By MICHELLE FAUL, Associated Press May 28, 2011
BENGHAZI, Libya – At first, the responses to the questionnaire about the
trauma of the war in Libya were predictable, if tragic: 10,000 people
suffering post-traumatic stress, 4,000 children with psychological
problems. Then came the unexpected: 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.
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.
Rape has been a common weapon of war throughout the ages, most recently in
conflicts from the Balkans in Europe to Sri Lanka in Asia and in
sub-Saharan Africa, where Congo has been described as the epicenter of
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
"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
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.
Reading from the scribbled Arabic on the back of one survey, Sergewa
described one woman's attack in Misrata in March, while it was still
occupied by Gadhafi's forces.
"First they tied my husband up," the woman wrote. "Then they raped me in
front of my husband and my husband's brother. Then they killed my
Another woman in Misrata said she was raped in front of her four children
after Gadhafi fighters burned down her home.
"She ran away with her children and tried to escape to the port, but then
they started shelling the port. In the chaos, she was separated from the
children," Sergewa said.
"She was distraught when I interviewed her, not knowing if her children
were dead or alive. I wish I knew the end of her story, but I don't know
what happened to her."
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.
Gadhafi's fighters were forced out of Ajdabiya weeks ago and the town now
is largely deserted but for the rebels.
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."
One of Libya's leading psychiatrists, Dr. Ali M. Elroey, told the AP that
he has set up three mobile teams to treat trauma victims of the war in
their homes or in temporary shelters: one for PTSD, one for other
psychological problems and one for rape survivors.
Elroey said they need to reach out to people in their homes because the
stigma associated with psychiatric care is leaving large numbers of
His outpatient clinic at Benghazi's psychiatric hospital has treated more
than 600 patients in two months, many responding to radio and newspaper
advertisements offering psychiatric help for war trauma. He said most were
women, though none had acknowledged being raped.
Sergewa said she has interviewed 140 of the rape survivors in various
states of mental anguish, and has been unable to persuade a single victim
to prosecute. None would speak to the AP about her ordeal, even with a
promise to hide her identity.
"Some I diagnosed with acute psychosis; they are hallucinating," Sergewa
said. "Some are very depressed; some want to commit suicide. Some want
their parents to kill them because they don't want their families to bear
Some already have been abandoned by their husbands and fear seeking
treatment could get them ostracized or cast out of their communities.
Others have kept the rapes a secret for fear of retribution from spouses.
"They fear their husbands will take them out to the desert and leave them
there to die," Sergewa said.
It is likely more rapes could occur as the conflict drags on, Sergewa said.
"They are using rape not just to hurt women but to terrorize entire
families and communities," Sergewa said. "The women I spoke to say they
believed they were raped because their husbands and brothers were fighting
"I think it is also to put shame on the tribes or the villages, to scare
people into fleeing, and to say: 'We have raped your women,'" she said.
Sergewa says women will continue to be targets of the militiamen, and this
makes it all the more urgent to finish her study and get it published.
"We must throw light on what is really happening in Libya and fight to
bring justice for these women, to help heal them psychologically," she
Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed to this report from The