This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee is fighting the White House and the CIA over pre-publication redactions made to a Congressional report on the agency's use of torture and rendition. This debate is very personal for Khadija al-Saadi, who at 12 years old was rendered from Hong Kong to Libya in a joint CIA-MI6 operation in 2004.
Two very different flights landed at Mitiga military airport in Libya just over a decade ago. The first was organized by the CIA and MI6. On board were a family of six surrounded by guards, the frightened children separated from their parents, the father chained to a seat in a rear compartment with a needle stuck in his arm. The second flight, only a couple of days later, carried Tony Blair in comfort, on his way to shake hands and do business with Colonel Gaddafi.
I know about the first flight, because I was one of the children. I know about the chains and the needle because Sami al-Saadi—a long-time political opponent of Colonel Gaddafi—is my father and I saw him in that state. I was 12 years old, and was trying to keep my younger brothers and my six year-old sister calm. The guards took us to see our mother once on the 16-hour flight. She was crying, and told us that we were being taken to Gaddafi's Libya. Shortly before the plane landed, a guard told me to say goodbye to my father, at the front of the plane. I forced myself ahead and saw him with a needle in his arm. I remember guards laughing at me. Then I fainted.
We were taken off the plane and bundled into cars. Hoods were pulled over my parents' heads. Libyans forced my mother, sister and I into one car, my brothers and father another. The convoy drove to a secret prison outside Tripoli, where I was certain we were all going to be executed. All I knew about Libya at that time was that Colonel Gaddafi wanted to hurt my father, and that our family had always been moving from country to country to avoid being taken to him. Now we had been kidnapped, flown to Libya, and his people had us at their mercy.
Lying on the Oval Office desk, I'm told, is an official report about what happened to me and my family on that night all those years ago. Our story will be part of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA rendition and interrogation. The only question is whether you will be able to read it, or whether it will be hidden under a smear of black ink.
Yet key evidence is available for anyone to read on the internet: a Libyan intelligence fax with my father's name and "rendition" scrawled over it; transmissions between the Libyans and the CIA organizing who would pay for the plane; faxes detailing the plane's landing requirements. They were found in an abandoned intelligence compound after Colonel Gaddafi fled Tripoli during the Libyan revolution.
I sometimes imagine President Obama reading the Senate report, and wonder whether he ever asks himself who the people named in the report really are. There are other people who have read my name in the report as well: the team of editors, holding their black marker pens and deciding which bits of the report to redact before it gets published. I wonder who will decide whether my name gets a black line drawn through it, and whether he or she will stop to think what that means.
My name is Khadija al-Saadi. I am a 23-year-old Libyan woman. I live in Libya's capital, Tripoli. I study in the humanities faculty of the Tripoli university, and I work in my spare time in a couple of local NGOs trying to improve living conditions in the city. I exist, and this is my story.
For years, I wasn't able to use my real name. That's partly why it's important for me to see it published in the Senate report. We were living in Harrow, a suburb of London, England. My father had fled from Libya, fearing what would happen to us all at Gaddafi's hands, and had been given leave to remain in the UK. Despite the appearance of safety, my father knew that the dictator's reach extended far in those days. So we used different names to try to reduce the risk of being found.
I vaguely remember Harrow. In my memory, it was always misty. I remember my room more vividly, full of children's games, and some of the friends I made at kindergarten.
But life on the run was hard. We had to move frequently, whenever my father grew worried that Gaddafi was catching up with us. I would suddenly find myself in another place, with another culture entirely. Most startling to me was arriving in China. This was a land where no one spoke a language I could understand. I remember the chaotic traffic in the early morning, with cars and motorbikes and bicycles and pedestrians weaving in and out of each other like bees in a hive. I remember the markets, where you could eat snake, dog and rat. And I remember the odd Chinese custom of giving water to guests, rather than the juice or coffee that was our traditional Arab way.
I always knew that I was of Arab origin. Even if our parents—frightened such a small detail might put us in danger—didn't allow us children to mention the name of the country, we also knew that we were from Libya and that we were fleeing from a dictator there because of our father's activities to oppose him. And as children always manage to do, we had all overheard stories of Gaddafi's crimes, and, most frighteningly, what would most likely happen if we ever fell into his hands.
Like my family had done a few days earlier, I imagine Tony Blair also left Mitiga airport in a convoy. I imagine his was rather grander, a celebration rather than a kidnap.
I've watched the videos of the meeting he attended with Colonel Gaddafi in the dictator's bedouin tent that day, and the stroll that the two leaders took together after lunch. I don't know whether the two of them discussed my family. At that same moment, I was in a cell in the secret prison, where we would stay for the next two and a half months. Every few days, the interrogators would show us to our father, putting him under awful emotional pressure.
I think it's likely that they did discuss us, because as we now know, we were back in Libya because of information handed over by British intelligence to their American and Libyan counterparts. Most people think the "deal in the desert" that Blair and Gaddafi struck that day was just about Libyan chemical weapons and British oil rights. For my family, it was personal: it was about my father being handed over to a dictator he had dared to oppose, to be beaten and nearly killed.
The time following our release was confusing. On the one hand, we were taken in by our grandfather and introduced to relatives we had never met. I had seen many of their faces in old photographs that I would occasionally catch my father looking at when we were abroad, but I knew none of their names. The realisation that I had a large family was wonderful, having lived by ourselves for so long. We were constantly worried about our father, and about what we knew Gaddafi's thugs were doing to him.
Life was not normal at all. Gaddafi's agents trailed us wherever we went. Our telephones were very evidently bugged. We were refused official papers or residency documents, and forbidden from travel. Men would come and demand to see my siblings and me at school, and interrogate us. At night, I was constantly frightened that Gaddafi's agents would burst into our house and rearrest us. Torturing family members was a well-known method of extracting information from political prisoners like my father at that time. We had been released, but we were still in a prison.
The freedom we felt after the revolution against Gaddafi was like cold water running through my veins.
My father had been released from jail one year before the uprising, but both he and my brother were rearrested as soon as the revolution gained momentum. Gaddafi's agents began to follow us again, and so our family decided to flee the city. We were smuggled by revolutionaries to the western coast, where we were put on a small rubber boat for the dangerous journey to Tunisia. Gaddafi's forces were firing at anything in the sea with anti-aircraft batteries. We could see the rounds coming, and heard them explode in the water beneath us.
Gaddafi's regime fled, and Tripoli fell. The revolutionaries broke open the prison where my father and brother were being held, and we all breathed freedom for the first time. I could feel it with every ounce of my being. They were the best days of my life.
My family is doing its best now to move on from everything that happened to us. I am at university studying the humanities. My brother Anas, aged 9 when we were rendered, is studying engineering. My brother Mustapha, aged 11 when we were rendered, is studying to be a doctor. Writers, engineers, doctors. We are the future of our country, and the future of this region.
That future, though, needs to be based on a full admission of what has taken place in the past. No one has ever explained to me who was to blame for what happened to my family. This is why I am so determined now to demand that President Obama reveals the whole truth in the Senate report into the CIA rendition programme. I am 23 now, and braver, and I want to see my name—and the names of all the other victims—in black and white in an official report.
I want to know which places were used for the rendition programme; I want to know how my family were kidnapped and moved around like cargo; I want to know who gave the orders at each level. If there are individuals who are uncomfortable about that, it is nothing compared to the feelings I experienced aged 12, speeding through Libya on the way to a secret prison.
Whenever I leave my house now, to go shopping with my family, or to walk around Tripoli's old central square, I see cartoons of Colonel Gaddafi painted on the walls. Sometimes he is drawn as a monkey, sometimes he is a rat, or a chicken, or a fly. He sits meeting with the devil, or peers dazed from a rubbish bin where a boot has kicked him. After the Libyan people had risen up and removed him from power, my father was carried out from one of his prisons, unable to walk. Other prisoners were not so lucky. Two of my uncles were killed in one of the prison massacres that Gaddafi's lieutenants oversaw.
In Libya now, we are trying our best to understand this past, in public, on our street walls. The British and American governments owe their public the same, by revealing exactly what went on during those dark years. Publishing a full, unredacted, version of the Senate report is the only way for us to move forward together and ensure that those years do not happen again.
I think the American people would expect nothing less of their government. These events took place. I am a witness. However many black lines President Obama or his editors try to draw over this report, the truth will not go away.
[Image by Jim Cooke]