LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When a group of Burundian villagers was ordered to carry food and weapons into the bush by rebels, few could have imagined it would end with their men being raped.
“They told us: 'You, bend'. Then they said: 'You, remove your clothes'. We thought they wanted to beat us. (Instead) they wanted to penetrate us from behind," said one of the six men attacked that day in 2006.
"They raped all of us. For me, it was even more difficult. I was raped by two men," he was quoted as saying in a study on one of the biggest taboos of conflict around the world.
Sexual violence against men is one of the least told aspects of war. Yet men and boys are victims too of abuse that is frequently more effective at destroying lives and tearing communities apart than guns alone.
It can take the form of anal and oral rape, genital torture, castration, gang rape, sexual slavery and the forced rape of others.
It is so taboo that few survivors have the courage to tell their story. Besides feeling ashamed and afraid of being ostracised, many victims dare not challenge powerful myths about male rape in their cultures, experts say.
A common belief is that a man who is raped becomes a woman. Others include only gay men are victims of rape, and that the only form of sexual violence against men is anal rape.
"The … assumptions that underline those myths serve to silence those victims," said Chris Dolan, the director of Refugee Law Project, which produced the study with funding from British charities Plan UK and War Child.
Dolan's briefing paper was presented this week to a roomful of academics, policy specialists from humanitarian groups and other experts for discussion – with the hope it will help shape a debate on the problem at a high-level summit on ending sexual violence in conflict in London next month.
Between 1998 and 2008, sexual violence against men was reported in 25 countries affected by conflict, according to Refugee Law Project.
Since then, accounts have emerged from Libya, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo and recently, Central African Republic, where witnesses have reported seeing male victims of the sectarian war killed and their genitals cut off.
"There is growing evidence but it tends to be anecdotal. What is increasingly clear is that the absence of evidence doesn't mean that there's an absence of incidents," Dolan said.
In an effort to come up with fresh data, staff from Refugee Law Project and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health went to a refugee camp in western Uganda last year.
They screened 447 male refugees aged 18 and older, and found that 13 percent of them had experienced sexual violence in the previous year alone, and that more than one in three had suffered some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes.
"Our impression is that it's very much under-reported," said Juliet Cohen from Freedom from Torture. A senior doctor, she has documented evidence of rape on male and female asylum seekers fleeing conflict in reports presented in UK courts as expert testimony.
Although survivors are asked to give a full history of their ill-treatment during the writing of the reports, some do not initially talk about the sexual violence they have suffered.
“We've certainly had long-term therapy patients, who've only disclosed the sexual violence they've suffered after a year or more in therapy," Cohen told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Quite often when I'm examining people, I will have a strong impression that there's a great deal more they are unable to say at the time - and that's for both men and women. These things are enormously difficult to disclose."
UNPROTECTED IN LAW
In a sign of increasing recognition of the issue, last year, for the first time, men and boys were named as victims of sexual violence in conflicts in a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Resolution 2106 calls on member states to hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account, but privately, U.N. officials say many states still refuse to acknowledge the possibility of male victims of sexual violence.
This denial could be because some abuse is taking place in prisons or detention centres, or equally, because discussions about sex are largely avoided in conservative countries.
What's clear is that few male victims of conflict-related sexual violence can rely on the state for justice.
Up to 90 percent of them are from countries where the law provides no protection for them, Refugee Law Project said. Sixty-three countries, representing almost two-thirds of the world's population, recognise only female victims of rape - and 70 states criminalise men who report being raped.
Neglected by the state, male victims have also been neglected by humanitarian groups, some aid workers admit.
Rocco Blume, Plan UK's policy and research manager, said he had come across a number of cases of sexual violence against men in his career working for a clutch of organisations, primarily in South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.
But none of his employers had a system for dealing with it, or even recognising it.
"There was never a recognition that this is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed," Blume told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "All of us have been complicit in neglecting to address this issue."
In 2012, UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, issued guidelines for its staff and other humanitarian workers on how to identify male victims of sexual violence in areas of fighting or displacement.
But so far, stigma and conflicting interests within the humanitarian sector have prevented specialised services and programmes tackling this problem from becoming mainstream.
Some of the resistance is from those who believe the problem is so negligible it barely merits attention, experts say. Others are worried that a focus on male victims harms another hard-fought battle, to improve the status and rights of women.
There are many who are still do not see sexual violence against men as an act of brutality to humiliate and disempower the victim, but rather an act of homosexuality, experts say.
"Survivors ... report that doctors, counsellors and even aid workers frequently endorse homophobic ideas that male victims of rape are gay," Refugee Law Project's report said, adding that this discrimination reduces the support on offer and contributes to the stigmatisation and isolation of survivors.