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From the renowned authority on domestic violence, a startlingly original inquiry into the aftermath of wars and their impact on the least visible victims: women
In 2007, the International Rescue Committee, which brings relief to countries in the wake of war, wanted to understand what really happened to women in war zones. Answers came through the point and click of a digital camera. On behalf of the IRC, Ann Jones spent two years traveling through Africa, East Asia, and the ...
From the renowned authority on domestic violence, a startlingly original inquiry into the aftermath of wars and their impact on the least visible victims: women
In 2007, the International Rescue Committee, which brings relief to countries in the wake of war, wanted to understand what really happened to women in war zones. Answers came through the point and click of a digital camera. On behalf of the IRC, Ann Jones spent two years traveling through Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East, giving cameras to women who had no other means of telling the world what war had done to their lives.
The photography project--which moved from Liberia to Syria and points in between--quickly broadened to encompass the full consequences of modern warfare for the most vulnerable. Even after the definitive moments of military victory, women and children remain blighted by injury and displacement and are the most affected by the destruction of communities and social institutions. And along with peace often comes worsening violence against women, both domestic and sexual.
Dramatic and compelling, animated by the voices of brave and resourceful women, War Is Not Over When It's Over shines a powerful light on a phenomenon that has long been cast in shadow.
“Gripping... This searing exposé on war’s remnants convincingly makes the case that gender inequality may be one of the greatest threats to peace.”
A gripping, ground-floor look at the lingering ravages of conflict in some of the deadliest contemporary war zones.
Photographer and activist Jones (Kabul in Winter, 2007, etc.), an award-winning authority on domestic violence, turns her journalistic sights on women in areas where war and its grim aftermath have significantly altered their lives. The author recounts her experiences from 2007 to 2009 while volunteering with the International Rescue Committee in Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Congo, as well as in Burmese refugee camps in Thailand and with Iraqi refugees scattered throughout Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The IRC's basic project was to enable women in these troubled areas to "examine their problems and present suggestions to improve their lives," and they provided digital cameras to small groups of women, asking them to photograph some things they found pleasing, others they found problematic, and then gathered the women and other locals to exhibit and discuss the photos. It is difficult to choose the more powerful result: Jones's intimate portrayal of disturbingly similar atrocities exposed in each region, or the self-awakening and solidarity the graphic recording of their living conditions occasioned in the photographers. For example, in the Congo, a renowned gynecologist reported surgically treating more than 10,000 rape victims from 2004 to 2008—"the oldest patient was eighty-three, the youngest nine months"; at the IRC women's photo exhibition, one of the photographers explained why they had cloaked their subject in a sheet: "We covered her face because we did not want to show her identity—and she could be any one of us." After describing the conundrum faced by Burmese refugees in Thai camps—"they can't return to their own country, and they can't enter this new one"—Jones wryly observes: "A photo is not always worth a thousand words. Sometimes you need the words to grasp the photo; without them, you would never know that the graceful lady with the rosy umbrella passing over the pretty river has no place to go."
This searing exposé on war's remnants convincingly makes the case that gender inequality may be one of the greatest threats to peace.
War Is Not Healthy
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 2008, as BBC TV presenters wearing crisp red paper poppy boutonnieres interview the last survivors of the Great War in Flanders fields, I sit in a sleazy hotel room off Hamra Street in Beirut, going over my notes of the day's interviews with refugees from the war in Iraq. After weeks of talking to refugees in Amman and Damascus, I met today in Beirut for the first time an Iraqi who actually was liberated by the American invasion of his country. His name is Ahmad.
As a young man, Ahmad worked as a mechanic in Baghdad and somehow managed to avoid being conscripted to serve in Saddam Hussein's war against Iran. By 1986, when he was twenty-six, the war had turned in Iran's favor. The Ayatollah Khomeini threatened to depose Saddam Hussein, and Saddam in turn cracked down on suspected enemies at home. He arrested Ahmad's sister and her husband, who were associated with a dissident party, and he arrested Ahmad as well. Charged as enemies of Saddam Hussein, Ahmad's sister and her husband were hanged, and Ahmad was sentenced to sixty years in prison. Interrogators tortured him every day for two years, trying to elicit a confession worthy of his sentence. He had nothing to confess. Interrogators pulled out his toenails, burned and cut the skin from his lower legs, inserted a hose in his anus and pumped him full of water, administered electric shocks to parts of his body he cannot name, and beat his head and body with wooden clubs and steel batons. At last he told them to write down whatever they liked and he would sign it. After that false confession, his captors abandoned the most brutal "enhanced interrogation" techniques; they had what they wanted. But they continued to beat him routinely, less viciously and less often, for sixteen years. In 2003, two days after the American invasion, Ahmad and his fellow prisoners realized that the guards had abandoned the prison. They broke down the doors and set themselves free.
Ahmad returned to his parents' home and found work again as a mechanic. Two months after his escape, he winked at a woman working in a cosmetics shop across the road. She smiled and seven days later they married. Her name is Azhar. They moved into a house they bought together. Then in July 2005, as Iraq descended into chaos, Ahmad was kidnapped by men from the Mahdi Army who demanded $150,000 ransom. He says, "I had been so happy—loving life, laughing, spending money—they must have thought I was rich." The kidnappers also held two children, and when no ransom was paid, they cut their throats before Ahmad's eyes. Azhar borrowed $10,000 from her parents to arrange Ahmad's release after fifteen days in captivity. Soon Ahmad received a letter warning him to leave his house or be killed. He and his wife sold everything, repaid her parents, and fled to Syria where Azhar soon gave birth to a son. For a year they lived what Ahmad calls "a simple life."
In 2007, running out of money, Ahmad went to Lebanon. He had been told that he might find highly paid work in Beirut, but he didn't. Penniless and lonely, in November 2007 he sent for his wife and son. The family registered with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and asked to be resettled in another country. Referred to the United States, they were interviewed by U.S. embassy officials. They wait for a decision in a windowless one-room apartment that reminds Ahmad of prison. Fear of being detained and deported by the authorities keeps him confined to that room. He suffers depression, anxiety, flashbacks. And he beats his wife as he was beaten. He was tortured. He tortures her. ("Domestic violence" is the euphemism we use to name torture that takes place in the home, but a comparison of standard techniques—from stripping and sleep deprivation to beating, burning, bondage, asphyxiation, and sexual assault—shows that torture by another name is still torture.) Slowly, with the help of psychotherapists at Restart, a UNHCR-funded program for survivors of torture, Ahmad is learning to stop abusing Azhar. "She is my life," he says. "I would die without her." (She says, "I choose to share this life of misery with him.") He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, and chronic back pain, the physical effects of his long imprisonment, and from the unrelenting depression of a man so poor he has only one set of clothes. The family of his youth is gone: three sisters in Sweden, one in Germany, one killed in the first American war, one executed, two brothers shot and killed during the second American war, one by an Iraqi militiaman in the street, the other by an American soldier in the living room. Ahmad fears for his child. Waiting for the American embassy to call, he says, "I need to know if my son has a future."
Today, in the bleak room he shares with Azhar and their young son in South Beirut, Ahmad removed his plastic shoes to show me his swollen feet, still purple and marked by sunken scars where toenails used to be. He says that when he has flashbacks he feels overcome by powerlessness and rage. What these feelings compel him to do threatens to destroy his life. He sometimes loses control and hits Azhar hard, and then he weeps and begs her pardon. His eyes seem to leak even as he says these things.
I am here to listen. I listen to what people like Ahmad and Azhar tell me about war and the violence that attends it because my own life—the only life I can know firsthand, and even that imperfectly—has been darkened by war. That war is now commemorated with paper poppies, the Great War, in which my father served with uncommon distinction and from which he returned a hero, irrevocably changed, subject to nightmares and sudden rages and drunken assaults upon innocent furniture and my mother and me, and tearful reconciliations we were not permitted to reject. I watch the BBC coverage of the distant ritual of Armistice Day and see many people, mostly women, advanced well beyond middle age, weeping with remembrance. Their memories, I imagine, might be like mine: the memories of people who never participated in the war and yet have never escaped it. My father, at sixteen, enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force to take part in the war to end all wars. But that's not how it worked out. In some ways, as the BBC presenter says, the Great War laid the foundation for more wars to come, and certainly for wars at home, like the one my father waged for twenty years and more against my mother and me in a dark-green-shuttered house in a small town in Wisconsin. The war my father carried home in his khaki canvas bag from the trenches of Flanders to the valley of the Chippewa is the shadow in which I've lived my solitary life. It is surely the reason that now in my seventieth year I sit in this seedy room in a fading hotel long favored by journalists and stare at cigarette burns in the worn carpet, and see only the purple toes of Ahmad and the fading yellow bruises on the face of his wife.
My father used to say that wars were made by men who had never been to war, men who didn't know that once started it never ends. The Great War ended with the Armistice in 1918, but my father lived another sixty years; and during all that time the war never left his memory or his nightmares. Nor is it ever far from mine, because the violence my father brought home fell on me and shattered whatever small childish trust I may once have had in the simplicity of love. The violence of war does not end when peace is declared. Often it merely recedes from public to private life. I am here in Beirut talking about war, writing about war, because my father fought bravely in a brutal one. And that changed everything for him, and consequently for me.
For many years I studied violence in the family and wrote about it in several books. I was part of a widespread movement of women in the United States and elsewhere who worked hard to change attitudes and laws about violence against women, inside and outside the home, and to provide services for women and child survivors. It was the home that I wanted to make safe for women and children because the home was what I knew, in all its fearful rage and sorrow.
Many of us who did this work argued that the violence of private life is not private at all. So often it spills into the world at large. An abusive husband shoots his estranged wife in her workplace and kills some of her colleagues as well. Another appears for a child custody hearing and shoots his wife, her lawyer, the judge, and other bystanders. We see such stories often in the media. Accounts of these routine rampages invariably accept the shooter's anger at his estranged wife or girlfriend as sufficient explanation for mass homicide. But where does such rage come from?
I still believe that violence in the home imperils us all. Just as it spills into the streets, it schools the next generation in violence. But now I wonder if that is truly where violence starts, at home. When my father attacked my mother or me, he was often angry about something altogether different. He laid into us—me especially—because I was there. But the response? The techniques? Those were things he had learned in the army. In fact it must have been his success in learning to act so swiftly, so effectively, so violently that made him a hero and earned him the highest honors of three allied countries. His medals hung on the wall at home, under glass. Friends of our family often said to me: "You must be so proud of your father." I was. I admired him and loved him, even though I knew what his heroism cost us, and him, at home.
One stronghold of the battered women's movement—in Maryland, if I remember rightly—distributed T-shirts bearing the words world peace Begins at Home. I believed it. Raise up children in peaceful homes free of violence, I thought, and they will make peace. But now, having spent the last many years in and around wars, I think the motto is painfully idealistic. The relationship it describes is reciprocal, but not fair. World peace may begin at home, but violence just as surely begins in war; and war does not end.
Ahmad's cry—"I need to know if my son has a future"—is echoed by all survivors of the violence of war. What will become of the children? During the war in Vietnam, the peace movement had a slogan: "War is not healthy for children and other living things." In the violence of war, children are orphaned, maimed, mutilated, sexually assaulted, kidnapped, forced to be soldiers or servants or sex slaves, tortured, and murdered. The children who survive the violence of war may be deeply wounded, robbed of childhood, and poised to enter adult life already crippled beyond repair. Even children who know war only at secondhand, the children of soldiers returning from far-off lands, may be bent. Any of these damaged children may inflict the harm done to them upon others, even when it breaks their hearts.
Think of wars of recent memory and those still going on in the world today. Think of Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Burma. Think of Darfur, South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone. Think of Sri Lanka, Kashmir, East Timor, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea. Think of Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Georgia, Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia. Think especially of the United States, which has been at war, overtly or covertly, some place (or many places) in the world almost continuously since 1941.
Today children and their mothers are among the first victims of such wars. Despite the conventions of modern warfare that forbid armies to target civilians, it is civilians who die in far greater numbers than do soldiers. The more high-tech the army, the more sophisticated its weaponry, the safer the soldiers; but that shield does not extend to citizens. In fact, in many conflicts today, ruthless leaders use an effective strategy to destroy the civil society and culture of the enemy: a deliberate but unacknowledged war against women.
After 9/11, when America was seized by the Bush administration's ruinous enthusiasm for combat, I left the country to practice peace by working elsewhere with women. From 2002 to 2006, I volunteered with humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan. (I've written about what I learned there in an earlier book: Kabul in Winter.) Then, in the fall of 2007, I began to work as an unpaid volunteer with the International Rescue Committee, one of the oldest (more than 75 years) and most respected humanitarian nongovernmental organizations in the world. Its specialty is bringing immediate emergency relief to needful countries in the wake of war. That means mostly clean water, sanitation, basic health care, and basic education—all things I know only a little about. My experience lies in thinking about and working to stop violence against women. So the IRC assigned me to its technical unit that deals with GBV—that's Gender-Based Violence, a gender-neutral euphemism for violence against women. Among international humanitarian organizations, the IRC has taken the lead in working on GBV in direct response to the consequences of modern warfare, in which the principal casualties are not soldiers but civilians, and great numbers of those civilians are women, often targeted precisely because they are women.
Even when a conflict officially ends, violence against women continues and often grows worse. Murderous aggression is not turned off overnight; when men stop attacking one another, women continue to be convenient targets. Opposing factions of men sit down together to negotiate a peace settlement without ever letting up on rape, abduction, mutilation, and murder of women and girls. And whenever soldiers rape during war, rape becomes a habit taken up by civilian men and carried seamlessly from wartime into the troubled "post-conflict" time beyond that is labeled "peace." Wherever normal structures of law enforcement and justice have been disabled by war, soldiers and civilian men alike prey upon women and children with impunity.
So when the International Rescue Committee walks into any post-conflict zone, anywhere in the world, it walks straight into violence against women; and because its long-standing mission is to address human needs created by conflict, it must respond. The IRC recognizes violence against women as a fundamental issue of human rights, a central public health concern, and a major impediment to peacemaking, reconstruction, and development of war-torn countries.
The United Nations agrees and goes further. On October 31, 2000, the Security Council passed Resolution 1325, calling for women to participate fully at decision-making levels in every step of conflict resolution and peace building. Without the active participation of women, the UN argued, no just and lasting peace could be achieved. SCR 1325 was greeted around the world as a great achievement and a victory for women and peace, but later when men in post-conflict countries negotiated agreements, often with the guidance of the UN, they forgot all about it. The usual excuse was that they had to act fast, speed apparently being more important than justice or durability or women.
On June 19, 2008, the United Nations Security Council passed another landmark resolution. SCR 1820 demands "the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians with immediate effect." It acknowledges the true state of millions of the world's women and girls: objectified, terrorized, brutalized, and violated in one conflict after another from the Balkans to Iraq and across the great sweep of Africa. More important, Resolution 1820 connects the dots: widespread rape of women in war effectively prevents the very participation in public life that Resolution 1325 identified as essential to devising durable peace. Resolution 1820 reframes the issue: widespread rape in wartime is no longer merely a woman's complaint, an instance of gender-based violence, or a public health concern—it is a matter of international security and peace. That makes it subject to sanctions, force, and the jurisdiction of international criminal tribunals and courts—if those with the power to act choose to do so. SCR 1820 sets forth the reasons why they should: Where women do not take part in peacemaking, there is no just and lasting peace. Where there is no lasting peace, no one is secure.
The principles set forth by the UN guide the work of NGOs like the IRC as well. We act as if the resolutions amount to natural law, but we act on a smaller scale, within the confines of specific conflicts, amid the rubble of particular wars. In my case, I sat down in New York with Heidi Lehmann, the head of the GBV technical unit, to see what I could do. Unlike many aid workers who have all-purpose answers, Heidi had questions. "We see all these statistics about the numbers of women raped and captured or displaced," she said, "but we don't know much about who they are." She wanted to know what ordinary women think about in the aftermath of war: what their problems are, and their hopes, and what international assistance might actually be of help to them. And she wanted to find a way to break the silence that seemed to surround them—to help them speak up for themselves. Women need more than the world's sympathy. They need the world's ear.
What we came up with was a simple project with a fancy title: "A Global Crescendo: Women's Voices from Conflict Zones." The title embodied Heidi's desire to hear a rising chorus; the tool we used was not musical, but visual. Here's how it worked. In different "post-conflict" regions, I loaned digital point-and-shoot cameras—good ones—to small groups of women volunteers and asked them to document their lives in photographs. I asked them to take pictures of whatever they wished, and to include a few shots that illustrated some blessings and some problems in their lives. The women shared cameras and worked together in teams. Few of them had seen a camera before, but many took hundreds of photos. For a month or more we met once a week—that was all the time they could spare—to look at their photos (in computer slide shows) and talk about the issues they raised. Then the women organized a "First-Ever All-Women's Photography Exhibition and Celebration" and invited all the local bigwigs. (The IRC brought refreshments.) On the appointed day, each of the women—few of whom had ever spoken in public before—presented two of her most important photos and made the case for action on the issues documented in the pictures.
By the time I collected the cameras to move on to another country, the women didn't need them anymore. They could look around, spot problems, and speak up—a process I called (off the record) "See, shoot, and shout." In On Photography, Susan Sontag observes: "To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power."
"Knowledge" and "power" are the operative words here. One Global Crescendo participant put it this way: "Some people use cameras. Some people become cameras. Me, I'm a camera." The practice of photography had given her the skill and the confidence to be an advocate for herself and other women. The photographs were evidence of the truth of what she said. The impact on the community varied from place to place, but the changes in the way communities looked at women, and women looked at themselves, were real and often dramatic.
Because some readers might want to emulate this project, I want to say clearly that "A Global Crescendo" was not in the end about photography but about developing the particular skills (observation, analysis, articulation) and confidence that people need to advocate for themselves. There are now countless photo projects going on around the world in which artists or humanitarians give cameras to children or farmers or prostitutes and later present exhibitions as if the photographs are surprising documents of the lives of "others" or self-contained works of art: photographs that speak for themselves. "A Global Crescendo," on the other hand, is about photographers, women, who speak for themselves and go on speaking long after their cameras have left town.
Everyone I worked with on this project was a survivor of war, recently ended or still going on. Everyone had been affected by violence, displacement, loss, terror, and unimaginable brutality. I listened to hundreds of terrible personal stories. Sometimes when I got up to leave after listening for a long time, I found it hard to keep my balance and to walk away. A Congolese nurse in North Kivu province once told me about the way he and his medical colleagues reacted to the stories they heard from women who had been raped during a decade of war. He said, "We are obliged to weep. Sometimes we are obliged to hit our heads against the wall, and sometimes we just fall down."
I listened with a head full of memories of what I'd already learned about war in Afghanistan, and I saw that the practice and consequences of modern warfare are nothing like those planned and reported by American leaders. The architects of disastrous U.S. ventures seek unequivocal and terminal "victory," relying on bombing tonnage to erase enemies, both military and civilian, and enable marines to raise a final flag. U.S. leaders continue to measure success in terms of minimal American military casualties. They don't count civilian casualties among the "enemy" or even among the American civilian contractors who now do so much of the work and reap so many of the profits of waging the country's wars. They don't count the lost life of communities or social institutions. They don't record the moment in which a culture implodes. They don't acknowledge that when "peace" comes, the war against women continues. Given these limited terms of assessment, official American reports of the consequences of war serve only to misinform and mislead. They obscure the true nature and conduct of contemporary warfare, and what it does to people and societies.
The women who took part in "A Global Crescendo" help to set the record straight. Like most women and men around the world, they have no stake in America's wars or in their own. They care about their families, their children's education, their spouse's intermittent kindness, their income, their relationship to their gods, perhaps the acquisition of a new pair of sandals. My intention in volunteering with the IRC was to give the women who took part a chance to make their voices heard. I led the Global Crescendo Project in five countries—Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Thailand (where I worked with minority refugees from Burma)—and I came to feel an obligation to add my own voice by reporting what I learned about what these brave women want and what war has done to their dreams.
But you'll notice that the Global Crescendo isn't very global after all. Four of the five project countries are in Africa. We always hoped to carry the work to Iraq, but as my volunteer year neared an end, the IRC was feeling its way into Kurdistan while the rest of Iraq still lay off limits. And funders saw limited value in a project that sent groups of village women out to take pictures. (You can't quantify the results: so many wells dug, so many pumps installed, so many vaccinations given, so many school notebooks handed out.) So I went myself to talk to Iraqis, not in Iraq, but over the borders—in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon—where the country's most articulate citizens have sought refuge. No project. No show. No refreshments. No cameras except my own—temporarily put at the service of UNHCR, the agency working overtime to register and assist refugees. But I'll tell you those stories as well. They should be part of a global crescendo. I keep hoping it might grow loud enough to drown out the drums of war.