BENGHAZI, Libya (WOMENSENEWS)–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 up about the use of another weapon–mass rape of Libyan women.
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.
"Unfortunately many people choose to accuse us cheaply of many many crimes and they refuse to come on the ground and investigate," he was quoted as saying in the Tripoli Post.
Tripoli is under military lockdown and reporters and other investigators are tightly restricted.
The stories that are being gathered from women, along with materials–such as Viagra, condoms and cell phone videos of sexual assault– found among captured loyalist equipment, provide a different narrative.
Gadhafi and some of his commanders ordered their troops to rape women in order to punish the rebels and destabilize their ranks, according to victim testimonies gathered by Libyan doctors and statements by loyalist prisoners of war.
Doctors and human rights workers interviewed by Women’s eNews reported that some of the women said they had been raped in front of their families and others said have been 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. 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," said Hana el-Gallal, a human rights expert and member of the Benghazi-based Protection Against Violence Committee, formed recently to help the victims.
Tales of Horror
Dr. Siham Sergewa, a Libyan psychiatrist, along with a team of students and volunteers, have distributed survey questionnaires to approximately 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 Sergewa 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 have come forward due to social stigma. Some women have been abandoned by their husbands after they were victimized, though this is not common, Sergewa said.
Sergewa is presenting her collected evidence to the International Criminal Court at the Hague in the Netherlands on an ongoing basis. The court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said in a June 8 statement: "We had doubts at the beginning but now we are more convinced that [Gadhafi] decided to punish using rapes."
"They feel fear, shame, guilt, worry about punishment . . . Psychologically, [stigma] is possible and they’re afraid of backlash," Sergewa said in an interview last week conducted in a Benghazi hospital.
She said the women she spoke to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, are constantly afraid and suffer headaches, nausea and have trouble sleeping. Many have reported feeling "dirty" and a constant need to wash. Some have recurring suicidal urges.
Gallal, Sergewa and others are working to establish a support infrastructure for the victims. Externally, they are working with international organizations 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. Gallal said that the "hardest part is working with the people around the victim."
Stories Match Eyewitness Accounts
Sergewa has, so far, interviewed 140 of the victims who live in refugee camps and among families who have agreed to host them. Their stories match many eyewitness accounts from the embattled towns of Brega, Ajdabiya, Yefren and others.
One woman told Sergewa that a squad of soldiers consisting of Libyan loyalists and foreign mercenaries tied up her husband and raped her in front of him. After the soldiers were finished, they shot her husband in front of her eyes. Other women had been raped in front of their children. Some have been abducted and violated by more than 15 soldiers per day, then left naked in the desert.
Dr. Bashir Rajab Lasabai, a physician and human rights activist, said that 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 back seat. 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 also spoke with eyewitnesses who reported that 50 women had been raped, killed and dumped into a cave around Yefren, a town in the Western Mountains. None of the women or the eyewitnesses can be identified by name because of the threat of violence they might face from Gadhafi’s troops.
Most of the stories provided by women who said they had been raped cannot be independently confirmed although both Libyan and foreign doctors have found physical evidence of damage on the bodies of victims, such as bruises, burns, bite marks and scarring. One employee of a nongovernmental group, who has worked with doctors on some of these cases, said "without a doubt, it’s always happening." He asked not to be identified.
On March 19, Gadhafi sent a large armored force towards Benghazi, the center of the Libyan uprising and de-facto rebel capital. Only a French airstrike stopped the division from reaching the city and leveling it with superior firepower. Rebels who raided the vehicles said that they found condoms and Viagra, a male sexual stimulant, among loyalist provisions, according to the rebel Transitional Council, reported various news agencies.
A recent CNN report found that rebels had acquired a cell phone from the loyalists, containing footage of a woman being sodomized "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 that this was intended to sow enmity between the tribes of the rapists and victims and detract attention from the boss in Tripoli.
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Igor Kossov is a freelance journalist in the Middle East. He has recently investigated the Libyan insurrection and the plight of refugees in the region. He has also covered politics in Uganda as well as local and international issues in New York City.