One morning in the late spring of 1996, while reporting on the aftermath of the conflict in Bosnia, I was filming in a churchyard in Pale, the wartime capital of the Bosnian Serb statelet of Republika Srpska, when I noticed a rather dowdy older woman walking up the path to pay respects to a grave. She wore low-heeled shoes and a skirt of indeterminate color that fell below the knee. A large handbag was looped over her arm. Like many Central European women of a certain age, she had styled her gray-brown hair with a shampoo-and-set. She looked like someone’s granny.
Such was her ordinariness that I didn’t realize who it was until my translator whispered in my ear, “It’s the vice-president, Biljana Plavšić! Let’s go and ask for an interview.” A few hours later we were at the drab block that housed her office, trying to come up with tactful ways to ask about genocide.
We saw Plavšić as a link in a chain that might lead somewhere more interesting. The Bosnian War had ended with the Dayton Accords seven months earlier, and the president of Srpska, Radovan Karadžić, a flamboyant former psychiatrist with a distinctive wave of gray hair, had been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for crimes against humanity and genocide. NATO troops were supposedly combing Srpska for him. Did she know where the president was? I asked Plavšić. Might we be able to see him? She disappeared into an adjoining room, returning after a few minutes. “He’ll see you tomorrow at 2:30 PM,” she said.
My strongest memory of the interview with Karadžić, which took place off-camera in a disused factory on the outskirts of Pale, is the bowl of wild strawberries placed on the table between us. I commented on how delicious they were. “So much harder to collect now because of the landmines,” he remarked, as if a species of thorny plant had inexplicably sprouted in the fields of Bosnia.
Like most journalists, we thought that Karadžić was the leader and Plavšić the enabler of the horror Bosnian Serbs had inflicted on Muslims and Croats in their campaign to “ethnically cleanse” what they saw as Serb land. That view is challenged in Women as War Criminals: Gender, Agency, and Justice by Izabela Steflja, a professor of practice in political science and international development at Tulane University, and Jessica Trisko Darden, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Women war criminals go unnoticed,” they argue, “because their very existence challenges our deeply held assumptions about war and about women.”
Plavšić, Steflja and Trisko Darden point out, was a member of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces of Republika Srpska. They note that her indictment from the ICTY stated that “Bosnian Serb forces killed approximately 50,000 non-Serbs, held roughly 1,000 people captive in 400 detention facilities, and destroyed more than 100 mosques and Catholic churches.” She was charged with nine counts, including genocide and murder as a violation of the laws of war. But my first impression of her appearance—“someone’s granny”—was a preview of her defense. “Plavšić used gender norms to dilute her agency in war crimes and negotiate preferential treatment at the ICTY,” Steflja and Trisko Darden observe, and most of the charges against her were dropped. In most cultures, people are sentimental about grannies, moms, and aunties. We do not suspect them of being war criminals. Except that sometimes they are.
Warfare has always been primarily a male endeavor. In recent years, however, writers have tried to rescue women on the front lines from the obscurity into which they have been cast by traditional histories. Biographies of female spies, soldiers, and war correspondents now sit on the shelf next to those of generals and other male wartime leaders. Compensating for earlier historians who, like the men of the time, frequently failed to notice that women were there, let alone what they did, these revisionist books often seek to prove that women can display traditional manly virtues like courage and determination.
Ruthlessness and cruelty are invoked less often. The apparent rarity of female torturers and murderers lends them a certain fascination—we see them as Lady Macbeth–like characters, their delicate hands spotted with blood, especially transgressive because of their gender. A disturbing question arises: Are there more female war criminals than we know about who have never been prosecuted because they were overlooked?
In Nazi Germany, according to some estimates, at least 3,500 women served as camp guards and 10,000 as Helferinnen, or SS auxiliaries. Between 1945 and 1949, twenty-one were executed for war crimes, but thousands more were exempt from indictment by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg because it decided that “clerks, secretaries, and other low-level support staff were not threats to postwar German society,” Steflja and Trisko Darden write. “Women, as a category, were assumed not to be a risk.” They cite the work of Wendy Lower, who wrote in Hitler’s Furies:
Very few women were prosecuted after the war; even fewer were judged and convicted. Witness testimony of survivors, often the only available evidence, was not considered strong enough, and many of the female defendants, especially those who appeared matronly and meek, did not seem capable of committing such atrocities. The physical appearance of the women and gender stereotypes held by the mostly male investigators and judges usually worked in favor of the female perpetrators, whose acts were in some instances as criminal as their male counterparts.1
Steflja and Trisko Darden argue that “despite the lack of accountability for most female perpetrators of the Holocaust, women war criminals from all over the world continue to be found and brought to justice.” But contemporary cases are few, hence the brevity of their book, which focuses on just four. The first is Plavšić, who succeeded Karadžić as president of Republika Srpska in July 1996 and was the only woman among 161 defendants at the ICTY. The second is Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, a minister in the Hutu Power government that carried out the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the only other woman to have faced a modern international war crimes tribunal. Plavšić and Nyiramasuhuko provide Steflja and Trisko Darden with their most substantial material. It is hard to see the other two women—Lynndie England and Hoda Muthana—as being in the same category. England, an American who participated in torture at Abu Ghraib, was of junior rank. Muthana, an American-born woman who joined ISIS, has not been tried for war crimes at all.
England, the twenty-year-old US reservist famously pictured holding a leash tied around the neck of an Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib in 2003, was one of eleven soldiers charged with war crimes for the abuses there, and one of four who pleaded not guilty. Her lawyers adopted what Steflja and Trisko Darden call a “gendered defense,” arguing that she was in thrall to her boyfriend, Specialist Charles Graner, an older and more senior soldier who came up with novel ways of torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners, allegedly to “soften them up” for interrogation. Trying to please him, England’s lawyers claimed, she went along with it all. Women as War Criminals sets out to “challenge the assumption that women are secondary actors in war crimes by treating them as responsible, independent wrongdoers,” but the all-male members of the court-martial made no such assumption: they sentenced England to three years in prison, with a reduction in rank and a dishonorable discharge.
Steflja and Trisko Darden are on strong ground when they analyze the media coverage of Abu Ghraib. England—just five foot one and often described as “little Lynndie England”—unwittingly became the poster girl for the acts of torture committed there, and more generally for the excesses of the US military in Iraq, because of the photographs for which she had posed. She attracted more attention than any of the other soldiers, including Graner, even though he was the ringleader and received the heaviest sentence. Court-martials were also given to two other women, one of whom pleaded not guilty and was brought back to the US along with England, while the male soldiers were tried in Iraq. England, pregnant at the time, was typecast as both “whore” and “monster”; Rush Limbaugh described the pictures of her grinning with her thumbs up next to humiliated Iraqi prisoners as “standard good old American pornography.”
In an interview nearly two years after she was released from jail, England said, “What happens in war, happens. It just happened to be photographed and come out.” The authors note that her expressions of regret “consistently [focus] on the impact of the photos’ release rather than the acts of abuse that they documented.” She understood that she was the fall girl.
The case of Muthana, a twenty-year-old student from Alabama who went to Syria to join the Islamic State in 2014, is more ambiguous. Steflja and Trisko Darden argue that her case “highlights the potential limitations of a gendered defense for terrorism-related crimes in a post-9/11 American political culture that politicizes race, ethnicity, and religion,” but it is not clear why they regard her as a war criminal. It is a breach of the Patriot Act, but not a war crime, to join ISIS.
Once again, they are on firm ground when discussing media coverage of Muthana’s motives. She was frequently described in the press as a “jihadi bride,” duped into joining the group by “‘jihotties’—young, attractive terrorist fighters looking for wives.” However, according to Steflja and Trisko Darden, there is no evidence that she was persuaded to do so by a man, and Muthana herself rejected that notion. Like Western-educated men who traveled to Syria at the time, they argue, she made a conscious political choice, one that included interpreting the subjugation of women as a requirement of pure Islam.
It has been documented that during her time in Syria, Muthana praised the deaths of Americans at the hands of ISIS on social media. She also married a series of ISIS fighters (two of whom died in combat) and gave birth to a son. After the caliphate collapsed and she surrendered to coalition forces in January 2019, she described herself as having been “brainwashed” and “manipulated.” Giving interviews in the camp where she and her young son are now confined, in Syria’s Kurdish-controlled northeast, Muthana has crafted what Steflja and Trisko Darden call “a narrative of redemption,” telling journalists, “I am the one who has to live with my foolish and rash teenage decision for the rest of my life.”
She may be right. Although Muthana was born in New Jersey, her claim to American citizenship was rejected by the State Department, and later by a federal judge, on the grounds that her father, a former Yemeni diplomat, was still subject to diplomatic immunity at the time of her birth. This means that she and her son have little chance of freedom, as they are now stateless. They are likely to remain where they are.
Although neither England’s nor Muthana’s case comes close to the levels of criminality displayed by Plavšić and Nyiramasuhuko, their inclusion bears out Steflja and Trisko Darden’s argument that the media—and by extension society—sexualize women who have transgressed in the male-dominated theater of war and rob them of agency. But it raises questions about whether or not women should always be seen as independent actors, as both England and Muthana were young, of low rank, and apparently manipulated by powerful men.
When Plavšić appeared before the ICTY to answer for her actions during the Bosnian War, she cooperated—unlike her male counterparts, who used the ICTY as a platform from which to advance their Serb nationalist views. After she pleaded guilty to just one count of persecution on political, racial, and religious grounds, the other charges, including two counts of genocide, were withdrawn. She was released early for good behavior in October 2009, having served two thirds of her eleven-year sentence.
Two politicians involved in the Dayton Accords—Madeleine Albright, who was then US ambassador to the UN, and Carl Bildt, then EU special representative—testified for both the prosecution and defense; they were keen to present Plavšić as a figurehead for reconciliation, believing that this advanced their aim of maintaining peace in the region. They went along with Plavšić’s argument that she was “an obedient and virtuous woman” who, although she held a number of senior positions and was a member of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces of the Republika Srpska when most of the war crimes were committed in Bosnia, was either duped or sidelined by the men. In court, Plavšić complained that her male colleagues derided her because she had no children and was therefore neither a real woman nor a man. “According to their understanding, in the time before the war and during the war especially, there is no place for a woman,” she said, complaining of the “dishonesty and disrespect” with which she was treated.
The stereotype of the woman as accomplice may be partly accurate here—after all, no one ever mistook Karadžić or the Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladić as advocates for women’s empowerment. Yet the carefully calibrated penitence Plavšić displayed during her trial contrasts with a memoir she wrote while serving her sentence, in which she shows no remorse. Presenting herself as the “Mother of the Serb nation” in the book, she promotes the extreme nationalist views that she had set aside for the duration of her trial. Most disturbingly, she suggests that Bosnian Muslim women raped by Serb fighters were whores, the proof being that they were “loaded with make-up” and had talked publicly about their ordeal. They were, she writes, “women who did not experience the horror of rape but realized that for a ‘patriotic lie’ they could earn a lot of money and see the world.” By contrast, Steflja and Trisko Darden point out, Plavšić claims in her memoir that Serb women who were raped were “legitimate” victims, as proved by the fact that they were too traumatized to talk about it.
It is particularly distressing to consider these remarks after reading Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women,2 an account of wartime rape from World War II to the rise of ISIS, which has enslaved Yazidi women. Lamb emphasizes the terrible price rape victims pay for speaking out about their experiences, but explains that an increasing number feel compelled to talk because they know women’s silence has contributed to the overlooking of sexual violence in conflict. “You won’t find these women’s names in the history books or on the war memorials that we pass in our railway stations and town centers,” she writes, “but to me they are the real heroes.”
Sexual violence is common in conflict, but it has rarely been recorded—no one knows how many women were raped in the wars of the twentieth century, partly because few victims were willing to speak about it, and partly because, according to Lamb, it was regarded as “a private crime.” In 1998 the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia became the first international tribunal to prosecute rape as a war crime. Although some Croat and Serb women, and a few men, were raped during the war in Bosnia, the vast majority of the victims were Bosnian Muslim women. Those whom Lamb interviewed told her that gang rape was so frequent that some women took their own lives. Daughters were raped in front of their parents. It’s notable that nearly half of the men who faced trial at the ICTY were indicted for rape. The aim, Lamb writes, “was threefold—to humiliate the enemy’s women, traumatize the Bosnian population and force them to leave, and also to impregnate women with Serbian babies to change the demographic balance.”
Lamb points out that the génocidaires in Rwanda had a similar aim as they carried out a campaign of rape against the country’s Tutsis in 1994. Sexual violence is usually regarded as a uniquely male crime, but one of the people indicted for rape at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the minister for the family and women’s development. During the genocide, she encouraged her son, Arsène Shalom Ntahobali, and his gang of killers to rape Tutsi women in and around the town of Butare.
At her trial, Steflja and Trisko Darden write, Nyiramasuhuko pleaded not guilty, and “her defense team took opportunities to emphasize her womanhood and motherhood as proof of her pacifism, humanitarian contributions, and her innocence.” They argue that her case “received a disproportionate amount of attention in the international media,” and they criticize the gendered sensationalism of headlines that “emphasized and oversensualized her womanhood, motherhood, monstrosity, sexuality, and drew links between them.”
But journalists were, on the whole, simply reporting the facts: Nyiramasuhuko is the only woman ever to be tried and convicted by an international tribunal for rape as a crime against humanity, and the only woman ever to be convicted of genocide. Her case attracted media attention because it was shocking and unprecedented. In 2011 the tribunal convicted her on seven charges, and both she and her son were sentenced to life imprisonment (later reduced to terms of forty-seven years for each).
I met Nyiramasuhuko in the summer of 1995, six years before her indictment, when I interviewed her for the BBC.3 In Butare, several rape victims had told me that she’d organized roadblocks where Tutsi women were dragged from vehicles and taken away to be raped by her son and members of the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia. “She was wearing a soldier’s uniform and giving the orders,” said one. I established that she had escaped across the border to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), where she was working for Caritas, the charity wing of the Catholic Church, near the town of Bukavu. My crew and I found her in a refugee camp, having abandoned her fatigues for a striking blue dress, the color of the robes draping the Virgin Mary in Renaissance paintings. Her job, she said, was to look after orphans.
The interview, conducted in French in a clearing among tents, was tense. She agreed to be filmed provided we did not show her face, so she sat with her back to the camera. As it became clear that I had evidence against her, the atmosphere grew menacing. There were young men surrounding us, and they started to press in closer. “I couldn’t even kill a chicken!” she said. “If there is a person who says a woman, a mother, could have killed, I’ll tell you truly, then I am ready to confront that person.” As “that person,” at that moment, was me, it seemed prudent to retreat. We drove out of the camp at breakneck speed and escaped back across the border into Rwanda.
“It is difficult to attribute Nyiramasuhuko’s motivations to ethnicity,” Steflja and Trisko Darden write, arguing that because she had a Tutsi grandfather, she might have had “political and social” reasons for her actions. This line of argument is hard to sustain, as it is speculative and contradicted by other evidence they cite. Nyiramasuhuko was a senior member of the government that carried out a genocide. Eyewitnesses heard her order the killing of Tutsis. The authors quote the most notorious of the “Hutu Ten Commandments” that circulated before the genocide: “Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and conscientious in their role as woman, wife and mother of the family. Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest?”
Steflja and Trisko Darden could have explored in greater depth how ethnic hatred poisoned relationships between Rwandan women. Traditionally, Tutsi women were regarded as more attractive and of higher status than Hutu women. A powerful Hutu man could step up socially by marrying a Tutsi or taking a Tutsi mistress, potentially causing resentment among Hutu women. Such attitudes were weaponized during the genocide. Male and female leaders manipulated jealousy and resentment between women; I came across scores of incidents in which Hutu women had killed their female Tutsi neighbors. Nyiramasuhuko was just the most notorious, and the most senior, of many female génocidaires.
I recall my encounters with both Plavšić and Nyiramasuhuko vividly, because in more than three decades of reporting conflict, I have rarely encountered women war criminals of such high rank. In my experience, genocidal regimes tend to be ideologically macho. Male supremacy goes along with ethnic chauvinism. This doesn’t mean that—as Plavšić and Nyiramasuhuko tried to claim during their trials—women’s gender makes them incapable of horrific acts, or that they can bear no responsibility for them. But the involvement of most of the women I’ve met who might be implicated in war crimes has been minor. They sit behind desks in offices with paint peeling off the walls, rather than crouching in trenches or giving orders. They are the junior bureaucrats of genocide: press officers, administrators, secretaries.
Like all war correspondents, I have ingratiated myself with them in order to get access to a leader or a battlefield or the site of a massacre. I have even brought them perfume or boxes of chocolates, and cooed over photographs of their children. As a general rule, when the government they serve starts to attack a particular ethnic group, or adherents of another religion, or those who have held protests, such women tell themselves that these stories are untrue or exaggerated. As the situation in the country becomes more precarious, they fear losing their steady jobs. When the ideology of atrocity enters the bloodstream of a society at war, the only way to justify staying on is to ignore it or adopt it. Women are no different from men—it’s just that because they are rarely conscripted, they usually have the luxury of remaining at a distance from the worst violence. They can pretend to others, and maybe to themselves, that nothing is happening. As the line between condoning atrocities and committing them is blurred, they close their eyes.
“Just as the victims in the death factories or the holes of oblivion are no longer ‘human’ in the eyes of their executioners, so this newest species of criminals is beyond the pale even of solidarity in human sinfulness,” wrote Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, as she reflected on those who committed crimes against humanity in the Holocaust. But the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have taught us that the land beyond the pale is crowded. When we talk of “our common humanity,” we are usually referring to the ties that bind peoples, not to the cruelty that people of different cultures and beliefs are capable of committing. Most war criminals are men, but a minority of women will also carry out unspeakable acts against those they see as alien or a threat to their own group. An inclination to dehumanize the “other,” to justify or commit war crimes in the name of a racist or genocidal ideology, is neither male nor female. It is human.