Rape of Libya's revolution

IGOR KOSSOV | Updated on July 28, 2011

Women have emerged the main victims of the ongoing war in Libya.   -  WFS

Evidence piles on Gadhafi army's use of mass rape and sexual assault to crush rebels.

Since the start of the Libyan uprising, Col. Moammar Gadhafi has used many weapons to crush the rebels, including machine guns, tanks and rocket launchers. Now, evidence is piling about the use of another weapon — mass rape of Libyan women.

But Gadhafi's government has denied any involvement in sexual assault. In the State-owned newspaper Moussa Ibrahim, a government spokesperson called the allegations “the same old nonsense” and invited people to investigate the charges. However, the stories that are being gathered from women, along with material— such as Viagra, condoms and mobile phone videos of sexual assault — found among captured loyalist equipment, provide a different narrative.

According to victim testimonies gathered by Libyan doctors and statements by loyalist prisoners of war, Gadhafi and some of his commanders ordered their troops to rape women in order to punish the rebels and destabilise their ranks. Doctors and human rights workers also report that some women said they had been raped in front of their families while others said they were abducted and gang-raped daily.

This war tactic is especially destructive in Libyan society, which views sexual violation as deeply shameful not only for the victim, but also her family and tribe. In fact, many victims are reluctant to come forward, hindering efforts to help them. “He knows our culture and our mentality and the biggest punishment is to have women raped,” says Hana el-Gallal, a human rights expert and member of the Benghazi-based Protection Against Violence Committee, formed recently to help the victims.

Dr Siham Sergewa, a Libyan psychiatrist, along with a team of students and volunteers, has distributed questionnaires to nearly 61,000 refugees inside and outside Libya over the past several months. She has heard back from about 42,000.

Of the internally displaced, 259 women, aged 14 to 57, have revealed to Siham that they have been raped. Among the refugees staying in Tunisia, 300 additional women said they had been raped. The actual number may be considerably higher as many women may not come forward due to social stigma. Some women have been abandoned by their husbands after they were victimised, Siham says.

“They feel fear, shame, guilt, worry about punishment... Psychologically, (stigma) is possible and they're afraid of backlash,” Siham says. According to her, the women she spoke to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, are constantly afraid and suffer headaches, nausea and have trouble sleeping.

Hana, Siham and others are working to establish a support infrastructure for the victims. Externally, they are working with international organisations such as the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, International Medical Corps and others to train doctors, psychologists and volunteers. Internally, they are trying to change social attitudes towards rape through community outreach and awareness campaigns and trying to make sure that the women are treated with dignity and sensitivity when they are ready to seek help.

Siham has, so far, interviewed 140 of the victims who live in refugee camps and among families who have agreed to host them. Dr Bashir Rajab Lasabai, a physician and human rights activist, says he spoke to a woman who was abducted when she drove through a military checkpoint and soldiers found torn pictures of Gadhafi that her sister had earlier left in the backseat. She said the soldiers held her for over a month, during which time they beat and raped her. Eventually, one of the soldiers let her out and she fled to Tunisia.

Lasabai has also spoken with eyewitnesses who reported that 50 women had been raped, killed and dumped into a cave around Yefren, a town in the Western Mountains.

Many of the rape claims cannot be independently confirmed although both Libyan and foreign doctors have found evidence of bruises, burns, bite marks and scarring on the bodies of victims. In March, Gadhafi sent a large armoured force towards Benghazi, the centre of the Libyan uprising and de-facto rebel capital. Only a French airstrike stopped the division from reaching the city and levelling it with superior firepower. Rebels who raided the vehicles said they found condoms and Viagra among loyalist provisions, according to the rebel Transitional Council.

A recent CNN report found that rebels had acquired a mobile phone from the loyalists containing footage of a woman being sodomised “with what appears to be a broomstick.”

Loyalist prisoners of war in the besieged city of Misurata told a BBC reporter that Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam, ordered them to commit sexual violence and described how soldiers raped women inside a house while others danced and listened to music.

“One [prisoner of war] was a surgeon; he was with the troops from Tripoli,” said a civilian officer with the Transitional Council who asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of his work. “He said that Saif said ‘go rape the woman and introduce yourself by family name.'” The officer said this was intended to sow enmity between the tribes of the rapists and victims and detract attention from the boss in Tripoli.

© WeNews/ Women's Feature Service

Published on July 28, 2011

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