August, during the fall of Tripoli, amid revellers and looters at Qaddafi’s conquered Bab al-Aziziya complex, I came across a rebel group from the Libyan city of Zintan celebrating their triumph (Qaddafi himself had fled and was in hiding). They were firing truck mounted 14.5 inch anti-aircraft artillery carelessly into the air; this was their ticker-tape parade. After exchanging pleasantries and cigarettes with a few of the rebels, they offered to show me around.
I rode with a young fighter named Mustafa in his pickup truck. In the back were guns, live ammunition and rotten vegetables. “This is my home!” he said, catching my reaction. That evening, we drove to a compound secured by the rebels and stayed the night. Over the next few hours, he talked eagerly about the war.
“I am doing it for justice and my rights. Qaddafi didn’t give us these things so we have to take them,” he said (several times, several different ways). The oration resembled that of a philosopher/statesman on the campaign trail. He washed down a packet’s worth of cigarettes with sips of tea and concluded, “I hope that the whole world lives in peace and love and freedom like we have in Libya now. After the war, I want to continue my work in a fair country with freedom.”
Mustapha had been fighting for 6 months, since the early days of the conflict. After experiencing heavy fighting for the first time, he was having trouble assessing the realities of war and coming to terms with his involvement.
“In my old life I used to sell clothes,” he said, his tone becoming subdued. “When I was fighting in the mountains in the West, my cousin was shot in the neck and his head landed on my lap. I will never forget this moment.”
He continued after a pause. “When I fight, I fight only for freedom against this dictator,” he said.
I wondered, “Why now, after 42 years under Qaddafi’s thumb?”
“It is a long story,” he said. “It will take me 42 years to explain.”
It was a glimpse at the internalized disorder and devastation wrought by the collapsed regime in its reign, and its retreat. It lurked just beneath the ecstatic veneer of the rebels’ victory. As much, and more, would be laid bare with pummelling clarity in the coming days.
While accompanying Mustafa and his rebel unit later that week, the group received a phone call from another rebel group that caused the typically chatty and jovial fighters to go silent. I was told that a mass execution had taken place, but was not told anything else. The rebels were unwilling to engage in conversation or discuss the subject further as we cautiously rushed to the site.
Residents of a village just outside Tripoli had alerted rebel forces to smoke billowing from a compound adjacent to Yarmouk military base which had, until recently, served Qaddafi’s army. The compound was located in the Salahuddin district, in the Khalat al Forjan neighborhood - a Qaddafi stronghold even after Tripoli fell to rebel forces. It served as the headquarters and barracks of the Khamis Brigade, a powerful Qaddafi military force run by and named after Muammar Qaddafi’s youngest son. Many of Qaddafi’s senior military officers also resided in the area and were suspected of having put defensive measures in place – a palpable fear as we approached.
Upon arriving, Mustafa made inquiries about what had happened from rebel forces outside the gates. He and other members of his unit then refused to enter. “I don’t want to remember that I [also] killed people,” he said, and promptly left. Confused by the comment, and not fully comprehending the situation, I walked in.
The ill-fated compound was situated off a side road and resembled an agricultural estate. It held a makeshift prison used by Qaddafi forces to house
alleged “traitors of the regime.” Now, upon entering, one was hit with the pungent stench of death.
Blackened corpses, swollen in the heat, were visible in the courtyard, barely concealed by blankets and rugs and left to decompose. It was plainly visible that some of the dead had their hands and feet bound, while others appeared to have been shot while trying to escape. Prisoner transport vehicles were also present at the site, and some contained bodies.
There were two main buildings. The first, where the bulk of the bodies were located, was a large, rudimentarily constructed warehouse, empty but for smouldering human rubble and a dreadful silence. Most of the dead were burned beyond recognition, pieces of skeleton scattered across the floor. The rusted sheet metal comprising the walls and ceiling were punctured with bullet holes, suggesting that the building had been sprayed with gunfire from the outside and the rooftop. Petrol canisters were seen on the grounds nearby, suggesting that the bodies had been intentionally torched.
In all, there were about 45 bodies in the warehouse, most atop one another immediately in front of the only exit; it appeared that prisoners died trying to escape once the killing started. It was determined that the executions took place several days before, on August 23rd (the same day rebels took control of Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya headquarters).
Rebels moved through the site highly agitated and dazed. Some wrapped t-shirts or scarves around their faces to block the smell. Others split cigarettes and stuck the filters in their nostrils. We had to tread very carefully in order not to step on remains. The effort of mentally reconstructing what took place here was devastating.
It has oft been said that in war there is a customary respect between enemies. In this instance there was not a trace of respect or dignity reserved for the prisoners. The sharply contrasting black and white of charred flesh and bone seemed to embody the striking simplicity of right and wrong. Sadism and disdain colored these murders.
As more rebels arrived on site, they decided to initiate a search and clearing of bodies. By now, news of the atrocity had spread through Tripoli’s grapevine and locals began arriving at the crime scene as well, some volunteering to help. The search spread to sections of the compound where other corpses were rumoured to have been buried.
I spoke briefly to a volunteer named Ahmed. I had seen him repeatedly walk into the warehouse, stand there for a few moments, then storm out to cry.
“How could they do this? I can’t believe this could happen,” he said in a broken a voice before wiping away his tears. “This is the reason people are fighting [Qaddafi]. He kills us like we are nothing, just like garbage.”
After wiping his tears once more, he looked up, stood tall and composed himself, staring back at the warehouse with ferocity. “We will fix this. It is our responsibility. We have to.”
A group of four more young Libyan men arrived, intent on verifying for themselves the rumors they’d heard. They strode up to the warehouse, took a fleeting glance through the doorway and buckled, weeping uncontrollably. They clung to one another to console themselves, but soon collapsed. They had to be assisted by volunteers who tried in vain to calm them.
The entire scene was starting to break down, an equally frenzied counterpoint to the jubilant scenes at Bab al-Aziziya just a few day earlier. Rebel fighters guarding the site were visibly distraught and seemed unable to process the brutality of the murders. They wanted to affect the situation as best they could ainstinctively tried to “control” someone or something, making overt displays of bravado and authority. This translated to a sudden decision to eject journalists, who were by now descending on the site in greater numbers.
“Out! Out! Out!” one rebel cried, gesturing towards the exit with his rifle. He was in a manic state, his eyes bloodshot. He took to darting back and forth across the compound intimidating those he deemed interlopers.
Some correspondents tried to calm him and explain the importance of documenting the situation and showing the world what Qaddafi did. The insistent mix of alien languages quieted the fighter, but he didn’t lower his gun.