By Nada Abuknesha
For the past 30 years, the month of April is rife with painful memories for the Libyan people. April is a time when Libyans remember and pay tribute to the early martyrs who gave all when Gadaffi was in his full flow of complete terror, and unfortunately those directly and indirectly responsible have yet to be held to account, tried and punished for their crimes against humanity. It is no doubt that this is why the loss of these innocent men is hurting even more, especially to their beloved families and friends.
The sad story began in January 1976, when university students from Benghazi and Tripoli had formed an independent students’ union publicly daring to defy and reject the sham student union that was sponsored by Gadaffi’s regime. In response to the formation of an independent students’ union, Gadaffi ordered troops to violently attack and arrest university students in their campuses. By April of the same year, it was very clear to the anti-Gadaffi activists that Libya was slowly going down the gutter to become a state-delivered terror system. Despite Libya sitting on billions of dollars worth of oil, the Libyan people were completely deprived of this wealth, in addition to social and economic strife and complete absence of security from state sponsored terror organizations.
On the 7th of April, 1976, fed-up anti-Gadaffi student activists in overwhelming numbers, took to the streets in protest and condemnation of the oppressive Gadaffi regime (it is important to note that this type of innocent public protest was unheard of in Libya at the time). As a result Government troops and armed revolutionaries reacted violently and the peacefully demonstrating students were attacked, arrested and detained. Hundreds of the detained students were tried in civil courts and were given light sentences; some were released after 5 weeks and others released after 10 months. For future generations April 7th 1976 was to be known as the ‘Students Uprising’.
It was the devastating events that occurred exactly a year later that has remained painfully engraved in the memory of the Libyan people for many generations to come. On April 7th 1977 Al-Fateh University campus in Tripoli was fitted with ugly ostentatious gallows, a clear statement of intent by the state terror machine. Student leaders were re-arrested, re-tried and sentenced to death by hanging. Omar Daboub and Mohamed Ben Saoud were publicly hung whilst their beloved families and friends were forced to watch and looked on helplessly. Naji Bu Hawiya Khylyif and Ahmed Makhluf, died under torture.
The hangings were broadcast on national television unedited to spared fear and panic among the population and clearly demonstrate the total uncompromised terror policy of the Gaddafi regime. These events were unparalleled in contemporary history even by standards of Arab tyranny. The events were to define the Gaddafi regime for the subsequent years: total control, total state-delivered terror and total disregard for the most basics of human rights. This went on in Libya while the world outside looked on unmoved.
The event of April 1977 would mark the beginning of an annual ‘tradition’ in which the anniversary of the 1976 students uprising would be marked with public hangings and executions. Many innocent young men were publicly executed; we sadly do not know all of the names.
There were many brave young Libyans who did not allow these horrible events to hold them back. Returning to Libya as a recent engineer graduate from an American university was Al-Saadeg Hamed Al-Shuwehdi. When he returned to Libya he began to boldly and bravely peacefully campaign against the Gadaffi regime, calling it, ‘Saving Libya Front’. In April 1984 he was arrested and taken to Benghazi stadium, where he was publicly tried and as his sentence was read out (execution by hanging) the crowd cheered in a celebratory manner. His hands were bound and was then hung on the gallows in front of school children and University students. The proceedings were filmed and broadcasted live on national television. However it was what unfolded next that shocked the Libyan nation. As the poor man writhed and kicked on the gallows, a young woman leapt out of the crowds, ran up to the gallows and held and pulled his legs together, while the crowds cheered on and on (she just loved to boast about this in later years). This woman was Huda Ben Amer.
Sadly this painful episode gets worse. Doctors in the stadium examined Mr Shuwehdi, to make sure he was dead but found that he was still alive. They rushed him to hospital and attempted to revive him. When Gadaffi found out, he gave the doctors strict orders to kill him. His mouth and throat was stuffed with sand until he died.
Mr Shuwehdi’s family never received his body.
For the next 27 years Huda Ben Amer was one of the main big wheels in Gadaffi’s barbaric and violent murders of his own people. She was alternatively known as ‘Huda al-Shannaga’ translated as ‘Huda the hanging woman’, a title she was rather proud of and took part in the annual hangings of university students between 1972 and 1985. She ended up becoming one of the most powerful and richest women in Libya.
It is no secret that Libya as of now is a catastrophe of epic proportions. Many have argued that now is not the time to keep looking back and keep on being fixated with the past and keep remembering what happened in April all those years ago. However, now more than ever is the time to remember. Now is the time is to remind ourselves of the horrors of the past in order to remain alert and see in advance signs of future terrors and reject them before they happen. We have to remember that people in charge no matter who they are can become capable of the most awful acts.
We must not allow the events of today distract us from ensuring that our wholly unpleasant and painful past is part of our present and of our future. When people begin to forget slowly over time it will be forgotten and swept under the carpet as if it never took place. Some may even say we should move on and begin processes of reconciliation and societal repair. Some educationists may dare to suggest that we must not dwell on the past and reignite ill feelings on annual basis. These suggestions are misleading and egalitarian as they may sound, are merely empty gestures from those who do not value lessons of history.
People who did this and took part in these barbaric crimes during Gaddafi’s 42 years of distress have not been held accountable and while Libya is going through some challenging times it is absolutely no excuse to not remember or recognize this. In this sense, it is not only important to remember painful events, it is also imperative that we remind ourselves that Gaddafi did not commit those atrocities alone. He was assisted by hundreds of Libyans over the 42 dreadful years. This aspect of the state terror during Gaddafi’s reign is probably the most disturbing because many of those dreadful people who were willing participants in delivering terror are still roaming around, not only not held to account, but some are in fact active promoting distasteful political agenda exploiting the chaos in the country and the willingness of many Libyans to take a political ride on the back of wealthy Gaddafists. If we forget to mark the anniversary in remembrance, people who committed atrocities will become normalized and sneak back into our fragile society.
‘We have to remember lest we forget’ should be the principle for us the new generation of Libyans. It would be folly to think that the atrocities of Gaddafi’s regime will not happen again. The Libyan nation just like all others in its rank, is capable of producing unprincipled individuals who would commit atrocious acts if given the opportunity in order to suppress decent and keep exclusive power. It is not all that long ago during the peak of the February 2011 revolution, many of us said that our Libyan society is homogenous, it does not have extremists, and is capable of turning the country into a law-abiding state. Oh how wrong we were.
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