Khadija Omaymi works as a producer at Libya TV where she makes uncensored programmes about life and people in Libya. During the decade prior to the February 2011 revolution, when she owned a business and worked at Garyounis University, Omaymi had been repeatedly harassed by security forces.
“In the first years after 2000, Gaddafi was showing the West that Libya was opening up after 20 years of being closed off from the world. That’s when I decided in 2004 to open an internet café. They were not common at the time and cost quite a bit to set up.”
Getting the license to open the café was long, tedious and required the approval of the security services. “It was like I was trying to open a nuclear plant. I was granted the permissions three months later, with conditions attached. We had to name our customers and enforce a policy that prohibited them from visiting sites that touched upon national security. The security forces would pass by frequently to make sure the prohibition paper was visibly hung up.”
“On a regular evening in 2005, while the café was, as usual, teeming with pioneers, cultured people and poets, the tourism police came and asked us to evict the customers and close the cafe. I told them that I couldn’t honour their request because firstly, they had no official document that outlined the reasons for the request and secondly, the tourism police have no business with an internet café. He left, but within an hour the internal security forces were at the café and ordering customers out themselves.”
They disconnected the internet receiver and took it with them. Omaymi too went with them, and remained there in the same seat for three days. Different people came in and out to question her, and while Omaymi says she was treated politely and not threatened, she never received an explanation as to the reasons her café was raided. When finally released, Omaymi was asked to sign a pledge, customary for anyone in Libya to do after questioning or imprisonment.
“It was a dense document. It included a promise to check in at their offices every Saturday and take full responsibility for everything that comes out of the café and all my customers’ visits to sites that threaten the country’s security. They wouldn’t define which sites these were, but said I should monitor all customer activity and record for them people’s names, the times they came and the sites they visited.”
When she was released she discovered that one of her customers, also a friend, had died at the hands of muggers who had kidnapped him. She had last seen him at her café an hour before the internal security forces had raided it.
“Dayf Ghazal was a courageous journalist with a stinging pen. His last article was titled ‘Who is the traitor, who is the coward?’ and I think that is what claimed his life because it shamed the regime and crossed the red lines in a country that was chained in every way.”
“At his wake, I heard that he was found with his fingers cut off, a burst eye, shot in the head, and with clear signs of torture. I found it very odd that thieves would cut off his fingers. Who, in 2005, owned a bullet, even an empty one?” she asked rhetorically and with the confident sarcasm that became acceptable only after the revolution of 2011.
A year later, after a protest outside the Italian embassy in Benghazi led to the deaths of 10 Libyans, Omaymi’s internet café was again closed and she was ordered not to open any part of it, including the mobile phone and accessories section and the computer maintenance section. This, she felt, was targeting her financial stability in a bid to gain her compliance. The café reopened ten days later, but continued to face harassment on a regular basis and was closed down once and for all the following year.
Omaymi then focused on her work as head of alumni at the Garyounis university engineering faculty, where she worked with good friend Jalal Kwafy.
“Garyounis University was not an academic institution but a security castle full of regime people. Some of the teachers were awarded posts for being assassins of Libyans abroad. All sorts of shameful things would go on there and Jalal and a couple of others would write about it and leave leaflets in the hallways.”
The university’s security apparatus didn’t know who was behind the leaflets, but suspicion fell on Kwafy, Omaymi and others. Omaymi was advised to keep away from Kwafy. Their friendship was strong and evident. She was told in no uncertain terms that their association could lead to her demise, and on the evening of 10 February 2011 she heard from Kwafy’s wife that he had not made it home. A source told her that he had been arrested and another came to warn her that her name had been mentioned at the internal security offices. They called her in the next day.
“They told me that Jalal had told them everything and that they would take care of us as long as we gave them the names of other people, people we had been in touch with. The truth is, we didn’t know them. People online used fake names and we ourselves only knew them after the revolution.”
She was released after questioning and joined the protests that began on 15 February and ultimately led to the overthrow of the regime. Soon after, her friend Kwafy, who had been sentenced to death, escaped and joined the revolution too.