x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

60,000 arrested, 11,000 released: Libyans search for the missing

Thousands have disappeared in Libya's war: some in battle, others arrested by the regime of Col Muammar Qaddafi. As that regime crumbles, Libyans are searching for the missing.

A Libyan holds the photograph of a missing relative while looking for him Monday in Libya.
A Libyan holds the photograph of a missing relative while looking for him Monday in Libya.

TRIPOLI // Amid the bustle of a Tripoli hospital, two young men yesterday sat before a computer, studying a slide show of dead faces.

All had died violently. Many were smeared with blood, and the back of one head was blown off.

"We're looking for our commander, Hisham Mohammed Zeit," said Mokhtar Hamza, 25, a National Transitional Council fighter from Zawiyah. "We haven't seen him since we entered Tripoli. We just want to know if he's alive or dead."

Thousands have disappeared into the chaos of Libya's war: some in battle, others arrested by the regime of Col Muammar Qaddafi. As that regime crumbles, Libyans are starting the search for their country's missing.

NTC leaders say that between 50,000 and 60,000 people were arrested in Tripoli during the war, but only 11,000 at most have been released. NTC forces are scouring the city for mass graves and secret prisons.

For Mr Hamza and his friend, Abdelraouf Chawch, 25, the search for Mr Zeit began four days ago with a tour of Tripoli hospitals where the hundreds of dead bodies littering parts of the city have been brought.

"We've had 50 bodies come in over the last three days," said Sadik Turki, the director of Mitiga Military Hospital, where Mr Hamza and Mr Chawch visited yesterday. "Of those, 30 were unknowns."

Staff at Mitiga and other hospitals register and photograph the dead, while Mr Turki's staff also urge citizens via radio spots to come look for missing people, he said. "But so far none of our unknown dead has been identified."

As NTC forces have taken control of Tripoli since entering last weekend, evidence has emerged of apparent 11th-hour prisoner massacres by pro-Qaddafi militiamen.

Cast-off clothing, bullet casings and patches of dried blood lay beneath the trees in the forecourt of a secret service building in the upscale neighbourhood of Gharghur.

It was here that at least three loyalist gunmen opened fire on prisoners as NTC forces entered the area last Monday, killing 17 people, according to an alleged survivor quoted by Human Rights Watch.

"They told us to lie down on the ground," said Osama Al Swayi, quoted by Human Rights Watch. "When I opened my eyes, I saw three dark men. One soldier gave the order: 'Just finish them off.'"

Inside the building, blood stains a cell beneath the stairs, where Human Rights Watch observers found two bodies on Friday.

"We've always feared this place," said Ibrahim Aweti, a retired teacher who lives nearby. "We were forbidden to know what went on inside. Only the arrested entered, and many didn't return."

After toppling Libya's king in 1969, Col Qaddafi maintained his grip on power in part through a network of spies, police and detention centres.

Mahmoud Ben Jumaa, a former senior security officer turned NTC organiser, said that he based surveillance and arrest orders on reports from hundreds of spies around the country.

People arrested in Gharghur were taken first to the secret service centre before transfer to Tripoli's main prison, Abu Selim, site of a 1996 massacre in which 1,200 people were killed, Mr Aweti said. "But after the war started, they began holding people here as well."

Upstairs, offices of the police had been ransacked, with papers thrown about and bags of rotting food left in the corner of a second prison cell.

On one desk lay a canvas-bound volume: a Larousse French dictionary filled with engravings, photos and maps. In the drawer beneath it were photos of two men in uniform, with neatly coiffed hair and pleasant faces.

"I never knew the people who worked here," Mr Aweti said. "Maybe they were nice enough guys. Or maybe they were criminals."

In some Tripoli neighbourhoods, locals are stepping forward to name regime agents whom they say may have played a role in arrests and disappearances.

In the seaside neighbourhood of Zawiyat Dahmani, lists bearing the names of alleged fifth columnists, spies and regime supporters were prepared even before NTC forces entered Tripoli, said members of the local council.

Locals in the posh quarter of Al Andalus continue to visit the council office to denounce alleged spies, said Abdelrauf Jedi, a council volunteer.

If a name comes up twice, NTC forces visit the home in question to make inquiries, Mr Jedi said. "If he resists, they have to fight back."

"I want those who supported Qaddafi put up and tried," said Mr Aweti, in Gharghur. "Catch them, then try them. We need a state based on the rule of law."

While dead bodies abound, finding suspects and establishing guilt may prove complicated, said a report yesterday by Amnesty International.

As NTC forces open prisons, key documents risk being lost as long as sites remain unsecured, the report said.

"The coming days are going to be critical for the preservation of evidence found in prisons, military camps and even private residences of former leaders," said Claudio Cordone, Amnesty International's senior director.

Back at Mitiga Military Hospital, Mr Hamza and Mr Chawch were facing more immediate concerns.

"He has family, a wife and two daughters," said Mr Hamza of Mr Zeit, his missing commander. "Inshallah, we'll find him, and not among the martyrs."

* With additional reporting by Bradley Hope in Benghazi