There was a palpable sense of empowerment and elation from every Libyan I met during my trip there in January, during which I made stops in Benghazi, Tripoli, Zawia and Misrata. At the same time, I observed many in Libya who are feeling the effects of trauma brought on by 42 years of Qaddafi’s rule and the events that brought him down.
I met a gentleman in Zawiyah who had been on the frontlines of protests every day. The revolution, he said, had lifted the veil of collective fear that pervaded the lives of all Libyans. I asked him if he was scared to protest in the town square while snipers took aim at the crowd. His answer was simple: "No." He went on to add that he didn’t care if he died during the revolution because his only two choices were freedom or death. He refused to live in fear for a moment longer.
But one does not protest within firing range of snipers on a daily basis and come away unscathed. While Libyans are still relishing the feelings of excitement of the revolution, many are also experiencing shock and disbelief. It’s as if the revolution happened so violently and too quickly to process. For a significant portion of the population, the actions of the Qaddafi regime during the revolution have left an indelible and painful mark. For them, what they are experiencing is trauma brought on by the horrific events they experienced or witnessed during the revolution. Clinically, their condition would be labeled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During my trip, I began to understand the source of this trauma. I had the opportunity to stand on the site of the protests and subsequent destruction in Zawia and Misrata, and visit memorials and museums housing pictures of hundreds of people who died -- martyrs -- including young children. I saw photographs of the egregious torture inflicted on civilians by the regime. I also looked at the gaping holes in the homes of ordinary people left by missiles fired indiscriminately.
I spoke with Dr. Essam Gheriani, a psychologist from Benghazi, who described effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and its impact on the rule of law. "Would you want a prison guard with PTSD, in a constant state of 'fight or flight' to be charged with safeguarding the rights of prisoners? What about a police officer intervening in a public order issue, when an underlying PTSD issue may make him or her more prone to escalate force more quickly?" he asked. Later in the trip, I learned that two former rebels who had fought on the frontline during the revolution had committed murders in Misurata. The linkages between PTSD and crime are well established in other contexts, particularly with regard to crimes like domestic violence
There have been media reports in recent weeks of clashes between different groups of revolutionaries. While those clashes occur for different reasons, it did make me wonder how PTSD among former fighters might have contributed to these tensions, and how the disorder could cause an escalation to violence. International rule of law assistance has been deeply criticized from within and outside its community of practice for its failure to have a real impact on post-conflict societies.
As we engage with national stakeholders in the planning and execution of momentous changes to the rule of law sector in Libya, we need to think not only about how trauma impacts crime and violence, but also how it affects the simple ability to build rule of law capacity where it never existed before. This is not just relevant for Libya but for other countries as they undergo similar transitions. It is clear that the answers lie beyond the technical world of law.
Dr. Gheriani said it most succinctly: "Trauma locks a person. And a person who is locked by trauma cannot move forward and cannot engage in constructive change. Certainly, efforts to promote the rule of law will be greatly hindered by a traumatized society". This leads me to conclude that in helping nations that have experienced such horrific violence and brutality transition toward a society based on the rule of law, perhaps the first step forward lies in addressing those issues that are holding them back. USIP’s Rule of Law Center will hold a public event May 14to to address trauma issues and build societal resilience in the aftermath of conflict.
During this event, panelists will examine the phenomenon of trauma and its impacts through the lens of rule of law. Panelists will address how important it is to consider trauma as part of efforts to promote justice, security and the rule of law. And perhaps most important, panelists will share new, innovative approaches to building resilience to the kind of trauma that may be hindering our ability to build rule of law capacity in so many societies emerging from conflict.