Republished as part of International Day in Support of Victims of Torture 26th June 2014 (first appeared in Asia Despatch, 2011)
Sami (not his real name to protect his confidentiality) turned 50 this year. He has resided in Britain for many years, safe from the threat of harm but living in fear of his memories. This kind and gentle man suffers from a condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is a severe anxiety disorder than can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma.
Many people have raised questions about the no-fly zone over Libya and NATO involvement in the region but Sami is not amongst them. He lives with the hope that Colonel Muammar Muhammad al Gaddafi leader of Libya for the past 42 years and his sons will be brought to justice for crimes against his own people and feels that exile is not enough. Sami was not in fact a Libyan citizen when he fell foul of the regime but a citizen of neighbouring Tunisia. It is only in recent months that he has felt strong enough to share his story.
A raid on the phosphate town of Gafsa in Central Tunisia (population 30,000) on 26th January 1980 was to have a marked effect on Sami’s life. The attack was an attempt to seize Gafsa’s civil and military installations, took 20 hours to subdue and left 40 dead and more than 100 injured. The incident described as “diabolic” was blamed on Gaddafi by Tunisian Prime Minister Hedi Nouira who claimed that it was made to look as if the attack came from neighbouring Algeria.
TIME in partnership with CCN (1980) reported that, “Libyan authorities had expressed astonishment at the Tunisian charges. But hostility and distrust between the two countries had been simmering ever since President Habib Bourguiba had backed out of a 1974 agreement to merge Tunisia with Libya in a single Islamic Arab Republic. Gaddafi continues to harbour a deep personal resentment over the incident, and has supported several previous attempts to engineer Bourguiba’s downfall.”
Sami (18 then) was on that bitterly cold night living with his father (an officer in the Tunisian army) sister and 3 little brothers in a house on military grounds. His mother was away staying at her father’s home as Sami’s grandfather had recently passed away. He had taken the decision not to attend the funeral as he had lived with his grandfather, was very close to him and wanted to remember him as he was, not riddled with cancer. Sami could not have foreseen the consequences of that fateful decision.
Sami chatted to his father for a while, checked the gate to see if it was locked and went to bed however he was unable to sleep. This is his account of that night:-
“I was still awake and recalling the memories of my grand dad when around 2.30 am in the morning the dust from the ceiling trickled on my face and the furniture and garments shook following massive loud blasts just outside our walls. We were all awake in unison and with the same look of terror on our faces. My father came to join us. He said to me in total astonishment “perhaps its a military manoeuvre” then after pausing for a second and the second wave of explosions and small gunfire erupted he ordered me to put my clothes on. He went to his room and put his uniform on.
By the time we were both ready in the courtyard of our house, hell was loose. People were shouting in all directions. The exchanges of fire were intensifying and the night was lit. The smell was horrid burned powder mixed with dust. My sisters and brothers inside the room were figures of stone. My little brother was hugging my sister and sobbing almost in silence. My two other brothers were waiting for an explanation from me. I just urge them to be quiet. My father was standing up bemused by our fence not knowing what to do. I was standing up next to him. I peaked over the fence and looked on the outside and saw a bus halted in front of the main gates of the adjacent barracks being shot at by a mob of armed men. The evacuees were led and orders to hide behind the barracks fence. I was reporting the event to my father when he decided to open our gate to have a closer look.
I was not sure what all the commotion was about and was waiting for my father to come back with an answer. He came back running instead shouting at me to hide and I followed him but I was caught before I reached the room by a frightening loud voice saying, “stop or you are dead”. I froze.The armed man ordered me to turn around slowly and put my hand up. I did though my mind was blank with terror. He did not look inside the rooms, perhaps through fear or he was satisfied with one catch. Either ways my father was with my sister and brothers and out of sight.
The gunman ordered me to walk in front and get out of the house. At the gate, in a moment of panic I decided to run for it, toward the school at the other side of the road behind our house believing that the cover of dark was in my advantage and I knew better. My run was abruptly cut short, when my left foot felt as though it was no longer part of me but a burning painful mass. I was shot…it was too fast to hear, either to warning shouts or the shots.
I fell on the floor choking on my own saliva, don’t shoot. The man was already on top of me shouting, “where do you think you’re going, you son of a whore aiming a spit at me”. I stood up limped a few paces then the pain took control of my whole leg and I was going to the ground. I begged again, “in God’s name don’t shoot I will walk. I stood up and suddenly bullets were ricocheting on the fence all next to us. He then pulled me and using me as a shield and changed direction and made me cross to the other side of the road. I was part running and part hopping on one foot. At the turn of the road there was a building used by immigration (garde nationale) as a detention centre. He orders me to go inside.
I was wearing blue jeans, a green army jacket and black leather boots, of which the left one was heavy, wet and my foot inside it was pulsing with a dull pain. Two other armed guards were in the lobby of the detention centre. One immigration officer was faintly mumbling in pain and blood was seeping from his coagulated blood covered face, another was flat on his face, bleeding from his neck and motionless. I was led still hopping on one foot to a small reception room. I was trembling, cold and terrified. I was ordered to sit and asked about company, order and rank. I responded in a very fearful voice that I was a civilian, the son of a soldier. One man rushed towards me slapped me on my head several times saying “ are you f…… with us you arse giver?” Another one holds his gun at my temple and asks Colonel Ben A and Colonel M. B or are you dead, you and your f…… mother”, I beggingly answered that I would not know and that I was a civilian.
The same questions were asked again accompanied by several knocks and slaps on my head and face and the same answers were uttered by me begging for mercy in the name of God in tears. This went on and on for what it seemed a fast eternity. The one that shot me, giving up, yelled “civilian” :…son of a whore”. You are lying to us…I am going to make you suffer. He put his rifle against the wall rushed swiftly all raged up towards me, lifts me up holds me against him with both my arms tight, and asks his mate to drop my trousers. The second man rushed my trousers down to my legs with me shouting from the grazing to my hips and the pain of shame. They threw me back on the chair and my interrogator and shooter pulls a hand gun and said “you are talking or we are going to f… you” he was at the same time pointing to an empty bottle.
A cola bottle was on a table close by. It has suddenly become my new focus of terror. I still swore that I did not know where the two colonels were or where they lived. Then furiously and painfully my hair was grabbed, I was lifted up and that bottle was brought closer by the second man and placed on the floor next to the chair.
My body’s entire skin was cold but now I felt my whole body trembling ho. Begging and screaming I was lowered down to the bottle, held from my hair with one hand, while in his other hand the man had his gun at my temple. The second man made sure I was guided down to the bottle that was aimed. Swearing a salvo and forcing me downwards both men made sure the bottle neck after a few frantic attempts went inside me as far as it could agonisingly go.
I screamed in terror and pain and resisted then resigned my body to do the rest when the gun was squeezed harder against my cheek. I was nearly fainting both with sheer fright and with utmost shame, an order to stop from the third man, stopped the whole commotion for a moment, then I was pulled up, the bottle held until I was slightly on my way up, fell on the ground and bounced on the floor, rolling away. The third man was merely a silent spectator then said, “I don’t think this mad boy knows anything.” He orders them to let go of me and told me to pull my trousers up in a nearly compassionate voice.
He ordered me to head for the exit. Both tortured immigration officers were now in a pool of blood with no sign of life. A head fully covered in blood from which only the white in the eyes could be seen. Two gunmen were walking behind me and I was hopping in front held by the third, my eyes were swollen from the tears and I was getting dizzier. I received the order from the man that shot me and now holding me (later his name is revealed to me) to head for the barrack gates and join the detainees. They stopped at the turn of the road and I head to go and cross and join a line of squatting civilians by the barrack gates. The body of the sentinel is resting bloodied next to me and two more dead soldiers were just on the inside of the gates. Sporadically one of the gunmen sheltering behind the disabled bus, shoots a record propelled grenade at random inside the barracks without venturing too far.
Gafsa 27th January 1980, at dawn I was bleeding and weakening. One man crawls next to me to undo my laces from my right boot and tied a tourniquet just below my left knee. My eyes were getting heavier and all noises were indistinctive. I could only hear my own voice cal God in a steady sequence, my mouth was too stiff to open. I woke up several days later at the hospital in Tunis. I was airlifted by request from my father. I was told that my tight boots and tourniquet just about contained my blood loss before I was rescued.
Later I knew that my sister A and my brothers helped my father hide under the bed until he could reach his regiment the next day.
The night raid on Gafsa on the 2th January 1980 was a co-ordinated attack by 60 Islamist insurgents armed by Muammar Gaddafi and his terror regime. They infiltrated the territory via neighbouring Algeria. Their object was to topple the Tunisian government led by Habib Bourguiba.”
Sami was left with a number of physical injuries after his ordeal. He was exempted from joining the army himself due to infirmity and began receiving psychological support. He was left with shattered 2st, 2nd and 3rd tarsels and shattered 1st, 2nd and 3rd metatarsals. He also has shattered cuneiforms. On healing all bones fused together forming ankylosis with a residual oedema (swelling caused by excess fluid) and he still has shrapnel in situ. Two toes are inept. Over the years Sami has had several surgical and banding interventions to treat chronic internal haemorrhoids and still suffers to this day.
The Gafsa incident as it came to be known and the continuing threat of Libyan involvement was the impetus for the United States to increase support to Tunisia supplying arms and military equipment. A Department of Defense team was despatched to carry out a survey but the cost was deemed very high as Tunisia was so lacking in weaponry therefore a series of loans were instigated worth millions of dollars, France too supplied arms… Foreign Military Financing for the year 2010 was estimated at $2.3 million http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/tunisia/assistance.htm
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Freedom From Torture
Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad . She is a Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”. She is also a survivor of US “collateral damage”.