Touched by Iman al-Obeidi, an ‘icon of modern Libyan history’
Like the rest of the world, Ibrahim Dermish, 67, had witnessed on television the dramatic scene of a Libyan woman who entered a Tripoli hotel and, in the presence of foreign journalists, accused pro-Gaddafi soldiers of raping her.
It was in March when 29-year-old Iman al-Obeidi courageously walked into the Rixu Hotel where foreign journalists were camped and, before being whisked away by security agents, in full view of TV cameras claimed she had been arrested and gang raped by soldiers.
For Mr Dermish that moment left a mark on his life like many other experiences he has had to endure. A Libyan, he has been on the run for 42 years, travelling from one country to another to get away from the oppression of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
But, on Sunday, the woman in the TV story took on a different meaning for Mr Dermish when he met Ms al-Obeidi on a United Nations humanitarian flight from Benghazi to Malta. She was being accompanied by UN refugee officials, her father and Najah, an activist from a Libyan humanitarian organisation based in the US.
Ms al-Obeidi had fled Libya and was awaiting resettlement as a refugee in Qatar when she was deported last week and sent back to Benghazi. After leaving Libya for a second time on Sunday, Ms al-Obeidi made an overnight stay in Malta and then travelled on to Romania where she is now in a UN refugee processing centre. From there, she will eventually move on to a final destination.
AFP reported the UN High Commissioner for Refugees saying she was at the emergency transit centre in Timisoara, alongside another 100 evacuees from different locations.
Local media, quoting staff at the refugee centre, said she still carried traces of violence and was admitted to hospital briefly for examination.
Ms al-Obeidi has repeatedly said that she wants to settle in the US, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken great interest in her case.
“The passenger in front of me was real. She is an icon of modern Libyan history. She is not only a Joan of Arc for fellow Libyan women but also a symbol of courage for Libyan men,” Mr Dermish said, recalling the thoughts that raced through his head when realising who the woman in front of him was.
He wanted to talk to Ms al-Obeidi but was fearful of reopening the wounds of her ordeal.
“I paused for a moment and then I thought, how stupid of me to think in this way. This young woman not only suffered rape but the chauvinist Arab male mentality also wanted her to forget her tragedy because every time she spoke to the international media about it she made them feel impotent.”
Mr Dermish eventually plucked up courage and spoke to Ms al-Obeidi in Arabic, telling her how proud he was of her actions. She asked him to speak in English, which caught him by surprise.
“I thought to myself this young woman is afraid of her own people. Her eyes were sad but they also rewarded me with the most beautiful smile. It is a snapshot I will never forget,” he says.
When the humanitarian flight landed in Malta and the passengers were waiting on the tarmac, the loud bangs of the fireworks from the Għaxaq feast greeted their arrival.
Mr Dermish recalls Ms al-Obeidi’s frightened look when the fireworks broke the silence of the night, in what was possibly a reminder of the loud noises from exploding missiles, mortars and gunfire she had left behind in Libya.
“There we were, three Libyans, on the run and united in our search for freedom. Ms al-Obeidi comes from Tobruk, Najah from Gharian and I come from Misurata. There is no tribalism in Libya,” he says. Mr Dermish will soon return to Benghazi as he has been doing since the struggle for liberation started earlier this year. Before leaving Ms al-Obeidi, he asked her to pray for him and hoped that this would be her last run unlike his, which has not yet ended after 42 years.