War destroys societies. As fighting rages, communities are torn apart and values come under threat, leaving children especially vulnerable to abuse. In many conflicts, the rape of children is used by armed forces to terrorise communities - children are actively targeted. For some, the injuries they suffer are fatal. For the girls and boys who survive, the catastrophic effects can last a lifetime. For many of those that witness these sexual assaults, while powerless to intervene, the psychological impact can be enormous. One of these is Roha*, a young woman too nervous to let me use her real name.
23 years old, Roha is softly spoken, but firm in her opinions. I'd sat with her to talk about the impact of a recent conflict on her and her family, but the conversation quickly became much darker.
Reasons to flee
Roha had fled from an area known for its heavy fighting and I assumed that was the reason she had left her homeland. I said as much, but she shook her head and her eyes darted to the men in room. She asked them to leave, and I felt a familiar sense of foreboding. I've had conversations - too many - which demand the men leave the room, and I know what it means.
"You might think it was the fighting...but no. Although the fighting was very bad, we could live with it, we could survive. What we could not live with is constant threat of rape..." Roha trails off. I wait patiently. It's critical when working with vulnerable people that you don't stop them from talking about an issue if they want to. It sends the message that it's 'wrong' to discuss it. So I waited.
A warning not to make trouble
Roha explained that the sexual violence escalated swiftly in her town during the conflict. One day she emerged after a heavy bout of fighting to find the dead bodies of five naked girls, all aged ten to twelve, laid out in her village. It was a warning to the community not to make any more trouble. It was clear, Roha said, that they had all been sexually assaulted too. I didn't ask how she knew. I didn't want to know.
The stories kept coming - one led to another, to another and another. It was a torrent of emotions, unstoppable and harrowing.
"I saw this with my own eyes"
Finally she tells me that she witnessed the sexual assault of a twelve year old neighbour through her window. Too terrified to help, Roha couldn't move. She was still deeply shamed that she hadn't. It had been a punishment for the girl's father, who had fought in the conflict. As the armed men left, they killed him anyway. Once she was sure they'd left, Roha rushed to help the girl. "She survived, but actually they both died that day, in different ways" Roha says quietly. "I saw this with my own eyes. I can never stop seeing it now".
By now Roha is in tears and I'm sat with her, holding her hand. There is little else I can do for her. Suddenly she gathers her strength and erupts with anger. Anger at those men for what they did, and at herself for what she didn't do. Rage at the rest of her community, for refusing to talk about it, for covering the issue in shame.
"This is the big issue, but no-one will talk about it - why? Why?! Because we are ashamed?! Let us instead shame those who do this!" she bangs her hand down on the concrete floor.
The men come back into the room then, and the topic changes abruptly. Roha brushes away her tears and stands up. She looks at me for a long minute. "Would you like some tea?" she asks.
Save the Children has been working in conflict situations for decades. We've learned how to keep girls and boys safe from assault, and give children who suffer these horrific attacks the specialist support they desperately need. Our work has shown that sexual violence against children in war is preventable, but that protecting children requires special measures.
The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict takes place at Excel, London, from today until 13 June. Save the Children's installation, Unspeakable Crimes Against Children: an Audio-Visual Journey, is part of our demand that national and international justice systems prosecute those guilty of sexual violence against children in conflict, improve monitoring and reporting of such crimes, fund the protection of children from sexual violence, and support their recovery.
We want to make sure that specific measures to prevent violations against children are agreed as part of the summit. Help us.
* To protect the welfare of Roha and her family, we have agreed not to reveal her real nameSuggest a correction