Why one Libyan mother joined the rebels

Nayla Mohammed El Farisi, a diminutive, fully veiled woman who lost a brother to Qaddafi's regime, works 10-hour days writing articles for a newspaper critical of Libya's dictator.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
Libyan people celebrate in the main square of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Friday, March 18. Libya declared an immediate cease-fire Friday, trying to fend off international military intervention after the UN authorized a no-fly zone and 'all necessary measures' to prevent the regime from striking its own people.

Libyan rebels may have gotten a reprieve from the United Nations Security Council resolution passed last night, but the stakes are still high for those who willingly defy Muammar Qaddafi's nearly 42-year rule.

More than a few have lost relatives or friends at the hands of the regime, which is notorious for torturing and killing its own citizens. But for people like Nayla Mohammed El Farisi, a fully veiled woman who stands barely five feet tall, that is precisely why they have joined the fight against Mr. Qaddafi.

"I'm torn apart," says Mrs. Farisi, a writer and charity worker whose brother was killed in prison 15 years ago. "I’m not doing this for personal revenge. I’m doing this because this is the sound of conscience. This revolution is the right revolution.”

On a typical evening in the midst of Libya’s uprising, Mrs. Farisi is found hustling around a makeshift newsroom in the North Benghazi Courthouse wrapping up 10-hour days writing articles for a newspaper created to criticize Qaddafi.

“Before I couldn’t do anything. I was repressed,” she says. “And now I feel like I can do everything.”

Like the rest of Libya’s 6.5 million citizens, Farisi has never before been able to speak out against the government, which has caused her family hardships for decades. She and her family are doing all they can to help put an end to the dictator’s regime.

“Just because I’m dressed like this doesn’t mean I can’t do anything,” says Farisi, who wears a long, dark dress and her face is fully veiled, her hands hidden by gloves as a sign of religious piety. “I know how to use a gun, I volunteered at the beginning of the revolution as a medical assistant in the hospital, and now I’m working with a charity.”

A brother detained as 'too religious'

In the judges’ breakroom-turned-news bureau where Farisi is playing her part in the rebellion, she sat on a recent evening with a picture of her brother, Said Mohammad El Farisi, hanging from a string around her neck. The electrical engineer was killed when he was 32 years old.

The family’s struggles began in December 1988 when the Libyan secret service stormed Farisi's home. She was just 22 years old as she watched agents destroy Said’s room and raid his Islamic book collection. They stole a picture of the young man, who was in Turkey at the time buying furniture for his soon-to-be bride.

Two days later, Farisi’s father received a call informing him that Said was arrested at the airport for being too religious, prompting her sister to have a psychological breakdown. “They didn’t find guns with him,” says Farisi. “It wasn’t because he belonged to a certain group. It was just because he was religious.”

For years Said remained in prison without any way to contact his family. But he wasn’t the only one who faced trouble at the hands of authorities. “My two brothers are arrested at least once a month. They are arrested and released, arrested and released.” This has been happening since 1989.

Said killed in 1996 prison massacre

Without any word from her brother for more than seven years, Farisi's family heard rumors about a mass killing at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996. “But we didn’t know the truth,” she says. Her mother went to Tripoli every month to find out what happened to Said. “But she always came back devastated. She had no information.”

Farisi's father finally received a call in 2001. He hung up the phone, picked up a picture of Said and cried. “All he did was tell my mother that he didn’t think she would see her son again.” Before Farisi could learn why, her father started shaking and said he felt ill. He died that night.

A second phone call came from the government nine years later telling the family that Said died in the Abu Salim prison. Eyewitnesses reported that security forces fired at men packed into a courtyard after they rioted for improved living conditions.

One fellow prisoner who has since been released told Farisi that Said, who was in need of medical care, was put on a bus with other ill prisoners and transported away from the courtyard and killed. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 1,200 people were massacred.

Like other families of victims, Farisi’s was offered a settlement of 200,000 Libyan dinars ($164,000). “After we rejected the offer, we received threatening phone calls at home,” she says. Her family wants the crime to be internationally recognized, they want Said’s body back, and they want 1 million Libyan dinars ($822,000).

Family of five dives in to help

Farisi and her family can’t do enough to ensure Qaddafi’s ouster. Since the uprising began Feb. 17, the mother of five has rarely seen her family all in one place.

Her husband distributes food to fighters and residents of Benghazi from an aid tent just outside the courthouse, where demonstrators gather day after day to press on with their fight for democracy.

One of her daughters, Hiba, volunteers at a nearby medical tent while Aya spends most days demonstrating in the square. Her only son, Abdel Rahman, is fighting on the frontline. “He is a man now, and it’s time for him to fight,” she says, noting that her youngest daughter is still too young to participate.

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