Rewriting Libya’s history

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FEB 2014 – For 42 years, up until his death in October 2011, Muammar Gaddafi ruled over Libya and its people with impunity. Forced uncompensated nationalisation and confiscation of private property was prevalent in the 1970s, as were assassinations and executions of political activists in Libya and abroad in the 1980s. The massacre of over 1,000 prisoners at Abu Slim in the 1990s passed under-reported and unpunished, as did the false imprisonments of hundreds of Libyans, many of whom were held without trial, tortured and spent decades confined in unfathomable conditions.

All the while, Gaddafi controlled the narrative, both within Libya and abroad, and shaped people’s understanding of life in the oil-rich country. Despite having lived through similar experiences of oppression under authoritarian rule for decades, even citizens of neighbouring and nearby countries often did not understand the motivation behind the people’s uprising in Libya in 2011, having unwittingly accepted the falsehoods propagated by the Libyan dictator. But contrary to the narrative Gaddafi and his entourage wielded into the minds of many, Libyans did not bask in the wealth of oil.

Simply basking in the glory of his success as Africa’s boxing champion resulted in Mahmood Abu Shkewa being violently assaulted. “Instead of honouring me, they imprisoned me and destroyed my hands,” recalled Abu Shkewa when I met with him in Tripoli in 2012.

Abu Shkewa’s is one of 32 personal accounts we documented between 2012 and 2013. The interviews, captured to camera by Naziha Arebi, have been published on a project specific site (www.Libya42.org) that includes summaries of each story in both Arabic and English. A book of the summaries – with English and Arabic editions – has also be produced.

At the time the interviews were conducted, in late 2012 and early 2013, Libya was transitioning after a violent and bloody civil war that witnessed the death of Gaddafi at the hands of opposition fighters. The transition was not without its hurdles, and those who had hoped to witness the development of a democratic and just system of government were again being threatened with violence and terror.

The perpetrators were not the same as those who terrorised Libya between 1969 and 2011, but they grew up in a country where many – if not most – were treated with little regard for their rights as human beings and citizens in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.

It is therefore important to document personal accounts of life and lives in Libya during that era in order to not only allow its people to shape the narrative of their history during those four decades, but also to work towards ending the cycle of abuse that threatens to overshadow the new democracy Libyans are working to build.

Ensuring that Libyans need no longer live in fear of unsanctioned imprisonment and heinous abuse must be among the top priorities of Libya’s new government. No one must be above the law, and the rights of all Libyans must be protected by and enshrined within it.

To ensure that the disregard for human rights prevalent throughout Gaddafi’s regime does not continue, victims of Gaddafi-era abuses need to feel heard, their anguish recognised and their calls for justice acknowledged. For many, all they have are their stories, and when people tell their own stories, history is written from the bottom up.

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