There is no easy way to ask a woman how she was raped. There is no gentle euphemism that encompasses the horror of multiple assailants, public shaming and devastating physical wounds that comes from sexual assault used as a weapon of war. Yet in order to report a story about how women recover from conflict-related rape, I needed to understand the conditions under which they were raped.
For two weeks, first in eastern Congo and then at a safe house for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, I found myself posing some of the most difficult, intimate and probing questions I have ever asked in my career as a journalist. I was asking women to relive their worst nightmares. I was asking for them to be made public. And, with photographer Lynsey Addario, we were asking the women to sit for portraits.
My interest in the subject stemmed from the confluence of two news events, one in the U.S., and one in the Middle East. As victims of rape on college campuses started coming out to demand justice, ISIS was abducting, enslaving and raping women and girls from Iraq’s Yazidi minority. The Boko Haram terror group in Nigeria was kidnapping hundreds of girls and forcing them into marriage. I started thinking about the motivations behind rape, and wondered how recovery might be different for a woman raped in isolation than for women who are raped collectively. I wanted to know what it would take to stop rape. Eastern Congo, which saw an epidemic of sexual assault during 20 years of conflict that has left some 200,000 survivors and as many as 50,000 children born of rape, seemed a good place to start asking those questions.
If asking a woman how she was raped is difficult, it is even worse taking down her story. As a journalist who has covered many horrific incidents, from assassinations to suicide bombings, I have learned to withdraw myself from the scene emotionally so that I can better focus on details and follow up questions. It is only later, when I am transcribing the notes and putting them into a story that the full force of what I have heard hits me. It is then that the tears come, and I start having nightmares. Then I see the photos — the little girl raped so brutally that she will never walk again, the pregnant mother whose future child will likely be infected with HIV, just as she was — and it’s like a punch in the stomach. The rage and fury bubbles up, and the only outlet is the story.
Lynsey and I met, photographed and interviewed scores of women. Asking the question — and hearing the answer — never got easier. But what I realized very quickly was that for the women themselves, speaking of the experience offered a kind of relief. One of the most pernicious aspects of rape, whether it happens in the U.S. or in Iraq or South Sudan or Nigeria or Congo, is the shame. Some women wanted their names and faces to be used in the story; others didn’t, for fear of being stigmatized back at home. But they all wanted to be heard. They understood that the more women come forward, the more women speak out, the more likely it is that the shame will shift from the survivors to the perpetrators. That, many told me, is the most important step for ending rape.
Lynsey Addario photographed Ayak’s portrait for TIME International’s cover. She shares her story:
I have been photographing victims of rape as a weapon of war for over 10 years now, and it is always an extremely difficult and sensitive story to cover.
Once I went over the guidelines with Ayak – in terms of how she felt about being photographed, given that her image would be seen by thousands around the world – I spent several hours with her. She was a very thoughtful, articulate woman, and despite the sexual assault that led to her pregnancy, and the horrors she had experienced in South Sudan, she was excited about the imminent birth of her child.
I contemplated possible additional photographs in my head as I fell asleep, and when I woke up the next morning, I knew I wanted Ayak’s photograph to speak to the consequences of rape as a weapon of war. The most natural way for me to do this was to focus on her belly.
I didn’t want to ask something of her she might find distressing or disrespectful, so I asked Kimberly L. Smith from Make Way Partners what she thought, and together, we went to Ayak to ask how she felt about being photographed without her dress on. I trusted Kimberly’s judgment, as she knew Ayak, had been working in the region for many years, and had focused the bulk of her work on helping survivors of sexual violence and sex trafficking. Kimberly, herself, had survived multiple attacks while setting up orphanages on the border between Sudan and South Sudan, and was also raped during those attacks. Her experience did not deter her from continuing her work in the region.
We sat down with Ayak, and discussed my vision for her portrait, and she didn’t hesitate at all; she understood what I was trying to convey, and as I photographed, I showed her the images on my camera to ensure she understood what I was capturing. Over time, Ayak’s body language changed: she stood proudly, more confidently, at peace. It seemed that the very act of photographing Ayak and her unborn child gave her the opportunity to celebrate the very thing her perpetrators had tried to rob from her – her beauty and her dignity.
For two days, we all shared deeply personal experiences, which often culminated in tears, and sometimes, oddly, in laughter. Photographing Ayak and listening to her story was a privilege – and an extremely positive, intimate moment amongst three women who had all, in fact, experienced some form of rape or sexual assault as a weapon of war in our lives.
Lynsey Addario a frequent TIME contributor, is a photographer represented by Getty Images Reportage.
Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.
Aryn Baker is TIME’s Africa Bureau Chief. Follow her on Twitter @arynebaker.