hours later, unexpectedly, we were attacked. We never thought it was possible - the three earlier attacks had happened in the western part of Damascus, and here we were in the east. We actually believed Moadamiya would not come under attack because it was so close to Damascus. But as we learned later, they [Bashar al-Assad and his supporters] were prepared. There were systematic evacuations of all the military points, and those that remained wore gas masks," she shares. Within moments of the attack, Ameena started to have shortness of breath. Scared out of her mind, she went and woke up everyone in her household. "We lived in a basement, there were 15 of us: my brothers, their wives and kids, my parents, my cousin Heba and I. We were most afraid for my one month old niece, Haneen, because she was just an infant. In the attack, the regime hit us with hundreds of mortar shells and devastating ground-to-ground missiles destroying entire civilian neighbourhoods," adds Ameena.

Like most ordinary Syrians, Ameena is trying hard to hold on to hope even though their circumstances have steadily worsened over the last three years. As Ameena puts it, "Bashar Assad will still use weapons to kill us all and not just chemical weapons. Even previously he has used all kinds of weapons to annihilate us. He is killing his own people and the world is watching. No one, simply no one is helping us."

For many women caught in the crossfire lasting peace is closely related to justice. Yet, survivors of sexual violence especially find themselves in a difficult place as the process of gaining justice is often long-drawn. Siah was 14 when she was raped during the Kunan Poshpora incident in Kashmir's remote Kupwara district. More than two decades on, her quest for justice continues. "I was raped and beaten so many times that fateful night. Later, one government official visited our village and reported all that we told him to the civil administrator of Kashmir. An FIR was lodged. An investigation took place paving the way for the identification and arrest of the culprits. That was when we hit a dead end. What followed next were cover-ups, denials and an absolute disregard for anything we had gone through. Most of the higher ups in the administrative and political hierarchy decided to ignore us. We are desperate for justice," she urges.

Justice is an absolute necessity if these women have to even begin to rebuild their lives. It may not necessarily have a deterrent effect but can definitely help give survivors some closure. Divine concludes, "There is so much to be done to remedy this. We are not far gone at all, as the world insists. We have hope, and we deserve hope. We need to stay strong in our fight to ensure that this does not happen again to anyone in the world."

—(Women's Feature Service)

News Updated at : Wednesday, May 20, 2015
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