Eman al-Obeidi’s life-saving message
There was a sense of completion, of the sort journalists rarely get while reporting a story, in meeting Eman al-Obeidi in Qatar. Here she was, free at last from the fear that had stalked her for more than six weeks. She looked composed, sitting there in her blue jeans and hejab. She wore make-up. And she was smiling.
“I feel new-born,” she told me. But there’s no sense of completion for her. She lives every day with the horrific memories of the violent ordeal she says she endured at the hands of militiamen loyal to Colonel Gaddafi. And it didn’t end there.
The last time I’d seen her, she was being dragged along kicking and screaming by grim-faced state security men and bundled into a waiting car to be driven off to an uncertain fate.
She told me how, after that, she had been interrogated incessantly for three days and nights, denied food, water and sleep as the henchmen of the regime cajoled her to recant. She refused, preferring to suffer the consequences.
Eman al-Obeidi’s life has been turned upside down, not just by her kidnap at a checkpoint and two-days of being tied up and assaulted and raped, but by what she calls her “spontaneous” decision to burst into a Tripoli hotel full of journalists to tell them what had happened.
It is not safe for her to return to Libya – even to the rebel-held east. Her life remains in danger. Her exile in the Gulf state of Qatar (the first Arab country to recognise the Benghazi rebels as Libya’s legitimate government) is only temporary. She does not know what her future holds. That torments her too.
Eman al-Obeidi has not received any counselling following her grim experience. Although she presents the appearance of composure, she is clearly fragile; sometimes tearful. There are telltale signs of lurking post-traumatic distress. She sits alone in her apartment.
There are two armed Qatari security men at her door wearing long white jellabiya and red keffiyeh headdresses. She cannot go anywhere without them. The Qatari government is not taking any chances.
She speaks to her fiancé, a rebel fighter, on her glossy red mobile phone. (He’s a new development – she didn’t want to say too much about him.) She has been missing her family. She craves Libyan food. We helped her hunt down a North African restaurant that served couscous tajine.
We go for a walk on the Corniche. Her security men keep watch from a black Mercedes. It’s too hot. She can’t concentrate and she gets flustered. She wants to go back to the apartment. When she’s there, she wants to go out. Some nights she can’t sleep. At all.
This is the first time Eman al-Obeidi has spoken freely, outside Libya, about what actually happened to her. What is interesting to me is that her story has not changed since the day she charged into our hotel. No wavering, no embellishments, just detail, when pressed.
She speaks matter-of-factly about the extreme sexual violence to which she claims she was subjected. It is clearly distressing for her to recount her ordeal, but she persists, despite my assurances that she need not go on.
She cannot control the floods of her tears as she talks about why she believes she was singled out. It’s because she was from Benghazi, she says. Her accent and ID card betrayed her.
“They asked me: ‘Where are the men from the east? Let them come and see what we do to their women. Let them see how we rape their women, and humiliate them.’”
She pauses to reach for a tissue as tears continue to roll down her cheeks. “They wanted to take revenge because I’m from the east. Nothing more, nothing less. They were drunk.”
Under international law, the use of rape as a weapon of war is a war crime. Women are protected in both international and internal conflicts under the Geneva Conventions. The Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court also outlaws rape as an act of war.
The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, who today has sought arrest warrants for Muammar Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and the head of Libyan intelligence, is actively investigating cases of rape in Libya – and many have been documented.
But Eman al-Obeidi’s experience stands apart.
I ask her what was going through her head as she made her electrifying plea for attention to the foreign press corps in the dining room of Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel.
“At that moment I was so frightened,” she confides. She says she knew she was as good as dead. “But at least I was satisfied that I’d created a scandal. I didn’t want to keep silent about what had happened to me. They have to pay the price for what they did.”
As they dragged her away, fear coursed through her, she tells me from the safety of the sofa in Qatar. “If they were not scared of the journalists and cameras, and the whole world watching, then what would stop them killing me?”
Journalists in the hotel – who’d witnessed her being manhandled into a waiting car by state security men and driven away – shared her fear. We were shocked and many felt distraught they our powerlessness to protect her: we were the only people between her and the very regime she accused of these crimes.
I look at her now. She’s free at last from the threats and intimidation that she’s lived with since that fateful morning in late March. She tells me she feels “new-born”. She seems OK; a bit fragile maybe, but OK. What she did probably did save her life. But what a gamble.
She has a succinct take on all that now: “I felt I was not a human being when I was kidnapped and raped. Then I felt that I had no rights when I was taken to the car. But I had sent my message,” she says. “And it had been heard.”