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Bahiya Kanoun: One Woman’s Sacrifice for Libya

In Libya on August 21, 2012 at 00:12

December 2011: I was fortunate enough to have probably the first western interview with Bahiya Kanoun, who was at the time given the post as Deputy Minister of the Martyrs & the Missing.  She was just one of only two women given posts in the interim Government appointed by the NTC (National Transitional Council).  I met Bahiya, in the luxurious surroundings of the Corinthia Hotel, a softly spoken diminutive woman wearing a pretty blue and white checked hijab.  I had just met her bodyguard, Abdul a kindly man, wearing the classic Middle East security “uniform” of black leather jacket.   After carefully concealing his gun inside said leather jacket, Abdul gave me his number in case I ever had any problems with security.  Although, I was sure I wouldn’t need it, it was nice to know that I could call on the help of a Minister’s bodyguard.  Bahiya was one woman however who was very much in need of a Bodyguard.

As we sat at the end of the mezzanine level, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Bahiya told me her astonishing story.  She had fled to Tunisia with her children as her life was in danger after working underground to challenge the rule of Gaddafi.  Speaking in a mixture of broken English and Arabic Bahiya told me, “these are unpleasant memories but every time I think back I wonder how strong I must have been to withstand the situation.  I never thought that I could be as courageous as I was at that point in time.”  Her identity had been exposed on State TV by the notorious pro-Gaddafi propagandist Hala Misrati.  Hala Misrati was a name I was to hear over and over again.  She was a young Libyan woman who had risen to prominence as a State TV broadcaster who had her own toxic show.  She used her broadcasts to name people who were suspected of working in the opposition movement against Gaddafi.  She was well known for her incitement for pro-Gaddafi loyalists to do serious harm, if not kill, those she named in her broadcasts.

Bahiya Kanoun

Bahiya told me, “the regime had previously attempted to physically harm me – they had stolen my cell phone they had been listening in on my conversations by tapping my phone, they stole my wealth, my finances, they destroyed my car.  I was the topic of a discussion of an episode on Libyan state TV hosted by Hala Misrati – she dedicated an entire episode to me.”  So Bahiya took her 3 children and fled to Tunisia – “because I knew the following day the Libyan regime would have been hunting me down. I knew what my fate would have been.”  Bahiya ended up taking refuge in an internally displaced camp for Libyans in Tunisia.  “The strategy for me and my children was to hide amongst the refugees in the camp.”   During that time, Bahiya received death threats on her phone – she told me, “they tried to kill me and kidnap my children. The Tunisian police – recorded this.  I had fifteen messages on my mobile phone, saying they will kill me and rape me.”

But despite this, Bahiya insisted that “none of this mattered to me because I was working for the good of my country. My friends even advised me to stop what I was doing, to stop for the sake of my children, they would say ‘you have to be aware that they are now in danger,’ and my response to them would be that ‘the country is more important than anything.’”  Gathering momentum, and choking back tears, she continued – “I told my friends – ‘my people, my countrymen who are being tortured – if I were to stop out of fear and you were to also stop out of fear, who’s going to stand with them – who’s going to support them?’ ”

Tears were now running down Bahiya’s face – “If the price I had to pay was with my children’s lives it wouldn’t matter.  It’s true that my children are the most important thing to me but my country does not compare and freedom does not compare and dignity does not compare, the most important thing to have is dignity, and under this tyrant we did not have dignity – not in our own country or in front of the world. “  I was astonished, but not surprised to hear such patriotism and piety, “and praise be to God, I’m a strong believer and if it was written that my children’s lives would be cut short, then my leaving activism would not do them any good – it wouldn’t change things.  God doesn’t give us anything we can’t bear.  I was personally willing to sacrifice everything,” she paused wiping away her tears.

Bahiya pondered, “I think back and I wonder what was it that kept me going?  Where is this strength coming from?  I then realised what it was that was pushing me forward – and it was the oppression of my people, and the oppression that I used to see every single day when I would go to the refugee camps and visit the injured.  I felt like I had done nothing compared to these people.  And everything I gave compared to them looks cheap – it doesn’t weigh up to what they’ve given.  Compared to the sacrifices they have given, we have done nothing.”

I was humbled listening to the defiant words of Bahiya.  She was a softly spoken, gentle woman but her words showed great strength, courage and conviction.  I could not imagine the many sacrifices that she and many other Libyans had made to rid their country of Gaddafi.  Bahiya was just one of many Libyan women who had stood strong and remained steadfast throughout the Libyan civil war.  She was keen to talk of the crucial role Libyan women had played in the Revolution.  “Libyan women have contributed to the Revolution in a phenomenal way, the Libyan woman was excellent, she was strong, she was innovative, she planned –  they were key in distributing information & they contributed with smuggling arms to the frontlines.”  She stressed, that just because women weren’t fighting on the frontlines, their contribution was significant; “women had many roles in the Revolution, whether they were reporting information, or preparing meals.  They were looking after the families of the freedom fighters, allowing them to feel at ease while they were away fighting – knowing that they’re families were okay.”  She was adamant that “because Libyan women have contributed so immensely to the Revolution, the Libyan Government must now stand with them & ensure that they are included & recognised.”

Bahiya Kanoun

Indeed, her own efforts had been recognised, for she was now in the post of Deputy Minister for the Martyrs and the Missing – a Ministry newly formed in response to the growing problem of accounting for the many thousands who had gone missing or who had “disappeared” during the civil war.  There had been a great deal of criticism of the NTC for not looking after  the needs of the injured, the families of the martyrs or indeed identifying the many hundreds of bodies that had subsequently been discovered in mass graves all around Libya.  Some NGOs – including the work of the Missing charity Mafqood had helped pressure the interim government to do more about the sadly neglected victims of the Revolution.

“With respect to the missing in Libya – the number of missing is great, but it is not to the scale that we all perceive it to be, it’s not as large as we think it is,” Bahiya countered.  “We had estimated that 50 – 70,000 people were missing in Libya, but we believe that the real figure is somewhere between 20 – 25,000.”

I knew from talking to others, that there had been a great deal of criticism about the Ministry, that they hadn’t ascertained the real number of missing, and that they had done nothing to preserve the bodies or establish their identities.

“Upon the establishment of this Ministry, we found that existing NGO’s and charities were very well organised in their efforts & they were made up mostly of women, so the Ministry joined in their efforts and we visited the mass graves to determine what was going on,” assured Bahiya.

“We want to assure the families of the Missing that there is a real strategy set up to address this issue.  That there is accountability, so for example, a family member can know where to go – that there is a specific file about them and so they have somebody at the Ministry they can speak to about it and that it is official.”

“We’re going to start analysing the bodies, we have the samples ready for analysis, for DNA testing –these are samples that were collected from two months back that we are going to be analysing. This will allow us to identify the bodies, inform the families, and prepare for the respectful burial of these individuals,” she lastly added; “We realise that time is against us – we need to do this in the quickest time possible and with the best use of resources.”

Mass grave in Libya

I asked Bahiya what kind of renumeration she was getting as Minister, what kind of rewards did she hope to attain for her role?

Bahiya said she was pleased I had asked her this. “At this point in time (December 2011), for the past few months we are all working for the sake of Libya not ourselves.  I (and the Ministry of Martyrs) do not seek any thanks or gratitude or compensation for these efforts or elections for political positions. We wish to build a strong Ministry and a strong country.  I don’t have any political aspirations at this point in time.  I want to return the rights back to these people and back to these families.  This is the essence of our motivation.”

We turned back to the topic of the role Libyan women must play in the new Libya.  “God has provided us with rights & I’m certain that the Libyan Government will give women the opportunity to exercise their rights, and Libyan women will do so with confidence.”   “Libyan women,” she asserted, “do not lack intelligence, education, or originality, she strives to hold the best positions, she is respectable & dignified; she has all these qualities.”

Revolutionary Libyan woman

I could not argue with her, for sure Libyan women were more than capable of running ministries, taking part in political debates and passing laws, but I asked her, would Libyan men allow women to do this and would Libyan women grasp this opportunity?

Baihiya, didn’t hesitate in her answer – “It is up to the Libyan woman to claim and maximise the opportunity that the Government has given her, to grasp it with the same dedication that she had during the Revolution.   Libyan women know that men do not have any advantage over them in their desire to change and develop Libya.”  She added with a smile, “she has the intellectual competence to do this, and time will show to the world that Libyan women are more than capable of this.”

I hope she gets her wish for the sake of all Libyan women.

In an ironic contrast, as I came out into the fading light of the Corinthia, Abdul – Bahiya’s bodyguard told me that someone had been shot in Omar Mukhtar St – not far from my Hotel.  He said it was not safe for a woman to be out on the streets and insisted on having someone drive me the 5 minutes to my Hotel (an easy walk for me).  I laughed at this manly Libyan concern for what he probably thought was a vulnerable Western woman.  I had walked backwards and forwards in the dark to the Corinthia many times, but for once, just once; it was nice to be driven.

Grounds of the Corinthia Hotel

Update October 2012:  Bahiya worked in the Ministry for 3 months and then worked as Under-Secretary for social care and worked on a  programme helping to train women’s involvement in the elections and the parliamentary process in areas such as Sabha, Zawara, Nalut,and  Tripoli.  She believes now is a difficult time for women working in the government due to the insecure nature of Libya and the militias that are kidnapping, attacking and threatening government officials, including women such as ex-Minister of Health Dr Fatima Hamroush.  She is now working on a project to help the reconciliation process for the people of Tawergha and is looking at the dire need for psychological assistance to those injured and raped during the Libyan civil war.

With thanks to Ayat Mneina for translation.

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