“What is the difference between Gaddafi and the Italians?” Jamila Mohamad Fallag asked her father as a young teenager when in 1977 Gaddafi publically hanged students in her hometown of Benghazi.
“Most of my generation was aware. We had grown up seeing the students executed and businessmen stripped of their wealth.” That didn’t stop Fallag becoming an activist when in 1981 she went to study economics at Garyounis University, now known as the University of Benghazi.
Having survived torture, imprisonment and two suicide attempts, Fallag is now deputy culture minister for women and children.
Two years before she enrolled at university, Gaddafi had created the ‘revolutionary committees’, loyalist groups that would monitor, control and instil fear in the Libyan population. They were, Fallag says, created to counter the student movement that had begun in the 70s.
Fallag and her friends, Sofia bou Dajaja and Sara Shafiee had to be extremely cautious in their anti-Gaddafi activities. In the spring of 1982, when the leaflets they produced and distributed didn’t lead to the protests they had been hoping to incite, they sprayed graffiti of slogans from popular patriotic songs and demands for the fall of the regime in the lecture theatre of the economics faculty. When they came back to re-spray the slogans after the revolutionary committee had painted over them, they were caught and held for six days in the faculty’s research centre.
“I was placed on a chair in a cupboard no larger than three by three metres and tortured. I was beaten until there was nothing left of my face but my eyes. When I went to the bathroom that evening, I could see my entire face was blackened by the beatings.”
Fallag made her first attempt at suicide in the research centre. After they were moved, employees said they could see remnants of the women who had spent six harrowing days there.
At their new location, a student housing block empty during the summer months, the three women were isolated from each other. A room on the fourth floor served as an interrogation chamber and the women continued to receive beatings. Fallag went on hunger strike and slit her wrists. The worst day of her life was yet to come.
“On the 26th day of Ramadan, we were taken to the Fadeel Katiba. I was tortured in the Katiba by men from the revolutionary committee including Ahmad Misbaah Werfeli. Government men were present during my beating. Hassan Ishkal said the worst things a woman of my age could have heard, and in the presence of Abdallah Senussi, Othman Wizri, the then minister of justice Moftah Bouker, and other men, Werfeli and others beat my feet with a stick made from palm tree until I lost consciousness. When I came to, my feet where so swollen I couldn’t wear my shoes. As I limped out of the room, my shoes under my arm, I saw a soldier in the corridor crying. He had been hearing my screams and my pleas.”
The next day, her body still in pain and her feet still swollen, the female guards of revolutionary committee at the student housing hung her up to torture and humiliate her further.
Fallag was eventually taken to the Black Horse prison in Tripoli where she stayed alone in a cell measuring 180 by 180 cm. “The prison was designed to create a lot of noise and instil fear. I could hear men screaming in pain.”
By the end of September, her parents were brought over to take her home. That is when she learned that two innocent men, Naji bou Hawiya and Ahmad Makhlouf, had been tortured to death because they had been falsely implicated. “Sara had given them names of various people during the awful days of the interrogations. The regime was convinced that three women couldn’t be working alone and they wanted names of people in our movement. Whether out of fear or pain or desperation, Sara gave them names of random people, who in turn gave more names.”
All three women were rearrested in January 1983 the following year and spent two months in prison before being made to face one hundred men. “The men had all been brought in and imprisoned over the past months as a result of being falsely implicated by others under duress. I felt full of regret, but at the same time I had a clear conscience. I wanted to serve Libya and these men were victims, but I never named them. I felt proud and guiltless.”
Soon after being released in March, Fallag became engaged. “I thought my engagement was definitely off after Sophia and I were arrested again on 6 April. The next day, the anniversary of the 1977 hangings of teachers Omar Dabboub and Mohammed bin Saud, the women were taken to the lecture hall of the university and faced a show trial by the revolutionary committee. “They called out ‘execution, execution, hanging, hanging’. I lost control of my legs.”
The internal security forces took the women away and released them six days later. There was an on-going conflict between the internal security forces and the revolutionary guard that saved Fallag’s life that day. The following year, in April 1984, the revolutionary committee got their way and publically hanged students at the university.
By May 1984, Fallag was married and had a four-month-old son. She took him with her when she was arrested again, following the NFSL raid on Bab al-Azizia. Six of her brothers, the youngest fourteen years old, and an uncle were also arrested and imprisoned in separate cells. She and all but two of her brothers were released within ten days. The two who remained were imprisoned and tortured at Abu Salim for four years. “Families paid a high price under Gaddafi’s rule. But I am proud I did something. Freedom always has a high price.”