Ayak poses nine months pregnant at a safe house in Uganda, Dec. 8, 2015. She lost her entire family to a rebel attack on her village near Bentiu, in South Sudan. She was raped while fleeing, alone, for a U.N. camp, and then raped repeatedly while she was at the camp. One of her rapists gave her HIV. Ayak says that her unborn child is the only family she is likely to ever have.
Ayak poses while nine months pregnant at a safe house in Uganda, Dec. 8, 2015.She lost her entire family to a rebel attack on her village near Bentiu, in South Sudan. She was raped while fleeing, alone, for a U.N. camp, and then raped repeatedly while she was at the camp. One of her rapists gave her HIV. Ayak says that her unborn child is the only family she is likely to ever have.Lynsey Addario—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
Ayak poses nine months pregnant at a safe house in Uganda, Dec. 8, 2015. She lost her entire family to a rebel attack on her village near Bentiu, in South Sudan. She was raped while fleeing, alone, for a U.N. camp, and then raped repeatedly while she was at the camp. One of her rapists gave her HIV. Ayak says that her unborn child is the only family she is likely to ever have.
Mary, 27, holds her daughter, Nyakwat, 6 months old who was born after Mary was raped repeatedly at a U.N. camp in South Sudan by different men. She now lives in a safe house in Uganda, Dec. 8, 2015. Mary, a member of the Nuer tribe, watched as her husband and her two sons were killed in front of her by soldiers of the Dinka tribe. Five of them held her down as three others raped her 10-year-old daughter who died hours later. The soldiers, who also raped Mary, told her that they considered the Nuers in the camps to be rebels, and that they killed her sons because they couldn’t risk letting them grow up to be fighters. Mary made her way to a U.N. camp for civilians displaced by war where she lived for a year and was raped by soldiers who made their way into the camp. Since December 2013, the new country of South Sudan has been roiled by a vicious power struggle between President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, and his Vice President, Riek Machar, a Nuer. Their war, fought largely along ethnic lines, has turned the northern part of the country into a wasteland.
Kanyere Neema, 7, with her grandmother, Ndahondi Domina, 53, in the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec. 5, 2015. Two years prior, Kanyere's village of Ishasha was attacked by armed men, and her parents were killed in front of her. She was raped so many times by different men that she was left paralyzed, and stopped speaking.
Ferediana Kimanimbaye sits with crutches after recently re-breaking her leg and returning to the Heal Africa Hospital in Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec. 5, 2015. Ferediana was gang-raped by soldiers of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group in eastern DRC, when they attacked her village more than 7 years ago. They killed her husband, and three different men raped her. She fell and broke her leg while she was escaping. The U.N. reports that 200,000 Congolese women and children have been raped during Congo’s long-simmering conflict.
Josephine Mwamini, 42, was raped in 2010, in her village, Walikali. by soldiers of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group in eastern DRC. They killed her husband and son, and took her to the forest, where they tied her to the ground. Seven different men raped her, and they left her for dead. Her neighbors found her and sent her to Goma to the HEAL Africa Hospital, where she stayed for 2 years, getting multiple fistula surgeries. She went back home in 2012, but then, in June 2015, armed men attacked her village again. The soldiers grabbed her and raped her multiple times. She was once again taken to Heal Africa for surgery, where she found out she had been infected with HIV. She has three daughters ages 9 to 19, alone in the village and fears that something might happen to them. “They rape any women they find, they don’t care about the age, how old or young they might be. They rape whoever is in their path.”
A woman receives fistula repair surgery in the Keyshero hospital in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec. 5, 2015. Many women need fistula repair after rape. it is one of the biggest injuries post sexual assault. Women with fistulas from rape cannot retain their urine or feces.
Kyalu Katentula, 40, and her husband, Abby Tagalog, 38, pose for a portrait in Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec. 6, 2015. After Kyalu was raped, she was rejected by her husband. They were brought back together by an NGO that fosters dialogue between couples and teaches that women are not at fault for their rape.
While attending a sewing class at the HOLD Organization, Zainabo Aisha, 17, holds her baby, Joyeuse Mariam, born out of rape. The NGO helps women heal after surviving sexual assault, Dec. 4, 2015, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Riziki Helene Bazungo, 15, holds her 10 month old daughter, Sara Bazungo, who was born out of rape, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec. 4, 2015.
Niraneza Judith, 34, wife of Fabien Moyram, 45, greets her children as they return from school at her home in Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec. 6, 2015. When Niraneza was raped, her husband, Fabien, like many men in the eastern region of the DRC, rejected his wife after the sexual assault. They were reunited by an NGO that fosters dialogue between couples and teaches that women are not at fault for being raped.
Maiombi Thomas,16 , sits alongside her brother, Innocent kongomani, 22, in the Mugunga 1 camp for internally displaced people, outside Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, December 5, 2015. Maiombi became pregnant after she was raped by a ranger when she went to get firewood outside the camp.
Ayak poses while nine months pregnant at a safe house in Uganda, Dec. 8, 2015.She lost her entire family to a rebel atta
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Lynsey Addario—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
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The Secret War Crime: How Do You Ask Women to Relive Their Worst Nightmares

Mar 10, 2016

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.

Read next: The Secret War Crime: The Hidden Consequence of Conflict Is Coming Out Into the Open

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.

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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.

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