After driving through countless checkpoints, some manned by young men dwarfed by the very guns they were holding, we meet Dr. S at an upscale hotel in the capital of Tripoli. Introduced to us by a contact from Human Rights Watch doing research on mass rapes, she is a French-trained doctor, one of many Libyans who has returned to her homeland.
She insists on anonymity, and just minutes into the meeting I see she is suffering from secondary trauma-her hands tremble incessantly as she speaks. Although no one is near enough to hear our conversation, from time to time she feels compelled to lean over and whisper details-because this is Libya, a deeply religious and conservative society, and the topic she is discussing is rape.
The women Dr. S is helping are Ghadaffi’s last victims, countless women who were raped in a scorched earth campaign on the western front. No one knows the real numbers of rape victims; this is not an issue about which many families come forward.
Aisha is one of the few brave ones, and she is lucky to have her family’s support. She is just twenty; unsuspecting and innocent, her beautiful brown eyes overflowing with pain. Evacuated to Tunisia by Dr. S, she tells her story. Her lips quiver as she speaks, the tears impossible to hide. She is from Zawiyah, a western city that refused to surrender to Ghadaffi and suffered tremendously.
They came for her in the middle of the day, snatched as she answered the front door. As they dragged her into a waiting SUV, her shoe fell into the street, the only clue her family had that something was horribly wrong. Her first stop was a house that belonged to one of Ghadaffi’s local commanders.
The assault would come hours later as the commander first called his troops and friends to invite them to a party at the house. Hours into the party, Aisha was taken into his office, her hands were tied behind her back, and she was brutally ravaged by at least ten men. The pain was so intense that Aisha passed out, but her assault didn’t end there-after the physical assault was the assault on her dignity as a human being. Aisha shakes as she speaks about what happened next: she speaks about how she awoke to the sounds of jeers, the final insult brutally delivered as the men used a dog to violate her, and cheered at the savagery.
The level of sadism and inhumanity is unfathomable. I understand the secondary trauma that Dr S. is feeling as my stomach is in knots with hatred that is hard to comprehend or articulate.The doctor tells us stories like this are not uncommon. Out of the almost 100 rape victims she is treating, the majority were raped by multiple men, five reported abuse by animals, and most said drugs and alcohol were heavily involved and that many of the assaults were filmed on cell phones.
The youngest victim she is treating is 16, the oldest 42, and a majority are in their early 20′s. In war sometimes it is hard to confirm the many stories and rumors, but Dr. S tells us reports of suicides, and horrific accounts of women murdered by their families.
As painful as Aisha’s story is, there is hope. MWB is providing her with comprehensive support: medical, psychological, and financial. What makes MWB different from other relief agencies is that we are willing to tackle subjects that are taboo in our community. Rape isn’t something that should be hidden away and forgotten–it is a crime that inflicts lasting damage to a victim. International relief isn’t just about providing food, water and shelter during conflict and then disappearing. We have made a commitment to Libya and to our sisters. Please help support MWB’s efforts to provide our beloved sisters with the assistance they desperately need; though it may appear that Libya has been liberated, their war is just starting.
Real names have been altered and changed to protect the identities of the women.
Want to help our sisters? Join our Sisters Taskforce for our Spring 2012 Semester Project to help rape victims. Email info AT mwbrelief.org for more information.