From ancient Rome to Libya today,
armed conflict has been marked by sexual violence on a mass
scale. But what links the two, and can it ever be stopped?
Libyan woman Eman el-Obeidy, moments after rushing into a Tripoli hotel, defends herself from government officials. Jerome Delay/AP
When Eman el-Obeidy materialized in the breakfast room of the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, Libya, the story she told shocked the world. The 29-year-old woman, a law graduate, claimed to have been held and raped by 15 members of leader Muammar Qaddafi's forces after being stopped at a checkpoint. The bruises on her face, the blood on her thighs, and the wails issuing from her throat made it clear that something bad had happened. Any doubt that remained was dispelled by the swift, vicious reaction of the security forces in the hotel (including many who had been posing as hotel waitstaff -- no, they were not just innocently pouring coffee and busing tables for the press corps each morning), who dragged her out of the reach of the stunned journalists and shoved her in a waiting car.
While el-Obeidy's courage was exceptional, her experience may not be. In the two months since her story broke, scattered reports have emerged of rape by Qaddafi's forces in Misrata and elsewhere around the country, often recounted by medical workers. Chilling details -- reports of condoms and sexual performance enhancers found in the pockets of captured soldiers, for example -- have prompted International Criminal Court Special Prosecutor Luis-Moreno Ocampo to liken Viagra to a "machete," that low-tech weapon used to such terrible effect during the Rwandan genocide. In April, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told a private gathering of diplomats that the U.S. believed Qaddafi's military was handing out Viagra pills to troops "so they go out and rape," as Rice reportedly put it. Last week, Ocampo told CNN that he plans to launch an investigation into these accounts.