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A symbol of defiance in Gadhafi's Libya, Eman al-Obeidi just wants to be left alone

By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 1:24 AM EDT, Mon April 9, 2012
A year after Eman al-Obeidi stormed into Tripoli's Rixos Hotel, screaming of gang rape by Gadhafi's thugs, she is in Colorado.
A year after Eman al-Obeidi stormed into Tripoli's Rixos Hotel, screaming of gang rape by Gadhafi's thugs, she is in Colorado.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eman al-Obeidi stormed into a Tripoli hotel, screaming she had been raped
  • She says she was judged and abused in Libya
  • She is trying to start over in Colorado but life as a refugee has been tough
  • She wants to have a daughter one day and teach her to be strong

Denver (CNN) -- The caller ID on Eman al-Obeidi's smart phone says private number. She guesses the call is from a fellow Libyan and promptly silences the ringer.

"I think the halal meat seller gave out my number," she says, picking up another piece of sizzling beef fajita. "That's why I don't buy halal meat anymore."

If only that were enough to lose the gossip that follows her, even in her new home far away from the native land she fled. Her fellow Libyans are her harshest judges.

The world knows her as the Libyan woman who stormed into Tripoli's Rixos Hotel a little more than a year ago in March, screaming of gang rape by Col. Moammar Gadhafi's thugs.

In that moment of utter defiance, splashed on television screens everywhere, she became a face of the Libyan revolution, her heroism a source of inspiration for men and women fighting a longtime tyrant. Some even said she was to Libya what Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor who set himself afire, was to Tunisia's revolution. A few weeks ago, Newsweek magazine included her on its list of 150 fearless women.

Al-Obeidi drew sympathy and fame, her image painted for the public on a canvas of courage.

Alleged Libyan rape victim talked to CNN
Libyan dragged away after rape claim
Alleged Libyan rape victim speaks out

Now, in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, she says she craves anonymity.

The accidental activist wants no longer to be one, though she's aware that had she remained quiet, she might have been just another one of Gadhafi's nameless victims.

She stopped looking at Facebook, where her distress was debated, and distanced herself from anyone who dared to judge her.

Some people didn't believe her story after Gadhafi's government labeled her a drunk and a prostitute who had lied for attention. They said she had brought shame upon her people. She grew frustrated, too, with compatriots who squabbled with each other about a post-Gadhafi nation. And those who she felt did little to help her.

In this Boulder cantina, she takes stock of her life. She only did what she felt she had to do, she sighs.

Then, in those indelible hotel images, she was hysterical -- tears streaming down her cheeks, her flesh bruised and torn. Now, she manages a smile, lips quivering.

She gained asylum last summer in the United States and found herself a refugee in Denver even before Gadhafi was gone and a new Libya took root. She thought she, like her homeland, would begin again. But like Libya itself, al-Obeidi is struggling to reconcile past and present.

'You'll never see the light of day'

Al-Obeidi picks away at her fajitas, though she doesn't care much for food in America. Too bland, she says. She puts her fork down and holds up the four fingers of her left hand. More than half of her pinkie is missing.

When she was 16, her brother's hunting rifle went off accidentally. She lost her little finger and doctors sewed 22 stitches across her belly.

Those defining scars should have helped save her reputation last year, she says.

After the hotel incident, Libyan state television aired a video of a scantily-clad belly dancer, claiming it was al-Obeidi. The smear campaign stung her almost as much as the gang rape.

"That woman had 10 fingers and no stitches on her stomach," she says. "I went to the police to ask about the video. But they did nothing."

Al-Obeidi was no stranger to the way things worked in an autocratic Libya. She studied law in college and was in training at a legal office in Tripoli, where she was tasked with filing paperwork for postponement of cases. She also worked as an administrative assistant for a Pakistani family to earn a few extra dinars.

She owns a three-bedroom flat in Benghazi that her father helped her purchase. But she was living in Tripoli with her sister, Amaal, and her husband.

On a Thursday in late March 2011, she caught a cab after leaving her girlfriend's house in the Ain Zara neighborhood. At a checkpoint, she showed her identification card. The security guards could see she was from Benghazi, the city that was the cradle of the anti-Gadhafi revolt.

One minute, it was just another day. The next, a chain of violence began to unfold, the hourglass of her life turned upside down.

Gadhafi's men abducted her, she says. They tied her hands behind her. They hit her, beat her, poured stinging alcohol over her eyes so that she could not see.

They used their Kalashnikovs to sodomize her. They raped her, one by one. She believes there were about a dozen of them. She could smell alcohol on their breath. She recognized one of the men and knew they were all connected to powerful Libyan families.

When she fought back, they starved her and refused to let her use the bathroom.

"You will never see the light of day," they told her. "Let the men from Eastern Libya come and see what we are doing to their women and how we treat them, how we rape them."

She was certain they would not hesitate to kill her. Time sped by and yet it stood still.

Rebel forces advanced westward toward Tripoli. NATO planes bombed Gadhafi targets every day. But in al-Obeidi's world, there was no future. They've taken my humanity, she thought. There was no way to fight back except to survive.

Gadhafi's militia men had abducted other women as well. Among them was a girl -- she looked no older than 16 to al-Obeidi. They had not tied her up.

It was early in the morning. The girl hovered over al-Obeidi. She wanted to cover her, warm her, stop her tears.

"Please," begged al-Obeidi, "untie me."

The girl was too scared to try to escape, but she freed al-Obeidi. "Report everything to the police," the girl said.

Al-Obeidi ran into the street, never looking back. The Rixos Hotel was just a block from her sister's house. She had seen on television that international human rights monitors were staying there. She wanted them to see what had happened to her.

The consequences of such an act in Gadhafi's Libya were grave. She knew once she stepped inside that hotel, she would be branded and the regime would try to silence her. Maybe she would go to jail. Or worse.

She believed all the hotel staff to be part of Gadhafi's secret police apparatus and trusted no one. A security guard stopped her, but she convinced him she worked in the kitchen. She burst into the dining room where breakfast was winding down.

She screamed to the Westerners in the room. Journalists surrounded her with cameras and microphones.

The Libyan staff yelled back: "Traitor!"

They scuffled. Security guards tried to subdue her. They flung a dark coat over her head and whisked her away.

Watch: Al-Obeidi dragged away from hotel in 2011

"The people here live in hell, in detention, in a 24-hour state of terror, the same terror that happened to me in the hotel, so that I would not speak," she later said of her ordeal.

The security guards bought her new clothes. They wanted to take her to Libyan state television. They wanted her to say on air that she had been kidnapped by the rebels, not Gadhafi's militia.

Al-Obeidi refused.

"The Libyan government, when someone protests, they say he's taking hallucinogenic pills," she told CNN last spring. "And when someone demands their rights, they say he is mentally retarded. They accused me of being mentally retarded and an alcohol addict. In Libya, the government has no rationale to what is happening in the country, other than accusations."

She was detained and questioned several times before being released. She was not in a jail anymore, but she felt imprisoned. Her phone calls were monitored, she says. She was followed. She was even beaten when she left her house.

She asked to see the Western journalists from the Rixos. Maybe they could help her get back to her family. The Libyan authorities denied her request.

Double destroyer

Aysha Ahmed and Attique Saleh lived in silence for the chunk of their lives under Gadhafi. But al-Obeidi's mother and father could no longer keep quiet.

From their home in the Mediterranean city of Tobruk, they watched what Libyan officials said about Eman. They believed their daughter, not them.

Ahmed received a call from a man who offered her money if she rejected her daughter's claims of rape. "Tell your daughter to change her story," he said.

Al-Obeidi's parents knew their daughter had always spoken her mind. She had been arrested once for refusing to step on an Israeli flag. They might be enemies of Arabs, but they had a right to their state, she believed. She was arrested, too, when she took roses on a Sunday to four of her friends who were nuns.

Even as a young child, she had broken down barriers. She quickly erased the disappointment her father, a former military man, felt when his sixth child was born a girl.

Eman went duck and deer hunting with him. She watched football and bet her father that Arsenal would go down to her favorite, Manchester United.

She never even wore a dress until the 10th grade, and then only because she had to attend a wedding.

Later, when brothers came along, she joined their adventures. She wrestled with them because, she recalled, she never wanted them to be able to control her physically.

She liked climbing trees and the walls. She especially loved riding a bicycle.

"That is for boys," her mother told her. "You will lose your virginity if you ride that."

It all seemed silly to her, these cultural differences between boys and girls, men and women. She was not about to pay a price because of her gender.

She stopped talking to her father for a while after he sold her bike. She saved her lunch money to rent wheels; one dinar bought her a whole hour.

She rode out to the Mediterranean and gazed out onto the deep, blue water.

Sometimes she used her father's binoculars to catch a glimpse of the freighters. One day, she thought, she would travel to other lands on her own, learn French, Spanish and English.

It had all seemed attainable, even under Gadhafi. But after her rape, even as Libyans dared to hope for freedom, al-Obeidi's dreams seemed farther out of reach. Her world, as she knew it, was gone.

Rape can be a double destroyer in Libya, where conservative Muslim families can blame a woman for bringing dishonor and shame upon them. The way al-Obeidi had spoken out about what happened was unprecedented in her society.

Her mother was angry Gadhafi had destroyed her daughter's reputation. If she could face him, Ahmed thought, she would no longer be scared to slap him.

To show their support, the family held an in-absentia engagement ceremony for al-Obeidi at a Tobruk mosque. The message they wanted to send was clear: no one in her tribe thought she was dishonored.

But a wedding was not enough. Al-Obeidi knew she had to escape Libya.

A journey for naught

In the weeks after the Rixos incident, al-Obeidi lived with constant fear that she might be detained or abused again.

April 7, 2011: Al-Obeidi talks with CNN's Nic Robertson

One day, Gadhafi militia men grabbed her from a cab, forced her to sit on the ground while they searched the vehicle. The cab driver pleaded on her behalf. It was not right, he said, to treat a woman like this.

Later, the driver told her: "Why don't you leave the country?" It was risky but what did she have to lose?

"I would have waited for death not knowing which door it will end up coming from. If I leave, I have a chance to live," she told herself.

With the help of a defected Libyan military officer and his family, al-Obeidi crossed the Jabal Nafusa mountains in northwestern Libya. Survival again seemed uncertain as rockets whizzed overheard and the thunderous booms of war surrounded her car.

But she made it safely into Tunisia and eventually landed in Doha. The Qatari capital was then a hub for Libya's opposition National Transitional Council and promised to be a safe haven for al-Obeidi.

It wasn't.

The NTC wanted her to appear on the rebels' satellite television station as a face of the opposition. But al-Obeidi felt used. They didn't care about her, she thought. They just wanted to exploit her pain to further their cause.

The council denied al-Obeidi's allegation, but it was apparent that Libya's leadership in exile had grown frustrated with her, and ultimately, displeased.

Al-Obeidi's next stop was to have been a refugee camp in Romania; staff members of the United Nations refugee agency arrived to transport her. But Qatari security guards plucked her from the hotel and deported her to Libya. She arrived in Benghazi with a black eye, bruises on her legs and scratches on her arm, according to witnesses.

U.N. refugee officials expressed outrage that she had been forced back to her homeland. They worked furiously to get her out of Libya.

But at home, the reaction of Libyans, again, was mixed. Some of it was downright cruel.

"Eman has brought us shame instead of honor," someone identified as Benghazinadia wrote in a comment on a video of a U.N. interview on YouTube.

"I was feeling sorry for her, but now I feel no pity. She wanted her moment of fame. There are hundreds of women who have been through trauma in Libya, and they are not treated like celebrities. So, Eman, cut your b------t now!"

A new reality

At the end of July, al-Obeidi quietly stepped off the plane at the Denver airport to begin a new life.

She is aware of what it took to get her out of Libya; that without media coverage and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's deep interest in the case, she might still be behind bars somewhere in her homeland. The State Department got involved after it learned of al-Obeidi's forced return to Benghazi.

In Colorado, she was done being Eman al-Obeidi; all she wanted was to be a refugee.

Her wish brought with it a whole new set of perils.

With the assistance of the Ecumenical Refugee and Immigration Services, the agency the State Department assigned to take her case, al-Obeidi moved into a seventh floor studio apartment in a 1960s-era high-rise building that shows its age. It was a fraction of the size of her flat in Benghazi.

Someone donated a television for the apartment; another person brought her a rug. The agency handed her the first assistance check: $335 and a $142 debit card for food.

"What?" she said. "This is not enough."

She says she didn't expect things to be this difficult in America.

"There is nothing easy; you have to work," she says.

She's supposed to be learning English and trying to find a job or go to school. But in everything, al-Obeidi's patience runs low, says Ferdi Mevlani, the agency's executive director.

The agency set up a couple of job interviews, Mevlani says. She never showed. Her orientation, which most people go through in a day, took an entire week because she walked out so many times.

She stopped seeing a therapist because she felt there would be no privacy and was worried the refugee agency staff would have access to her psychological files.

"It has been difficult to tell you the truth," Mevlani says. It goes beyond the trauma she suffered and the harrowing journey she made.

"There's always something going on. She expects things. She has a sense of entitlement."

After Clinton intervened, "she thought she would be queen," says her case manager, Majid Shalaan.

If anyone knows a refugee's struggle in America, it's Mevlani, who came here from Albania, and Shalaan, an Iraq war survivor. They've seen how hard it is to learn a new language and adjust to a foreign culture. And, they know that pride has to be shelved to pay the bills. Shalaan was once a university professor in Baghdad. Now, he's employed well below his qualifications.

Usually, new refugees find solace in their compatriots. But al-Obeidi did not want to mix with Libyans. Understandably so, Shalaan says. Half the Libyans here still call her a liar, he says.

She is not mentally ready to return to Libya, she says with the assuredness of a judge pronouncing a verdict. She asked the man who married her for a divorce. She thought it unfair for him to stay connected when she planned not to return. Besides, she says, she doesn't want to be with someone who stepped forward out of pity.

Dressed in a short robe and socks, al-Obeidi's quiet demeanor now gives away nothing of what the world saw a year ago. She steeps tea by a pink ceramic sink in the kitchen and talks about how she plans to enroll at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She wants to sell her flat in Benghazi so she can buy a car. She's eyed a used BMW on Craigslist for $15,000.

She tries to cope with her new life, but the frustration is always simmering below the surface. It's how someone feels when they can trust no one. When they have no one near by.

Sometimes she gets so depressed that she doesn't leave her apartment for days. Or even get out of bed.

"I like nothing in Colorado," she says, blowing the smoke from her Marlboro Light out the sliding glass door to her balcony. "I'd like to live on the sea again. I don't like the cold.

"I cry all the time just like little children," she says, wiping dry her eyeliner-stained tears. "And I always smile, too."

She watched as Gadhafi fell, then was captured and killed. She saw the images of the dictator, cold and dead in a meat locker. She didn't rejoice like some Libyans. She wanted him to stand up in court just as she wants to see her attackers face justice.

She gave her brother power of attorney so that he could sell her house -- and sue the men who raped her. Her sister in Tripoli has the medical examiner's report, she says, that clearly states she was raped. She found the files in a judge's office after the fall of Tripoli, al-Obeidi says.

By December, al-Obeidi felt so desperate that she borrowed money from an Iraqi family she befriended and bought a one-way ticket to Washington. She had only $100 left in her bag; she used $65 of it for a taxi and burst into the Libyan Embassy, just as she had done at the Rixos Hotel.

She came with a distrust of politicians and diplomats but with the hope that her government would not turn her away.

"I will end up in the street with no aid and with no place to stay in," she said.

Libyan Ambassador Ali Aujali offered her an educational stipend and health insurance. She felt like she had won the lottery.

"It means everything to me," she said, opening up an envelope containing a check for $1,800. "It's not about whether it's a lot or little. It's about the time that I got it."

When she returned to Colorado, she met a Chicago couple who helped her investigate college. She stayed with them in Boulder for a week, but ultimately they parted ways because she doubted their motivation.

Shalaan, her case manager, thinks al-Obeidi will eventually find her way.

"She has been a brave woman starting from day one," he says.

Al-Obeidi knows it will be an uphill climb here -- just to learn English well enough to enroll in college seems a herculean task. Her family is always telling her to return to Benghazi. But she cannot go back.

Libya betrayed her, she says. So for now, she's staying away.

Her sister Fadyia recently had a baby and named her after Eman. Al-Obeidi would also like a home, a husband and children one day.

She wants not a son, but a daughter so that she can teach her to be strong, like her mother, who in the annals of Libyan history, is destined to go down as the woman who defied Moammar Gadhafi.

CNN's Khalil Abdallah contributed to this report.

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