Michele Mitchell was stuck on Interstate 405 in Southern California when she realized she needed to make a film about sexual violence.
It was 2012, and Todd Akin, a former Missouri congressman, had just made a comment that will be remembered as one of the most idiotic and tone-deaf in campaign history. Akin, a Republican who was attempting to unseat Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, said on public television that women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely end up pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
“Thank God I was stopped in traffic because I was so angry,” Mitchell tells Newsweek. “I was like, ‘The Serbs didn’t get that memo,’” referring to the conflict in Bosnia. From that point on, Mitchell says, she wanted to find a story that “takes the sex out of sex crimes and puts it so firmly in the realm where it should be, an act of power, torture and humiliation.”
In her film, The Uncondemned, she says, “Rape in conflict is stripped down to what it actually is, which is an act of deadly intent.”
Mitchell's documentary focuses on Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and the case of Jean-Paul Akayesu, who became the first person ever to be convicted for genocide and for using rape as a weapon of war, as well as the group of survivors, lawyers and investigators who helped make the historic verdict possible. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) concluded in Akayesu’s case that rape and sexual violence “constitute genocide in the same way as any other act as long as they were committed with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular group, targeted as such.”
The use of rape in war “has existed for as long as there has been conflict,” U.N. Women said in a 1998 report. Yet sexual violence during war didn’t receive worldwide attention until the 1992-1995 conflict in Bosnia, where 60,000 mainly Muslim women were raped, according to Women Under Siege, a project at the Women’s Media Center that reports on the use of sexual violence in conflict. In many cases, their ordeals took place in “rape camps,” which were established for the sole purpose of torture and abuse of women and girls.
The 1998 conviction of Akayesu—a former mayor of Taba, a small commune 40 miles west of the capital Kigali—was a “watershed” moment, says Lauren Wolfe, journalist and director of Women Under Siege. The actual number of women who were raped during the 100-day Rwandan genocide, during which time around 800,000 mainly Tutsi people were murdered, remains unknown.
“Until then, rape had been on the books as a prosecutable crime in war, but it hadn’t actually been prosecuted,” says Wolfe. “[Akayesu] was a real sea-change moment.”
When Mitchell started interviewing the group of women who testified during Akayesu’s trial, she says they didn’t realize other women had gone through similar horrors. While “there was this sense that they knew what they accomplished, they had been really unaware that this has happened before in history and that it has happened all over the world,” she says.
Those women helped achieve a historic conviction that sent a message—Akayesu was sentenced to life in prison in Rwanda after being found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and rape—but there have only been a handful of convictions since then. This year saw three major convictions.
In March, former Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba was found guilty of war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first time the ICC found anyone guilty of rape as a weapon of war. In May, the Extraordinary African Chambers (ACE) court in Senegal found former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré guilty of a number of crimes against humanity, including rape and forced slavery. And Radovan Karadzic was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment for war crimes, including genocide and his role in the killing of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War.
“I think we’re seeing things pick up with Bemba and Karadzic; those are both excellent signs that things are improving and that things are being prosecuted at a higher level and more often,” says Wolfe. “But historically, I don’t believe rape as a weapon of war was considered a horrific enough crime in the context of genocide, generally.”
For a long time, the Rwandan parliament categorized rape alongside petty crimes like stealing goats, farm tools and baskets of beans. It was only after a march by Rwandan women that rapists were included in the country’s most serious criminal category, along with people convicted of killing during the genocide.
Part of the reason, say Mitchell and Wolfe, is that more women need to be working at the negotiating table, whether in peace-building or prosecutorial roles. Language is another. “We need to start using the right words: Power, torture, humiliation” to describe rape and its aftermath, says Mitchell.
“We’re so conditioned to say, as [lawyer] Patricia Sellers says in the film, ‘I’ve got 50,000 bodies here, you want me to go talk to someone who was raped?’ We’re so conditioned to say that death is the ultimate horrible thing when that’s really not the case,” says Mitchell. “This idea that rape, and particularly how rape is used in conflict, which is mass rape, repeatedly, is a form of living death and it’s meant that way. It’s very hard to understand that if it hasn’t happened to you.”
Nearly 20 years after Akayesu’s case, women remain targets of sexual violence in conflict zones. More than two years after 270 female students were kidnapped by the Boko Haram militant group in northeastern Nigeria, the majority of them remain in forced sexual slavery. If they do manage to escape, they are often treated with suspicion by the terrorized communities they return to.
Also, thousands of women and girls from Iraq's Yazidi minority sect remain in Islamic State (ISIS) captivity nearly two years after being taken. On Thursday, it was reported that famed international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney will represent Nadia Murad and other survivors of ISIS sex slavery later this year. Clooney hopes to achieve an ICC investigation into genocide and sexulal enslavement perpetrated by ISIS.
“Impunity is the No. 1 reason why these crimes continue,” says Wolfe. “Until we start prosecuting those responsible, whether it’s command responsibility or for directly committing the crimes, then it’s never going to stop. Focusing on these critical moments of justice is important and hopefully gives some hope, whether it’s to prosecutors or other rape victims, that they should and can pursue these crimes and gain justice.”
Earlier this year, The Uncondemned was screened in Kigali for survivors, the women who testified back in 1998. President Paul Kagame also attended and praised them for speaking out, calling the film “part of justice.” In September, some the women who testified will come to New York City for the film’s official release, their latest stop on a long journey to justice.
”What we did was worth it,” Serafina Mukakinani, also known as Witness NN, says in the film. For Victoire Mukambanda, Witness JJ, it's as simple as this: “When you are telling the truth, you don’t get scared.”
The Uncondemned is playing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on June 11 at 6:30 p.m. and at the IFC Center on June 12 at 7 p.m.