I have interviewed women and even child survivors of sexual violence before, mostly during civil wars in conflict zones. Naturally, my heart went out to them.
But when I met with 20 or so Guinean women to hear about their experiences on Sept. 28 — the day Guinean soldiers trained their guns on pro-democracy protesters and then, allegedly, unleashed a brutal wave of rapes — something was different.
This time, I saw women my age, others who could be my daughters or nieces or sisters, in an urban setting.
Their attackers had turned the Guinean capital, Conakry, into a combat zone; sexual violence became a weapon of war to try to silence and control women.
The troops allegedly attacked women in and around the stadium where they had gathered to hear their political leaders denounce Guinea's military government.
All rape is traumatic, but when the alleged crime takes place in public, outdoors, with mobile phones and cameras on hand to record the violations, the humiliation must be excruciating.
Women of all ages were targets — students, professionals, market women, opposition activists, mothers and, apparently, grandmothers. Some wore pants; others, traditional boubous, the colorful long gowns that Guineans favor. The troops allegedly used guns, bayonets, knives and other weapons to rip these garments off.
I was heart sore when I met some of the survivors of these crimes and others who had been forced to witness shootings, beatings and assaults on both women and men, some of the victims left for dead.
It was an emotional gathering. I thought fear of reprisals might make the women reluctant to talk, but they all seemed to want to share their ordeals. It was as if talking helped. Some were wailing and groaning as they heard details of another grotesque atrocity, prompting others around them to weep loudly, while others were quietly composed.
These courageous women have one thing in common. They are determined that those who made them suffer — those who stripped off their clothes and stripped them of their dignity — must be punished.
It was so painful to hear them describe their shock and horror on Sept. 28. One woman's legs were shaking so hard against mine as she recounted her experience, speaking into the microphone, she couldn't stop. Her voice was trembling — in turns angry, indignant, outraged, shamed, dejected and yet determined.
She said it was only by God's grace that she escaped the fate of others.
By the end of her graphic and chilling testimony, most of the dozen or so other women in the room were sobbing. I felt tears rolling down my face.
Such assaults on women have become part of the arsenal of despotic leaders trying to suppress civil unrest and democratic protest. Women are the backbone of society, and Guinea's is a conservative, majority Muslim society. Sexual attacks on women are a way to force their husbands, partners and families to reject them — thus turning the community against itself.
The increasing practice of sexual violence in this context reflects its success as a tool of repression.
Guinean women have a history of being assertive in civil society, a vocal lobby speaking out and challenging successive authoritarian regimes and toxic military governments.
There is no doubt that the women are feeling battered, physically and emotionally. But one doctor told me, her voice full of passion, compassion and indignation, "With the last breath in my body, I will fight to restore the dignity of our women. The soldiers may have beaten us, they may have raped us, but we will win the battle for decency, democracy and respect in Guinea."