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Psychologist: Proof of hundreds of rape cases during Libya's war

By Sara Sidner and Amir Ahmed
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Rape as a weapon of war
  • Psychologist Siham Sergewa has shared her research with the International Criminal Court
  • So far the only alleged rape victim from Libya conflict to go public is Eman al-Obeidy
  • Sergewa: Rape in Libyan society is seen as a permanent stain on a family's reputation
  • Libya

Benghazi, Libya (CNN) -- In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Libya the whispers and rumors about rape being used as a tool of war by Moammar Gadhafi's troops are coming from all corners of society, from rebel fighters to doctors and citizens, who have come in contact with families displaced by the conflict.

Now a Libyan psychologist has come forward saying she has case study after case study that proves these rumors and whispers are true.

Psychologist Siham Sergewa has a number of distressing images which she says demonstrates the abuse of alleged victims -- one appears to show a cigarette burn on a woman's breast, another a faded bite mark, while several others show the deep purple hue of nasty bruises.

Sergewa first heard reports of rape from the mother of a patient who called her from the Ajdabiya - a town that was caught in a deadly tug of war on Libya's front line war.

"She was crying and very distressed and she said to me that she had been raped. She was saying lots of women are raped and they wanted to call you," Sergewa said.

The woman then claimed lots of women had been raped and wanted to call Sergewa. More phone calls from other women followed and Sergewa decided she had to do something.

She traveled to refugee camps on the Libyan border with Tunisia and Egypt where thousands of people were seeking refuge from the devastating conflict. With the help of volunteers she began a mental health survey in an effort to identify those needing help.

The questionnaire that was distributed sought all sorts of information such as the names and ages of the respondents and asked whether they were getting enough food. One of the last questions asked whether they had been raped and by whom.

Sergewa says that of the 50,000 questionnaires she got back from men and women, 295 women admitted they had been raped, and all blamed Gadhafi's soldiers.

She said one woman told her "they tie up my husband, they rape me in front of my husband and then they kill my husband," while others wrote their feelings or detail of what happened on the back of the questionnaire in Arabic.

One read: "Forget what is happening to me. The only way is by killing myself. I am so sad."

Sergewa said others recounted stories of gang rape where they would be held for days in abandoned houses where up to 15 men would rape them.

"I'm a psychologist and I've seen lots of things really. But sometimes after I leave some of these families I just sit in my car and cry because it's really so painful," she said.

Sergewa shared her research, complete with pictures and recordings, with the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, where prosecutors are currently investigating accusations that the Gadhafi regime has used rape as a tool of war.

The ICC's chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told CNN last week that the court has information about women who were stopped at checkpoints and, because they were carrying the flag of the rebels, were taken by police and gang raped.

He also said there were reports of the use of male sexual enhancement drugs, which he called a "tool of massive rape."

"There's some information with Viagra. So, it's like a machete," he said. "It's new. Viagra is a tool of massive rape. So we are investigating. We are not ready to present the case yet, but I hope in the coming month, we'll add charges or review the charges for rapes."

It was not clear whether Moreno-Ocampo used the term "Viagra" as a catch-all for male sexual enhancement drugs in general.

An official with the Gadhafi regime in Tripoli told CNN that "the Libyan government welcomes an investigation into these claims."

So far the only alleged rape victim to go public is Eman al-Obeidy. She received worldwide attention on March 26, when she burst into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli to tell her story while journalists staying there were having breakfast.

But according to Sergewa, there is a reason why more women have not come forward: Rape in Libyan society is seen as a permanent stain on an entire family's reputation. Rape victims suffer in silence; afraid even to tell husbands or parents for fear they will be abandoned.

Even in al-Obeidy's case her parents proudly announced a man had agreed to marry her in absentia which al-Obeidy agreed to. That is a common reaction by families trying to "save" the reputation of a daughter who is single.

Sergewa said the fear of being unwanted or being abandoned by a husband or parents because of rape has become reality for 20 women she interviewed.

"It is really very distressing story. I feel these girls. She's been twice hurt, one by her family and one by Gadhafi's troop[s]. You know what I mean?"