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 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.