I cried twice during the revolution

Interview with Hana Gallal,
number 15 on Gaddafis death list

By Donald Boström

I discovered the real me during the revolution. I found myself and for the first time I became me as a whole person. I was born again. When the revolution started, I discovered my strengths, ability and talents.

Every single minute is now a whole life. To understand that you have to understand how we lived in fear during Gadhafi. Scare to talk, to write, to speak up. I knew I had some talent in writing, but I didn’t dare to write. I didn’t want my name to be seen. If Gadhafi understand you where talented, he took you to the government. And that of course destroyed you. That’s why we preferred to be unseen in our own country, not to be known at all. We were kept in small circles, almost forgot who we were, and what we really could do.

I remember when I was young and lived abroad. I could sit on a bus with my, at that time blond and curly hair, when someone asked;

– How a nice blond curly hair, where are you from?
– Libya
– Lebanon?
– No Libya, between Tunisia and Egypt.

 And then they shout, Gadhafi, terrorism!

You can understand the effect. Everybody looked at me on the bus. For a little girl like me it was terrifying. I run home to my mum crying. My mother told me I could tell them anything, Italy, Egypt, Spain, you can be anything my daughter.

That moment I took the decision that never deny my origin and who I am. Always present myself with my real name, and as women from Libya. Except for two days during the revolution when I used the cover name Leyla.

The 17th of February 2011 after the killing started, I kissed my two kids and my sister and sent them to Switzerland.

– Hana, you will die, my sister said.
– This is the moment I waited for.

She looked me in the eye and said:
– Do you know what you are doing?
– We both now it is a one-way trip.

I never thought I should die, even when it was as it worse. Except in the beginning when I kissed my kids and gave the responsibility to my sister. But since then we were running in one direction and never thought about the death. We went beyond that.

The wall of fear was too high for my generation born I the seventies. We saw all the killings, hangings, and assassinations. We saw the sewage on the streets, and we lived for months without light and electricity. I had to face Kalashnikov, TNT and all those things since I was elven years old.

We didn’t have anything to look back at like my father and grandfather. They could say that, in our time we had good schools and good hospitals. They told us memories from the old kingdom. We had no such memories; we carried our memories of fears and tears. Our history was dark and the wall of fear was too high to start a revolution. That’s why I didn’t believe we would do it, but in the same time I was about to explode.

Youth of Revolution

The younger generation born in the eighties- and nineties was the one who exploded. They did not remember what happened the ten fearful years when we were suffering the most. I was ten years old and become twenty during that period. In the nineties, Gadhafi changed and started opening up to the world. His owns kids grow up like us. They didn’t want to be the daughter or sons of a terrorist. So the younger generation did not se the worse of him and became the youth of the revolution.

For me it all started 1984 when I saw the hanging of the 21-year young man Sadi Geshwathi, in the city of Benghazi.

I was fourteen years old when they in public hanged the young man in the sport arena. I saw it on TV. Later my daddy took us away and we left the country. Since then I knew I want to be a legal person and a Human right activist.

I returned to Libya and Benghazi 2008 with my PhD in international law and human rights from Bern University. I worked for a while at the UN office in different countries when my social life went in to a difficult direction, and I have to resign and take my two kids and returned to Benghazi. I applied for job at the university of Benghazi. It was very hard because I’m a human right activist and a strong personality. I was fighting for the women’s rights. I was against sexual abuses, it become worse than I could realize. All kinds of women where abused, and I fought for our rights. No one dared to speak. It should be easier for me if I fight for political issues then for woman’s rights. I was too loud for this male society, that’s why I never was appointed, they refused, they were only cooperating with me by contract and where all the time threatening to get rid of me.

The threat towards me was like “we will end your contract anytime, why should we appoint you? You are to laud and you are not scared of anything. If you don’t stop it we will ruin your reputation, people will start talking about you”. Threats about the honor of a woman in a country like ours, is such a sensitive issue.

My fight was small at that time. It was against the people in the faculty of law, not against the government. In the other hand they had cart blanche from the dictator government to do anything against us. I was in a week position but I never repeated what Gadhafi said. I never taught what Gadhafi said. I taught my students to start studying the French and American Revolution. Gadhafi had the power, but I had the strengths of belief, that’s all. It was a tough choice. The hard thing for the authorities was that I was ready to resign before they fired me, they could not shut my mouth.

They started to be really abusive, I was never in a situation when I was really degreed or humiliated, but they were pressuring and pressuring. I started to think of different solutions. I started my face book page and many poems, support and messages start coming, saying, you can win over the dictatorship! Not directly, but that’s was the meaning of it. I never clearly mention Libya, I was attacking Tunisia, and when they won, we directed our attention towards Egypt.

I have that privilege that most of the Libyan woman don’t have, I can discuss about everything with my parents and brothers, and I never thought that having a job is more important than my dignity and my human rights. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t tired, I was really tired and was thinking of taking my kids and leaving the country many times.

After supporting Egypt and Tunisia; and told them “you can do it”, we started to talk about our own revolution loud and clear in meetings. I was part of an organization where half of them were with Gadhafi. I said in meetings that its time to get ready, we have to do something. They start shouting at me. But I was eager to talk, we should, we should.

By then my wall of fear was broken, which I lived with all my life. I had no fear at all. I was willing to pay any price, because the feeling was more rewarding even if life ended in that moment. I lived outside the country and still lived in fear. When I wrote my PhD, I mention every country in the world, but I never mentioned my own country. I was not able to write about Libya. And I realize that I cannot be a human right activist if I’m pasted in my fear. I took myself back to Benghazi but I didn’t feel liberated until the 17th February 2011.

When the revolution was one month old one of the hardest moment in my life came when Mohamed Nafud lost his life, assassinated. The two of us supported each other all the way. To hear that news was devastating. I cried for the second time during the revolution. I cried for hours. Mohamed Nafus was the first voice of the revolution. Then we were told about the Gadhafi death list. I was one out of fifteen people he wanted to kill the most according to the list. My brother told me to carry a pistol. I never used it. Most of the time the pistol was in my bag and I could not even reach it.

I’m not a very known person at the face. When people see my name, they knew me, they know my problems and fight in the faculty of law and they directly trusted me. I was appointed to communicate with the international media since the young men in our brigades didn’t speak languages when media where calling them. I become one of the spokesperson of the revolution, and I was a part of the leading committee. I speak, France, German, English, Arabic etc. so I was directed to take care of CNN, BBC and other international media.

People started to evacuate from Benghazi, but I was already a part of the revolution so I decided to stay and we created committees for media, and a humanitarian committee to make sure that all expats, was taken care of and were safe.

There where hard times in Benghazi since the eighties because Benghazi has a history of constant revolts against Gadhafi regime with a very heavy price for the population in the city. When we now started the revolution, we knew there is a price to be paid.

Our committee opens the first radio station in the revolution, The Sound of Libya, 98,9 FM. From that radio, we could declare that all foreigners left.

By the time, Benghazi was liberated and international media and everybody were there. We told them that we are only civilians, we don’t have a government or institutions, where is the international organizations, where is UN? We asked them.

Already in the beginning of the revolution women was a very strong part. Women were in all kinds of positions. Not only as back up, administrators, or as mothers for the fighters. They were decision makers. Handling the media, demonstrating, pushing, in every single position there were women, over the whole country, rich and poor. Everything was together between all groups, men and women, no division, no ideology. All of them were fighting for dignity and for our lives. Everything was mixed, all decision making always jointly between men and women. We broke all the traditions. We could jump in a car together with men we didn’t know, which was totally impossible in our tradition. In the radio, we were three women and eight men we didn’t know. I whispered to the women next to me, do you know them? Are they from our side? Nobody was thinking in terms of men and women. It was not about traditions anymore. It was about our lives and about to survive. If Gadhafi comes in, there is no more Benghazi.

Actually, the men could handle this new situation very well. It was a new situation and new roles. The men didn’t claim to be the superior at all, in a moment of life and death nobody think of superiority. If there were no women around, they start looking and asking for us, where are you, we need you for the decisions they said. It really worked smooth. I was the first women in the brigade for human rights, and they asked for me all the time, Hana where are you, Hana what do you think about this etc.

Like my brother said to our mother; each one of us, men and women, have to protect the city, otherwise it will not be any Benghazi anymore.

That’s why we were able to be liberated, and could go on and support the other cities in the country. It was only because of the work of civil society, the cooperation and the teamwork. 

Freedom cannot be given

The western stereotype of Muslim women is that we are not educated and helpless and not struggling for our freedom. And they forget the rules they learn from their own experience, that freedom is gained and fought for, and cannot be given. And they forgot that we have different stories. We started our fight a little bit late due to historical reasons such as colonization and dictatorship. They expect us to start where they ended, that is not fair. We have a lot of obstacles, and we do have a lot of challenges.

Now there is uprising in many countries in our region, those revolutions are not started by men or women, it’s started by the people. It’s definitely time for our women to starts the fight for our freedom and for our rights. And again, if we start from where the westerner ended it will be a complete failure and we will not gain anything. We have to take the same steps and time that others did, with of course the privilege of having the historical experiences from others, we have social media, the education is much higher and the health situation is better. It’s harder and easier for us in the same time comparing to the westerner.

We have to see the Muslim and Arab women in their own context and not sit down in a western country and start judging from stories like thousand and one night or something like that. You have to see what really is happening. We have very abused women, we have very liberal women, we have the women in the middle, we have women with high education, and very low education, the stereotype has to be changed, the westerner are not our saviors. They are our supporters. We are learning from their experiences, but that doesn’t mean that it all can be fixed. So many things are our choice that you think it’s against our freedom, but it is our choice, the choice of the women. Of course, we have stereotypes of the western women and their lack of real freedom. There are so many things you call freedom today that already your next generation don’t consider as freedom and will change it back. It’s so important to not have stereotypes of each other. Of course, there is women that feel oppressed, especially when the men are poor and victim themselves. Where everyone is in a situation of being victimizes. You cannot give what you don’t have. I Libya the picture is more like that no one really has his or her freedom. So, when you are abused you abuse others.

In my studies in big cities, its women themselves violating their rights more than men violate their rights. It is the mothers who strengthen the male hierarchy by teaching their sons and daughters how to behave. “Why don’t you cook for him”, let him choice TV program, bring him this, give him that etc. That’s how they are brought up. The fathers are outside working, so it’s the mum who plants the seed from the beginning by putting the boys in a higher position with privileges. And why would he, the boy, refuse this? If we want to change something we have to primarily work with the mothers. That is the most important. The men are confused, their mothers taught them, so why are you attacking us they say. It’s the wrong way of solving the problem. You can only solve the problem by tackling the cause of it, by rising awareness among the mothers about equality between men and women. Make her respect for herself who she is, for her gender, that violence against women is not acceptable. Not only when she becomes a wife, even when she is a daughter. We have to raise the awareness so that every wife, mother, daughter and sister understands that they are equal to the men.

Not all traditions are bad

During the revolution many things happened, we broke all the traditions. Now after the revolution two things happened. We chose to go back to some of the traditions. We are Muslims and conservative, even if we are not covered. It makes sense for us to have some rules. It may not make sense in the western world, or in the Far East or whatever, but for us it makes sense. It makes sense for us that we don’t have too much freedom or too much openness. We are believers and nobody can impose on us to abandon our belief.

For example; during the revolution men, I didn’t know could pick me up in a car, I don’t do that anymore. I like to have limits. It is healthy to have limits. In west, you suffer from lack of limits. To sit alone with you like this right here and talk where beyond the possibilities before the revolution. My friends in the west start putting limits again by themselves. After reaching a kind of maximum freedom they realized that is not the pure heaven. It is not the culture or religion putting the limits on them, its every single person creating their own limits. I have friends all over the world and we share the same limits, despite different country, religion, culture and background. Sometimes they have worse rules than ours. Human being that going for stability wants certain rules, and a way of life that is decent. If you have kids you start worrying about if they eating healthy, if they sleep well, doing their homework, not using drugs or alcohol, not doing things that can be dangerous.

The Muslim women and the women in the west are both equal oppressed, but in different ways.

No-fly zone

A crucial issue was that we needed a no-fly zone. I used chapter seven from the United Nation Charter in order to convince people. They really didn’t understand, so I went around and raised awareness training, at first people where completely closed, and I had too much in my hands with international humanitarian law, no-flight zone, human rights etc., I was running around teaching and doing revolution in the same time. I was really fighting for a no-flight zone and we start rallying for that cause and I won a lot of credibility in the revolution in Benghazi and Libya. When I write an article I can shift people’s opinion, men and women. I have credibility even among the Islamists today.

The 16th of March I received a phone call and someone in the other end said that the attitude in the international community is that they will not approve a no-flight zone. For me that was the stop. I become devastated. It was eight o clocks in the morning, I was drinking my Nescafé and they told to me to talk to the NTC (National Transitional Council) about the time for an exile government. I was so down. I hung up the phone. Then I called my brother and asked him to pick me up. In the car I said to him, listen; I am going to inform them, but it’s a dead end. Without a no-flight zone it will not be a Benghazi or Libya anymore, and especially not the eastern part with the oil. They will terminate us and commit genocide.

So, I went to the hotel where we had all the international media. Everybody was leaving, I was standing there, saw all there faces, all there bags, people come and where crying, we have to leave they told me, we have orders to leave Benghazi, we don’t what to do they said. Without the flight zone, you have to leave for your safety I told them. Without the flight zone, everybody understands what will happen. I had tears in my eyes and said HE will kill us, he will commit genocide, but at least tell the world about these revolution, tell them that we are not terrorists, we are not al Qaida, we are not lunatics, but we believe in dignity and human rights. We want to live as normal humans, ok everybody that is what you can do. Everybody started to cry, hugging and then leaving Benghazi.

I had a really breakdown. Amnesty International took care of me and gave me water and coffee. Then BBC came to me and said; we have to do a one last try. Tomorrow morning nine o clock, I give you one hours to speak in the radio. It’s a program that Prime minister Cameron always listen to before his leaving his home to his office, and that airtime is all for you Dr Hana Gallal he ended.

I didn’t sleep for the whole night; I tried to think about what to say. Eight o Clock in the morning I enter the room for the broadcasting, he gave me the microphone and I told the outside world that if you don’t’ help us with the no fight zone it will be a stone in your conscience. You will betray Libya and our people one more time. You have sold us for forty-two years for your oil contracts with a terrorist with your own blood on your oily hands for contracts and oil. Now the time has come to do the right thing for us. It was a powerful moment in the air, especially meant for Mr. Cameron: I told them I’m a civilian, I’m a woman, a mother of two children, and I am going to fight till the very last moment, I will do anything, because if HE come he will commit Genocide. You know all his crimes and you saw everything he did. You cannot tell us anymore that you don’t know.

Most government hesitates to support our revolution in the beginning, not the people around the world, but the governments. Algeria, Turkey, China, Russia, they hurt us and delayed the revolutionary process. Everybody was freaking out for losing the contracts with Gadhafi. For that reason many countries were behind the rejection of the no-flight zone to begin with. Even USA was worried. Everybody cared for the oil.

My phone started to ring, a lot of media call me all about the no-flight zone.

The following day I received a phone call saying; the attitude is now changing among ambassadors and others, we got it! We got it! It might be the most important moment in our lives. Since that moment I never doubted our victory.

In the middle of our celebrations for the no-flight zone we realized that Gadhafi was just fifty kilometers outside our city.

From the first day of the revolution when media or organizations asked me who I am, I said I’m the future opposition of any government in Libya. That was the way I talked, how I presented myself. I knew my role for the future. The hardest thing is to be recognized from the people on the ground, from all the different ideologies, rich and poor, young and old, men and women. It gives me more satisfaction that I’m more recognized by the people on the ground than in house of governments around the world. In the choice between being a legal expert in human rights and being an activist, I chose to be an activist and the future opposition of any government.

Hana Sadik El-Gallal
Born 8/8 1970
Single mother of two boys, 10 and 12 year.
PHD in international law from Bern University, Switzerland
Human right activist
Member of the national Council for General freedoms
Member of the Faculty of law Benghazi University


Publicerad i tidningen ETC 2014