How can a young Libyan woman convince armed militia members to stop fighting?
How can you convince a young man to disarm and return as a civilian to a society that is in ruins?
We are challenging their ideas of war. I ask them ‘What are you going to do after the war? Even if by then you are 30, 40, 50, 60? Because one day the war will end. And I challenge them about their children, if they have any.
Do you want your children to face what you are facing now? And they don’t. No one wants that. They are very responsive to that argument. As an activist, I try to see entry points. I never judge or condemn.
‘Members of militias sometimes react aggressively. I understand their defensive position. We need to remember that they too are traumatized. Just like ourselves.’
At the same time, I know we need a good strategy of collecting guns. That we need good policies to make sure that truth seeking missions are carried out and that those who committed violations will be prosecuted. That reconciliations can take place with people they can reconcile with.
And I think the people who took and take part in the fighting, need to be involved in the new political system of Libya. You might say that is dangerous – just look at what happened in Lebanon. But one of their main arguments to stay with the armed groups, is because they’re not sure what will happen to them in the next structure of the country if they leave their guns. Allowing them to participate politically is giving them an opportunity to stop using violence.
Do people sometimes oppose you aggressively because of what you do or say?
Yes. Members of militias sometimes react aggressively. And I understand their defensive position. We always need to remember that they too are traumatized. Sometimes we, civil society activists, forget that.
Yes, they have attacked us, they kidnapped our family members and fellow activists. But they are traumatized humans, just like ourselves. Sometimes you must absorb their anger, knowing that the anger is not directed at you, but at war. Once I realize that, I don’t mind if they get aggressive.
Do you have the space to work as a civil society activist?
No, the opportunities are minimal. That’s why I grab all opportunities, however small. Sometimes I drive around the city and when I spot a check point with armed men who look very young, I stop and talk to them. I ask them if they also go to school, what they do in their free time.
I want them to speak about themselves, not as soldiers, but as young human beings. You can’t measure that kind of action, I don’t know how successful that is. But I do know that the most successful trajectory in a lot of intervention work, especially with extremist groups – groups often labelled as ‘terrorists’ – is the human contact. Recognizing someone as a human being.
Are you also working with extremist groups?
That’s very difficult, as I am a young woman. Maybe in the future they could see that I don’t look at them as the enemy, that I view them differently.
‘They see us as these westernized young people with their crazy ideologies, as foreign agents.’
But as a young, independent woman you probably stand for everything they reject?
Yes. But still I want to bridge the gap between us. Because I say no. I say no to your assumptions, no to your judgements, no to war, no to violence. That’s what I stand for. And I think, in some way, they respect that. Of course, most of them were raised by a lot of women. That’s an entry point for me.
You sound very optimistic in a lot of what you say. But what has the war meant for you? The war broke out when you were 21. How did you cope?
Really badly! I do sound like I am a strong and stable person. But I had my ups and downs. It goes in cycles. During 2011 I volunteered as a field nurse. And I lost my best friend in that year. By the end of that year I started to work in a psycho-social centre for youth.
Was that worse than what’s going on today?
Different kind of worse. I think I am still a bit shell-shocked by how fast it went from curbing protests to bombs. The sound of bombs. I am still very alert to sounds, wherever I go. Like fireworks.
‘As an activist, I try to see entry points. I never judge or condemn.’
By the end of 2012 I was very much burned out. I had lost almost half of my weight and couldn’t sleep. I still don’t sleep very well. For a while, I threw myself at work. Not healthy! But then again, I had been working since I was 16.
To raise your own income?
Yes. I had to. If I chose to say no to the patriarchal structure I was born in, I had to do it on my own. Which is what I did. I took responsibility for it. I earned my income by teaching English and chemistry to other kids.
You were 21, burned-out, and war raged on. How did you keep going?
Libyan society isn’t welcoming civil society activists very much. They see us as these westernized young people with their crazy ideologies, as foreign agents. So, you get disheartened. But the biggest disappointment was the revolution.
By September 2011 I was disillusioned by the whole thing, because I saw the revolutionaries committing worse atrocities than what Qaddafi did. That was heart breaking.
I suffered from heartbreak until 2016. I continued to work, with less faith in the people around me. The trust was broken. Still today, If I walk around Tripoli or reach the airport, and see only men around, I get stressed.
I look for exit points, always make sure I have some sharp item in my bag, knowing I might be sexually violated or attacked. There’s not a moment in daily life in Libya, in Tripoli, without suspicion or fear. That’s what ‘unsafe’ means.
‘What scares me a lot in Europe is youth’s political apathy.’
I’m doing much better now. I still have my downs, like last year when I thought about stopping my work in Libya. But then my friend shared the pictures of their graduation in Benghazi.
The students had gone to their old campus, which was completely bombed. For two years they had studied in primary schools, in the evenings, after the children had left. When they graduated they went back and celebrated in the bombed campus.
When you look at these pictures, when you look at that kind of will, to live and to continue, you can’t allow yourself to give up. So I continue for the few who want to change things and for the future generation.
I don’t want another young woman in the future to come to me and say ‘Why didn’t women do anything in Libya before?’. Because that was the position we, as young women from Tamazight Women Movement, found ourselves in. We saw that not much was done before us.
What is the main message you want to people outside Libya, to the international community?
I can’t disconnect the war in Libya from what’s happening around the world. It’s not one country going to war, everything is related, globalized. What I see in Europe, is increased polarization, a lost compass when it comes to truth and values, less common ground between human beings.
What scares me a lot in Europe is youth’s political apathy. This leads to war mongers being elected and that affects us directly. A lot of youth groups, unions, civil society organizations I connect with say they have a hard time in recruiting more people. Especially in northern Europe there is this sense that life is fine.
We’re fine with our world, nothing will happen. It’s very consumerist, very capitalist. People have no need to engage and inform themselves about what politicians decide and do. This leaves so much room for politicians who want to do harm, who are exclusionary, narrow minded and have a limited view of the world.
‘So please, Europe, resist fear.’
But if your apathy contributes to your tax money going to arms being exported to Libya which is what happens – if your apathy is contributing to the war in Libya, then this war is also your problem, not only ours.
So, my message to people outside of Libya would be: any democracy or any political structure that wants to be inclusive, needs the participation of everyone. I am a huge fan of Rosa Luxemburg. She puts it beautifully. We all need to be revolutionaries. We all need to say ‘no’. And, whenever we can, we all need to celebrate our common humanity.
What should young people in northern Europe resist or say ‘no’ to?
I think fear. Without realizing it, people in Europe are quite afraid. Afraid of people who speak a different language, have a different colour, a different background, a different religion.
That fear is dividing. It is a fear of losing their lifestyle. Which is completely ridiculous, when you know that human history is based on migration.
No lifestyle is constant, no nation state is constant, no empire is constant. They all fall. We do have a common land, a common sky. There is our connection, our common experience. Only that is constant. Everything else is changeable.
So please, Europe, resist fear.