Turning the page or new taboo?
RNW published this article on its Arabic site last week. Among the many positive reactions that Karima Idrissi received, there were also some negative ones. Some examples: ‘It is wrong that this story be told while Libya is entering a new phase,’ ‘People should not be reminded of this, they want to forget the past and look forward’ and ‘This can have a negative impact on voters, who will have a more critical look to the present rulers and realise that all their sacrifices have been worthless.’
Remarkably enough, those reactions seem to come from Libyans who played an active role in the ousting of the Gaddafi regime. According to Libyan journalist Omar El Keddi, this reluctance to reopen painful wounds could stem from earlier periods of civil strife and unrest that the country went through. ‘Besides, there are still a number of old regime sympathisers who deny that torture or similar crimes ever happened,’ says El Kiddy. ‘They are active on the internet, even though they are not active in real life.’
However, El Keddi thinks the majority of Libyans agree that it is important to remember what happened honestly and bring the suspects to justice ‘in order to never let it happen again’.
While Libya is looking forward to its first democratic elections on July 7th, many people still live with painful memories of the violent events that led to the removal of Muammar Gaddafi. Mariam Abdelaziz al-Rajbani was detained and tortured. At first she told friends and family ‘nothing happened’ but now she has broken her silence. She shared her story with RNW’s Karima Idrissi.
Libyan revolutionaries know Mariam as ‘Rujban the Unwavering,’ her nickname on the Facebook page she kept up during the revolution. Her entire family was active in the uprising. Her husband provided weapons to the rebels and her brothers fought on the frontlines.
When her old university friend Souad came to ask for help, Mariam did not hesitate. She agreed to store sealed crates which Souad told her contained weapons, ammunition and medicines for the rebels. Mariam also collected gold and jewellery from Libyan women which she resold to stores in Tripoli to raise funds.
Beaten and blindfolded
But then Souad was arrested and armed female militia members surprised Mariam at her home. They blindfolded her and dragged her to a car. When she asked what was happening, the only answer was a gun pressed to her face. ‘I prayed that God would let me be strong,’ says Mariam. ‘I believed this was the end.’
They brought her to a cell and when they uncovered her eyes, she saw her friend Souad and another woman activist. ‘There were three masked female militia members in the room. I could only see their eyes.’ They interrogated Mariam and she and Souad were severely beaten.
Flood of blood
Then they brought in Souad’s 22-year-old brother. He was the one who had delivered weapons and ammunition to Mariam’s house. He was covered with the marks of torture. Without any warning, the guards opened fire on him. As his blood flowed, the armed women dipped their hands into it and smeared it on Mariam’s and Souad’s hair.
The scene took only minutes but felt like ages. ‘I looked at Souad,’ Mariam recounts, ‘she was staring at her brother who was on the ground, drowning in his own blood. She was so completely frozen I thought she had lost her life. All of a sudden she turned her eyes on me. Her look was clear, it told me: for the sake of this blood, we will never talk.’ The women militia members took Mariam to a separate room to continue the interrogation. She consistently denied any rebel activity, as did Souad.
When they blindfolded her and put her in a car once more, Mariam was convinced she was being driven to her death. But suddenly the car stopped, her eyes were uncovered and she was pushed out onto the street.
‘It pained me to see the look in my mother’s and brothers’ eyes when I arrived home,’ she says. ‘They had worried so much about me. My father had worry and fear written on his face like I had never seen before.’
Miriam was unable to tell them what had happened. ‘I lied to my father that they did nothing to me, that they did not torture me.’
Soon after that, she and her parents left Libya for Tunis, while her brothers went to fight Gaddafi’s troops. From Tunis, Mariam travelled to the UK, where she started a Facebook page with news from her brothers, husband and other revolutionaries. She never saw her friend Souad again but later heard that she had been killed. And Mariam never told anyone about the scene that kept replaying in her mind.