When an uprising turns so brutal that a leader starts slaughtering his own people, one can quickly become desensitised to the images that emerge from it. Scenes of horror and mass destruction in Libya, witnessed over and over again from the comfort of an Australian sofa, can, rightly or wrongly, end up having as much impact as a violent video game.
Sometimes, though, the ghastly truth of war or repression is driven home in unexpected ways—often in the actions of one individual. More than 20 years after soldiers opened fire on student protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, it's not the bloody chaos that sticks in the minds of people the world over, but the image of a slightly built man, armed with nothing more threatening than a few bags of groceries, defiantly stepping into the path of a tank.
So it was over the weekend in Libya. As foreign journalists tucked into the breakfast buffet at Tripoli's Rixos Hotel on Saturday morning, a young woman named Iman al-Obeidi ran into the room, screaming to reporters that she'd been raped at a check point by 15 whisky-guzzling militiamen loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
Obeidi was bruised, bloodied, and hysterical. "They defecated and urinated on me and tied me up," she shouted, her face wet with tears. The reason for the unspeakable assault, she said, was that she came from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
As journalists scrambled to record details of Obaidi's ordeal, the 29-year-old law graduate was brutalised again, with hotel staff joining Gaddafi's security officers and minders to violently bundle the distraught Obeidi out of the hotel, into a car and off to an uncertain fate. ("You traitor. How dare you say that?'' spat a knife-wielding hotel waitress).
Then the spin began. According to a government spokesman, Obeidi is a divorced mother who makes her living "having parties with men", she was drunk, and she knew her assailants. The truth, according to Obeidi's family, is that she is not only single, but was also a virgin. She is not a mentally impaired prostitute, as the government declared, but a respectable law student.
Whatever awaits Iman al-Obeidi—her family denies government reports that she has been released— that brief melee over a five-star breakfast was a snapshot of today's Libya that touched us in a way that hours of battle footage can rarely achieve. We heard her story, we shared her anger and we felt her pain.
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