Women: The Libyan Rebellion’s Secret Weapon

They helped overthrow Qaddafi by smuggling arms and spying on the government. Now the women of Libya are fighting for a greater voice in society

They helped overthrow the regime, but can they overcome tradition and win their share of political clout? (Here: Women rally in Tripoli.) (Michael Christopher Brown)
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Bredan, an excellent student, dreamed of becoming a surgeon. But the teacher denounced her to Libya’s revolutionary committee, which informed her that the only place she could go to medical school was Misrata, 112 miles down the coast from Tripoli. For Bredan, that was unthinkable: Libya’s strict social codes make it difficult, if not impossible, for an unmarried woman to live alone. “I was very disappointed,” she recalls. “I fell into a depression.” Bredan married young, had a daughter, opened a beauty salon, taught Arabic and continued to imagine what her life could have been if she had been allowed to become a doctor. Most of all, she yearned to work in a hospital, to help the sick and dying. Then the war broke out.

Misrata was the hardest-hit city during the Libyan civil war. I went there at the invitation of the al-Hayat, or Life, Organization, a newly formed women’s charity whose members I had encountered while touring Qaddafi’s destroyed compound in Tripoli two days earlier. Arriving in Misrata in the late afternoon, I drove past the ruins of Tripoli Street, the former front line, and found my way to the city’s two decent hotels, both of which, it turned out, were fully occupied by Western aid workers. The only alternative was the Koz al Teek Hotel, a battle-scarred hulk where rebels had fought a fierce battle with Qaddafi’s troops. Inside a bullet-torn lobby with a burned and blackened ceiling, I met Attia Mohammed Shukri, a biomedical engineer-turned-fighter; he worked part time for al-Hayat and had agreed to introduce me to one of Misrata’s female heroes.

Shukri had taken part in the battle of Misrata, which withstood a siege that some have compared to the Battle of Stalingrad. “You just cannot imagine how terrible it was,” he told me. In February, government forces surrounded Misrata with tanks, sealing off the entrances and pummeling the city of 400,000 for three months with mortars, Grad rockets and heavy machine guns; food and water ran short. The rebels had shipped weapons in by sea from Benghazi and, with the help of precision NATO bombing on Qaddafi positions, retook the city in June. In a dimly lit classroom, I first met 30-year-old Asma Gargoum. Slight and energetic, she spoke fluent English.

On February 20, the day violent clashes erupted in Misrata between government forces and demonstrators, Gargoum told me, she had driven back from her job at the tile factory, two miles from Misrata, and gone out to get groceries when she was stopped by the police. “Go back to your house,” they warned her. She hurried home, logged onto Facebook and Twitter, and prepared for the worst. “I was afraid,” she told me. “I knew how much Qaddafi armed himself, what he could do to people.”

As government forces rained down mortars on the city center, Gargoum’s three brothers joined the civilian army; Gargoum, too, found a useful role. During the lull that usually lasted from 6 to 9 each morning, when the exhausted fighters went home to eat and sleep, Gargoum crept up to the rooftop of her house overlooking ruined Tripoli Street—the center of the standoff between rebels and government forces—and scanned the city, pinpointing troop movements. She spent hours on her computer every morning, chatting with friends and former classmates across Misrata. “What did you see on this street? What’s moving? What’s suspicious?” she would ask. She then sent messages via courier to her brothers—Qaddafi’s intelligence operatives were monitoring all cellphones—informing them, for instance, about a white car that had cruised six times slowly around her block, then disappeared; a minibus with blackened windows that had entered the gates of the medical university, possibly now an army barracks.

Sometimes she posed online as a Qaddafi supporter, to elicit responses from friends who likely opposed the rebels. “Twenty tanks are coming down Tripoli Street, and they will enter Misrata from the east side, they will kill all the rats,” one former classmate told her. In this way, Gargoum says, “We were able to direct [rebel] troops to the exact street where the government troops were concentrating.”

The war exacted a heavy toll on those close to her: Gargoum’s best friend was shot dead by a sniper; the heavily damaged minaret of a next-door mosque toppled onto the family house on March 19, destroying the top floor. On April 20, a mortar scored a direct hit on a pickup truck carrying her 23-year-old brother and six other rebels on Tripoli Street. All were killed instantly. (The war photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were both mortally wounded by another mortar blast around the same time in Misrata.) “My brother’s [torso] was left completely untouched,” she recalls. “But when I picked up his head to kiss him, my hand went through the back of his skull,” where the shrapnel had struck.

In Tripoli, Dalla Abbazi joined two of her brothers in a dangerous scheme to smuggle weapons into the city from Tunisia—an operation that, if exposed, could have gotten them all executed. First she secured a loan of 6,000 dinars (about $5,000) from a Libyan bank; then she sold her car to raise another 14,000 dinars and withdrew 50,000 more from a family fund. Her older brother Talat used the money to purchase two dozen AK-47s and a cache of Belgian FN FAL rifles in Tunisia, along with thousands of rounds of ammunition. He sewed the arms into sofa cushions, packed them into a car and drove across a border checkpoint held by rebels. In the Jebel Nafusa, Libya’s western mountains, he passed the car to brother Salim. Salim in turn smuggled the weapons and ammunition past a checkpoint that led into Tripoli. “My brothers were scared of being caught, but I wasn’t afraid,” insists Abbazi. “I told them not to worry, that if the security agents came to my house, I would take responsibility for everything.”

From her home, Abbazi distributed the weapons at night to neighborhood fighters, who used them in hit-and-run attacks on Qaddafi’s troops. She and other family members assembled pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails in a primitive lab on the second floor of her home. The advantage of Abbazi’s operation was that it remained strictly a family affair: “She had a network of eight brothers who could trust one another, so she could avoid the danger of being betrayed by government informants,” a former fighter in Tripoli told me. Abbazi’s belief in eventual victory kept her spirits high: “What encouraged me most was when NATO got involved,” she says. “Then I was sure that we would succeed.”

As Tripoli was falling to the rebels, Fatima Bredan, the would-be doctor, finally had the opportunity she had been dreaming of for years. On August 20, revolutionaries in the capital, supported by NATO, launched an uprising that they code-named Operation Mermaid Dawn. Using weapons sent overland from Tunisia and smuggled by tugboat, the fighters besieged Qaddafi’s forces. NATO warplanes bombed government targets. Following a night of heavy fighting, rebels controlled most of the city.


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