Monday, May 23, 2011

Libya: 'Forced to rape in Misrata'


Was there a systematic campaign of rape by forces loyal to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi during the battle for Misrata?

Two young prisoners in a detention centre in the city tell me the answer is almost certainly "yes", and that they took part in the gang-rape of four women.

The men, aged 17 and 21, are sitting on a sofa - heads bowed - in the same filthy, bloodstained army fatigues they were captured in two weeks ago.

They are obviously nervous, but speak clearly.

The authorities in this rebel-held city were reluctant to let us interview them, but finally agreed on condition we do not reveal the soldiers' names.

Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that it is clearly in the rebels' interest to portray Col Gaddafi's forces in the worst possible light.

It is also possible that the soldiers were coerced into telling us lies.

And there is a big difference between individual acts of violence committed during wartime and a systematic campaign to target civilians.

My impression was that the men were telling the truth and that - although there are credible stories of abuse of pro-Gaddafi troops by rebel forces - the conditions and atmosphere at the prison, which I have visited before, appeared benign.

Here, in their own words, then is what they told me, through a reliable interpreter.

The 17-year-old did most of the talking and his colleague occasionally nodded or added a few sentences. I've added some details in parenthesis.

'Shot them in the leg'

"They brought us in a group of 400 people to Misrata, saying the city is under attack from Algerian and Egyptian mercenaries and that we have come here to liberate Misrata. They divided us into groups and we went our separate ways.

The extremely conservative culture in Libya regards rape as a matter of profound shame "First we knocked at a door and nobody opened so we broke the door and entered the house.

"The mother was screaming and when we pointed the gun at her, she stopped screaming.

"Then we tied up the mother and father and their boys [three of them] by their feet and hands. Then we shot every one of them in the leg.

"Then the officers took the girls upstairs, and we were told to go on the roof [to keep guard] until the officers had finished the rape and then we were told to rape the girls too.

"We felt scared, but when we refused to rape, they started to beat us.

"There were four girls aged between about 20 and 24.

"They were conscious [during the rapes]. I raped one.

"The girls said nothing. They were tired and they were in bad shape because there were 20 officers before us.

"It happened in the morning, and lasted about an hour and a half.

"The officers brought in a music system and listened to pop music, and smoked and danced during the rapes.

"I'm not happy with what I did but I don't feel nervous or frightened now, and I want to emphasise that the officers forced us to rape.

"They told us that if you rape any girls, we will give you money and we got 10 dinars [$8, £5] each afterwards.

"This was my first time to have sex. I have four sisters at home."

No official complaints

I asked the men if they knew of other instances of rape, and whether it happened often.

Start Quote
This is very sensitive - a delicate matter. I think this is a big problem - much bigger than we think”
End Quote
Ismael Fortia

Obstetrician in Mistrata
"I think it happened so many times. Most of the people who raped families here were from the special forces and we heard on the radio [their military radio system] that there were about 50 families that experienced rape."

The rebel authorities in Misrata say they believe there may be hundreds of victims, but so far no-one has made an official complaint.

There are many possible reasons for this.

The fighting in the city has only just ended, and many families have been displaced while others are missing.

The city's phone network is down and communications are slow.

The number of rapes may be far smaller than officials are suggesting.

But perhaps the most significant factor is the extremely conservative culture in Libya - and in Misrata in particular - which regards rape as a matter of profound shame for an entire family, and not something to be mentioned in public.

"This is very sensitive - a delicate matter," says Dr Ismael Fortia, an obstetrician living in Misrata, who is now on a medical committee that has been set up to investigate the rape allegations and to try to help any victims.

"No victims have come forward, but we hope after some psychological [help] they'll come and talk to us."

Dr Fortia believes that the final figure will probably run into the hundreds.

"I think this is a big problem - much bigger than we think. People [in Misrata] feel deep pain, and depression. This has affected us much more than anything else during the fighting."

Dr Fortia confirmed two stories I had heard elsewhere in the city from a number of sources.

The first is that some rebel fighters have now offered to marry the rape victims, "to spare their families from shame".

The second is that there are a number of "rape videos", recorded by Col Gaddafi's soldiers on their mobile phones, which are now circulating in Misrata.

I have confirmed the existence of at least one, which was seen by a trusted colleague.

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