Facing the elephant in the room: Libya embarks on social healing

As part of the Libya Initiative conference on reconciliation and social healing in post-Gaddafi Libya, a workshop was held in Tripoli’s Radisson Blu Mahari hotel.

Huda Mzioudet

– As part of the Libya Initiative conference on reconciliation and social healing in post-Gaddafi Libya, a workshop was held in Tripoli’s Radisson Blu Mahari hotel.

Jointly organized by the Italian NGO Ara Pacis and the Libyan NGO Al Mubadara Libya Asalam, the workshop was moderated by Dr. Donna Hicks, assistant professor at the Weatherhead Institute for International Affairs at the University of Harvard.

Hicks stressed the importance of talking about the indignities experienced by Libyans under the old regime. “We want everyone to say it’s enough. We have to work to get enough people to understand dignity and take this to the community,” she said.

The workshop was aimed at establishing a rapprochement between Libyans with different opinions and from different backgrounds. The audience was made up mostly of young people from all walks of life and from all parts of Libya, including the minority communities of the Tebu and Amazigh.

The issue of reconciliation in post-Gaddafi Libya was also addressed during the workshop by Dr. Hicks. Drawing on the experience of peace and reconciliation in post-conflict countries, including South Africa and former Yugoslavia, it showed that these could offer an example for Libya, to help the country achieve peaceful transition to a democratic nation.

“You are going to be the dignity ambassadors of Libya,” Hicks said to the audience. “It takes a personal commitment for one to do one’s work of dignity,” she added.

Khaled Mehdi from Kufra, a southeastern city that has seen bloody clashes between the Arab tribe of Zuwaya and the black Libyan Tebus since 2012, is a member of an NGO that works  to fight against racial discrimination. Some of those present expressed surprise at the existence of racial discrimination against black Libyans.

Some even denied that there was such an issue in Libya. Mehdi, in an effort to convince his fellow citizens, described how Tebus were treated, under Gaddafi, as non-Libyans, whilst Libyan citizenship was given to some Sub-Saharan Africans from neighbouring countries, including Chad and Niger, to ensure their loyalty to the old regime.

Racism, Hicks stressed, touches the dignity of people. She also shared the audience’s view that religion can play an important role in the process of restoring dignity and reconciliation.

“As Libyans, we are raised in dignity,” one young man from the audience said, stressing the role of Islam which, he said, guaranteed dignity as a human right.

“We need to face this elephant in the room, this elephant inside of us,” a participant from Gatroon, in south-western Libya, stressed. He said that tribalism and regionalism had exacerbated feelings of disrespect. He stressed the importance of respect to: “Get out the deep fear inside inside of us to be able to overcome it.”

Hicks encouraged the audience to share their personal experiences of indignity with one another. “We will create a dignity club, a network,” she said, “we were all born with dignity, but not born to act with it”.

One of the audience took part in the first demonstrations against the old regime in Benghazi and was wounded by Qaddafi’s forces. He expressed his resentment and  disappointment at the way the Libyan revolution had been “highjacked”.

Hicks stressed the importance of admitting mistakes and apologising for these, as part of the process of dignity. “This makes us stronger,” she added.

Hicks had also invited a former Abu Sleem inmate, Ali Akremi, to the workshop. Hicks said she wanted to show the audience how Akremi’s experience of indignity during his 33-year incarceration was a strong statement of the power to overcome terrible experiences.

“We have to get ideologies out of our lives. We must not demonise anyone,” Akremi  said.

The workshop was a scene of sometimes heated debate. It did, however, allow people to express themselves without inhibition and talk about their respective experiences under the old regime. – Libya Herald