259 women said they had been raped by militiamen loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. Dr. Seham Sergewa had been working with children traumatized by the fighting in Libya but soon found herself being approached by troubled mothers who felt they could trust her with their dark secret.
BENGHAZI – The first victim came forward two months ago, followed by two more. All were mothers of children the London-trained child psychologist was treating, and all described how they were raped by militiamen fighting to keep Gadhafi in power.
Sergewa decided to add a question about rape to the survey she was distributing to Libyans living in refugee camps after being driven from their homes. The main purpose was to try to determine how children were faring in the war; she suspected many were suffering from PTSD.
To her surprise, 259 women came forward with accounts of rape. They all said the same thing.
“I was really surprised when I started visiting these areas, first by the number of people suffering from PTSD, including the large number of children among them, and then by the number of women who had been raped from both the east and west of the country,” Sergewa said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Across the world, rape carries a stigma. But it can be a deadly one in conservative Muslim societies like Libya, where rape is considered a stain on the honor of the entire family. Victims can be abandoned by their families and, in some cases, left in the desert to die. Speaking to a journalist is out of the question.
Sergewa’s questionnaire was distributed to 70,000 families and drew 59,000 responses.
“We found 10,000 people with PTSD, 4,000 children suffering psychological problems and 259 raped women,” she said, adding that she believes the number of rape victims is many times higher but that woman are afraid to report the attacks.
The women said they had been raped by Gadhafi‘s militias in numerous cities and towns: Benghazi, Tobruk, Brega, Bayda and Ajdabiya (where the initial three mothers hail from) and Saloum in the east; and Misrata in the west.
Some just said they had been raped. Some did not sign their names; some just used their initials. But some felt compelled to share the horrific details of their ordeals on the back of the questionnaire.
Doctors at hospitals in Benghazi, the rebel bastion, said they had heard of women being raped but had not treated any. The first international airstrikes on March 19 saved the city from falling into the hands of Gadhafi forces who were advancing in columns of tanks.
However, a doctor in Ajdabiya, 100 miles (150 kilometers) south of Benghazi, said he treated three women who said they were raped by Gadhafi fighters in March when the town was invaded.
“These women were terrified their families would find out _ two were married, one was single,” Dr. Suleiman Refadi said. “They only came to me because they also were terrified that they may have been infected with the AIDS virus.” He said they had tested negative but doubted they would return for follow-up tests.
In a highly publicized case in Libya, Iman al-Obeidi burst into the hotel housing foreign journalists in Tripoli in March and accused pro-Gadhafi militiamen of gang-raping her because she is from rebel-held eastern Libya. Her anguished disclosure was captured by Western cameras and shown around the world.
Earlier this month, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Luis Moreno-Campo, said he has “strong evidence” of crimes against humanity committed by Gadhafi’s regime, including serious allegations of “women arrested and gang raped.”