The War Crime That Kills You Quietly

A new documentary explores the first successful prosecution of rape as a war crime—the Rwanda genocide. Will the victims of ISIS and Boko Haram be next?

Rwanda launched a turning point in the international community by successfully pursuing rape as a war crime. A new documentary, The Uncondemned, examines the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the team that brought justice to the victims of the genocide, and the witnesses that helped make it possible.

After World War I ended in 1918, the War Crimes Commission laid out a list of 30 offenses so egregious they were to be forever labeled as “war crimes.”

Number five on that list was rape.

The Soviets and Japanese used rape as a tool of war in World War II, as did the Pakistanis in Bangladesh in 1971. But it wasn’t until 1997 with the first international tribunal since Nuremberg where genocide and rape were prosecuted as war crimes for the first time. During the Rwandan genocide, nearly one million people were massacred in a mere one hundred days.

Exactly 16 years ago on June 17, 1997, during the first trial of the tribunal against the mayor of Taba, Jean-Paul Akayesu, the indictment was amended to include charges of rape as a form of genocide and rape as a crime against humanity.

Today, on the anniversary of this amendment, the film will be screened in Kigali, Rwanda, before hitting the festival circuit this fall.

The filmmakers of Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?, Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel teamed up on this project to tell this historical story of obtaining justice. The prosecution team for the tribunal appears in the film and recalls their experiences during the trial and meeting the witnesses for the first time.

Pierre Prosper, 31 years old at the time, Sara Darehshori, 27, and Binaifer Nowrojee, 33, had a steep learning curve and quickly discovered that succeeding Nuremberg had high stakes. However, their key player, social worker Godelieve Mukasarasi, allowed them to bridge the gap between the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the Rwandan witnesses. Nowrojee searched for Mukasarasi, who had all the Rwanadan women gather every Saturday to talk about what happened to them in order to obtain witnesses for the trial.

Because Rwandans have cultural traditions that include not speaking about their bodies, this opportunity provided a rare sense of freedom among the suffering they had endured. Nowrojee says in the film, “I interviewed hundreds of rape victims but the Rwandan women’s were the most brutal. The women begged to be killed but the men would say, ‘no we're going to leave you alive so you will die of sadness.’”

After months of preparation, the ICTR team was ready to begin the trial. Three witnesses testified behind curtains and were referred to by their codenames JJ, OO, and NN, in order to protect their identity. Sixteen years after the tribunal, these women reveal their identity in the documentary for the first time. Today at the screening in Kigali, they will be joined by the ICTR team, Rwandan government officials, Godelieve Mukasarasi, and the filmmakers.

Before the trial Prosper had told witness JJ about the women in Bosnia and Japan and how none of the rape cases had been prosecuted. He then said to JJ, “You have the opportunity to speak for those women who cannot speak today. You have a chance to make a difference.” The three women said a prayer before testifying, “We speak only the truth and will say what we saw and not what we heard. And that we want justice, not revenge.”

JJ, OO, and NN not only made that difference in the world, but also faced genocide and came out the other side without fear. JJ says in the film, “We were representing women worldwide. It is important to know that rape is a crime that is punishable nationally, in Africa, and internationally.” When it comes to other rape survivors, she urges them not to keep quiet, “Keeping quiet kills you softly. That pain in your heart destroys you. But when you wake up and talk about it, the wound gradually gets better.”

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While this case took place almost 20 years ago, it is still relevant today. Every week we are seeing reports by ISIS and Boko Haram using rape as a form of terrorism, and the judicial precedence remains. Both terrorist groups continue to use systematic and widespread rape as a tool of war with impunity.

Co-director Nick Louvel commented on the parallels: “What is striking with ISIS is the degree of organization in the way they are carrying it out. Thousands of Yezidi women have been kidnapped,” he said. “They are separated by age, selected for features, examined for virginity, gang-raped in front of others, forcibly married, sold, gifted, converted to Islam, all in accordance with a set of precise guidelines and military-style hierarchies. Recent reports suggest that ISIS is forcing girls to get pregnant in order to populate its new state.”

Sara Darehshori, who wrote the indictment for the ICTR and now works for Human Rights Watch, continues to work with sexual violence. When it comes to war conflicts in today’s age, Darenhshori comments, “Boko Haram and ISIS seem to be pretty systematic and severe. It’s similar to what occurred in Bosnia and Rwanda. After working with survivors of sexual violence, I have seen so many of them turn the most traumatic moments of their lives into something positive.”

She continues on about the film, “The best thing about the movie is seeing the survivors years later and how they have distance from the experience. It was interesting to see how they describe the trauma. It’s very similar to the survivors I speak to now. There’s a point in recovery where part of the healing process can turn it into something constructive, so that has been a hugely motivating factor. Even though I always worry about asking someone to relive the most traumatic moment of their life, at the end of the day they said that they were so happy to participate and they felt empowered. When you live through the experience you think you could never regret it, but surely you do forget things.”

As for the rape epidemic in America and the rest of the world, there is much to be learned. Michele Mitchell told The Daily Beast, “When politicians use terms like "legitimate rape," or describe sexual assault in conflict as a "soft issue," these terms have a cumulative effect. Ultimately, we as a society do not take rape as seriously as we do other issues (take the decades-old backlog of rape kits in police departments across the country). It's not about alcohol consumption or what someone is wearing or uncontrollable sexual urges brought about by months of trench warfare. This is about control, any way you look at it. “