In October 2012, just after the attacks on the American consulate and the murder of the American ambassador, I walked around in Benghazi. The business I am in, peacebuilding, brings me to lots of places in the world where poverty, injustice and inhumane situations are in plain sight. Benghazi however was puzzling for me. It did not fit in my ‘fragile-state-reference-framework’. It looked like a suburb of Rome, with the typical ochre-coloured apartment blocks, well-maintained pavements and other features of a wealthy country. In this historic Cyrenaica region, there are many oil fields which revenues were (partly) invested back into infrastructure and other public works.
It dawned to me why this was a veil for a fragile, even turbulent undercurrent when I went to visit a woman activist in a hospital. We planned to speak about the business support centre we were planning to set up (and did), but ended up speaking about what this society did to women. She was gynaecologist and stitched women who were raped and attacked back up. She insisted to arrange an escort for me in order to arrive back to the hotel safely. The magnitude of this problem was unknown to me as it is to many Westerners. She was absolutely adamant about women’s rights, and saw a downward spiral, after the euphoria of 2011, proud of having ousted former dictator Khaddafi. Women played such key roles in that revolution, not only in support to men, but also in the frontline themselves. This was just the first Benghazi women activist I met with this strong, unrelenting spirit. I was priviliged to meet two more of them. All were worried about the narrowing space for women to play their role in society. They were working to help build up Benghazi and the rest of Libya recovering from the events and transforming to a democratic country.
Not even two years later. At least ‘my’ women activists are still alive and express themselves, through social media, through press. They’ve even become more activist and take many risks. They are surrounded by militia who have proved to be able to do anything. Abduct a prime minister, storm parliament, but in Benghazi they really kill. It must be something to know your murderers because you have seen them around the corner, as Salwa Bugaighis has.
Usually I am not into woman nor human rights activism, but in this case I rally around their cause. This cause is clear: defend the rights of these activists, for them to continue their work and not lose hope. Don’t put a stigma on Benghazi. There are forces for change from within and they deserve our support, even if it’s only a like on facebook: it really helps them. Let the loss of Salwa Bugaighis' life not be in vain.