Recommendations for peace and reconciliation in post-conflict Libya

DR. Omar Ahmed Reda is Assistant professor of Psychiatry in Oregon Health & Sciences University. He graduated from Benghazi medical school in 1998 and finished his MD degree from University of Tennessee in 2009, shortly thereafter obtaining his Masters in global mental health from Harvard University. He is a Psychological trauma expert, and the founder and director of Libya Al-Shefa project for post-war psycho-social healing, rehabilitation and reconciliation.  

This is the first of a series of articles that will tackle psychosocial issues of war in Libya, the goal being to brainstorm and extend an invitation for all of us to grieve and heal together.

The need to understand the mental health impact of war has never been greater in Libya than now. The country has been through a full-fledged war to achieve its liberation in 2011, which came at a heavy psychological price. The war lasted nearly one year ending with thousands of people dead and hundreds of thousands injured and displaced.

The mental toll on the Libyan people has become overwhelming, complicated by the lack of standard mental healthcare in the country, as well as the cultural stigma to accessing the sparse mental health services.

I start with an urgently needed initiative for Libya. As it stands, Libyans have ended up fighting and killing other Libyans. When Gaddafi promised a long and exhausting war even after his death, he meant a psychological war through spreading hate, anger and revenge. He ordered the use of ugly weapons of torture, humiliation and rape in order to destroy the Libyan psyche and the beautiful social fabric of the country.

Ignoring the crimes and human rights violations committed on both sides of the conflict can have serious repercussions, and the stakes are high: if we do not deal with these issues quickly and openly, Libya could be headed towards a period of trans-generational hatred and resentment. People who are walking wounded, bleeding psychologically, forced to be displaced or sidelined and discriminated against might decide to have another “revolution” in a number of years or decades, a heavy price that Libya cannot afford to pay.

This is a comprehensive psychosocial recovery project made up of eight very diverse but complementary initiatives that will run simultaneously. I have submitted this proposal to every government post-liberation, and it is my hope that it gets some attention.

  • The first initiative addresses the mental health needs of the community in a culturally appropriate way. The psychosocial impact on war survivors will be assessed and attended to.
  • Second is the implementation of problem-solving workshops to allow communities to participate in ongoing dialogues for the purpose of resolving specific concerns. Healing and peace cannot be achieved in Libya unless people from all sides of the conflict sit together and explore the meanings and means of justice, forgiveness and reconciliation.
  • The third involves training local community members in conflict resolution methods. Libyans need to master alternative, non-violent ways to resolve conflicts.
  • Fourth is the use of media to reach a wider audience for the purpose of counteracting common misconception and sources of misinformation. A well-balanced media can limit rumors and share unspoken stories of the human spirit.
  • Fifth is the creation of peace commissions and committees to allow community members to discuss potential ways of establishing peace. The vital question of “justice comes first or forgiveness” needed to be publically voiced out and discussed.
  • The sixth is one in which indigenous forms of conflict resolution and healing are supported as an accepted way of working towards reconciliation. Tribal leaders, Imams and “traditional healers” can play a vital role in this very critical time of Libya’s history.
  • Seventh is the fostering of community activities that promote collaboration between “enemies.” This will likely start with play and art activities for children and women. The Grant-a-Wish model can be used here.
  • Lastly are initiatives that promote democracy and human rights.

There is hope, and plenty of it: the human spirit is resilient and Libyans have proven to have what it takes to recover from their painful recent past, heal the invisible wounds of trauma and rebuild their country. If things continue going in the right direction, Libya might indeed become a role model in every standard including mental health care.  That however requires the perseverance and hard work of many good people who care deeply about their country.

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