Babies' skulls dashed against rocks; attempts to twist off the heads of toddlers. Girls, their mothers and grandmothers (and sometimes male relatives too) raped at knife- or gunpoint, the weapons then used to inflict mutilation. Women hauled off to camps or just tied to trees and gang-raped. Thousands of children, some as young as nine, snatched or recruited by armed gangs (or regular forces) and made into drug-crazed killers, the girls among them often serially abused or taken by commanders as "wives".
Such are the horrors reported from some recent conflict zones. In civil wars, women and children always fare worst. But with every new killing-field, from Bosnia to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo, the Central African Republic or the Darfur region of Sudan, the level of cruelty seems to shock even the most seasoned observers.
Data on such matters can be hard to get. Take the Central African Republic (CAR), where the UN says child abuse, rape and forced military recruitment are rife. In that country, probably no more than 10% of live births are registered. Without records, and often without government help, the UN has to use disparate tallies from peacekeepers, medical workers and NGOs.
In a 2005 report that enraged Sudan's government, the charity Médecins Sans Frontières listed almost 500 cases of rape against women, children and men through clinics in south and west Darfur over less than five months. In eastern Congo, the UN says that between June 2007 and June 2008, in Ituri province alone, 6,766 cases of rape were reported, with 43% involving children; and for each rape reported, it is likely that ten to 20 go unreported.
The human, social and economic results are dire. Sexual violence by marauding armies or militias can-as is often intended-wreck or uproot communities, with shame turning victims into outcasts. Ex-child soldiers returning to their home region, often with scant education or skills, may grow up into sadistic adults.
Doctors and counsellors are often overwhelmed. In Bosnia, tens of thousands of women were raped; in eastern Congo in recent years some 80% of fistula cases reported in women are thought to be the result of such crimes. High numbers of similar cases were reported from Burundi, Chad, Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia, according to the Geneva-based Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. An estimated 70% of Rwanda's rape survivors were infected with HIV.
At least the climate of impunity is changing. The UN-backed special courts for Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia were the first to take testimony and bring charges based on the use of rape as a method of war. A similar body for Sierra Leone won the first conviction for sex slavery (and another over the use of child soldiers).
Now the International Criminal Court at The Hague has stepped in. Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese ex-warlord, is on trial (the court's first) for recruiting children under 15 to fight. A former Congolese vice-president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, will hear soon whether he will be tried for war crimes stemming from rapes in the CAR.
Accusations of genocide against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir (which may soon lead to an arrest warrant) are based in part on evidence suggesting a systematic campaign of racially-motivated rape by Arab janjaweed militias, in the pay of his government, against black fellow Muslims in south and west Darfur. Such charges appear to be borne out by video clips released by the British-based Aegis Trust: a government soldier saying he was forced to rape at gunpoint by an officer; other perpetrators saying such acts were meant to make babies of a different race.
The UN Security Council has weighed in too. Resolution 1820, adopted last year after a tussle, affirms that sexual violence as a weapon of war affects international peace and security, and could trigger sanctions; an earlier resolution (1612) aimed to protect children in war zones. Both tell the UN secretary-general to report more often on the fate of women and children in wars.
He will find plenty to say. In Colombia at least 8,000 children are being used by armed groups of left and right. Meanwhile, the UN's children's fund, Unicef, frets that efforts to demobilise child soldiers often miss abused girls under pressure to stay with their abductors. The agency is lobbying governments to sign a protocol attached in 2002 to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, raising the age for military recruitment from 15 to 18; Unicef thinks there are 300,000 under-18s involved in more than 30 conflicts.
More victims are speaking out bravely. In eastern Congo, where rape is a weapon of choice for several militias, the New York Times recently reported that some women have started telling their stories in open forums; meanwhile, mobile courts are helping victims in remote forests to seek redress. A Congolese doctor, Denis Mukwege, has won international acclaim for helping rape victims. Part of the case against Mr Lubanga was based on video accounts by child soldiers of the horrors they saw. These were collected by a group called Ajedi-ka, shown first in Congo and then distributed by Witness, a human-rights group based in New York.
Liberia's women helped see off one tormentor: protests organised by Christian and Muslim women helped push their president, Charles Taylor, into exile in 2003. He is now on trial at The Hague on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other butchery. If Sudan's Mr Bashir ever appears in court, he may find that war victims in his country are equally eloquent and brave.
Civilians in War Zone: Women and children worst, Economist, Feb. 19, 2009, at 60