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.
Other rebels, in their agitation, voiced suspicion that foreign journalists might deliberately portray the slaughter as having been committed by the rebels and thus besmirch the freedom movement.
The customarily friendly and sociable fighters were now bordering on violence – pent-up battle stress, perhaps, beginning to boil over. After fighting for months, the liberation of Tripoli was supposed to be the end of the war, the downfall of the regime and the irregular rebel fighters’ victory parade. Instead, they were facing an almost incomprehensible reckoning.
Since the collapse of the Qaddafi government, mass graves have been discovered and reported on a weekly basis, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), with some 13 sites in and around Tripoli alone. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented apparent executions by Qaddafi forces in al-Qawalish and Bani Walid, and the suffocation deaths of 19 detainees at the hands of Qaddafi forces in al-Khoms, taking testimony from witnesses and, when possible, survivors of the attacks.
HRW inspected the warehouse site on August 27th. Interviews with survivors painted a clearer picture of what occurred. One survivor said that guards read out 153 names of detainees in the roll call the day of the killings, according to HRW’s report. He estimated that 20 prisoners had escaped, and said that around 125 of the 153 detainees were civilians. Another, identified by HRW as Abdulrahim Ibrahim Bashir, 25, said that at sunset on August 23 guards of the Khamis Brigade opened fire on him and the other detainees from the roof, while another guard threw grenades into the warehouse from the entrance. Bashir survived by escaping over a wall while the guards were reloading. HRW’s statement the following day stated that the evidence pointed to “summary execution.”
The disarray at the warehouse site and others led HRW to issue a press release advising the NTC to halt the exhumation of mass graves until forensic experts were available to supervise and support the investigations. Instead, HRW advised, the rebels should focus on securing the sites to prevent the destruction of evidence.
“We understand that Libyans want to find the missing and give victims a dignified burial, but digging up graves without forensic experts present can destroy evidence and make it more difficult to identify the bodies,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at HRW. The sentiment was echoed in a subsequent statement by the ICRC.
An experienced forensic team from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) arrived on scene and conducted a more structured investigation from September 5th through 19th, conducting physical examinations of survivors, crime scene analysis and some 51 interviews, of which four were detailed eyewitness testimonies. Three of these were from survivors, the fourth from a mid-level officer with the Khamis Brigade, also known as the 32nd Brigade. The officer, now in custody, admitted to personally torturing prisoners. He described doing so with other soldiers, under orders, between April and August 2011.
PHR’s 50-page report, overseen by an independent ethics review board, confirmed systematic torture of prisoners, reconstructing the prison’s operations in the months leading up to the massacre and confirming some of the chilling details those of us there in the immediate aftermath had heard.
PHR described prisoners cramped into the warehouse and abused by loyalist soldiers, some for as long as three months, with almost no food or water. Prisoners were beaten and attacked by dogs throughout their detention. The soldiers had nicknamed the warehouse “the coffin.” The order to kill the prisoners came just as the capital was about to fall.
Some 150 prisoners were inside the warehouse when the killing started, 53 killed instantly. Most who escaped had survived by hitting the ground as soon as the firing started. This was one aspect of the incident that was hard to fathom during early reporting at the site – how so many prisoners managed to escape from the only doorway after the shooting started. However, one of PHR’s survivor interviews described another prisoner grabbing a fire extinguisher and creating a smokescreen, allowing others to escape. Many managed to jump over a compound wall, though additional bodies were found throughout the locality, suggesting an extended hunt for escapees.
Locals who had heard gunfire emanating from the camp described approaching the gate and being threatened by loyalist guards.
The soldiers managed to bury some of those they killed in shallow graves within the compound in an effort to conceal the massacre, but PHR’s subsequent interview with the Khamis Brigade member describes a decision to burn the bodies after a bulldozer had malfunctioned, hampering the effort to dig a mass grave. He said that the decision to burn the bodies came from Khamis Gaddafi himself.
PHR further reported that prisoners suffered “electrocution with ‘Taser’ type electroshock weapons, as well as beating with electric cables, metal rods, and wooden planks and batons.” Several prisoners were confined to metal boxes in the back of storage vehicles where there wasn’t enough space to sit or stand. One prisoner told PHR that “when he asked for water, the guards sometimes poured motor oil or urine, from bottles in which detainees had relieved themselves, into his open mouth.”
While those brutalized and killed here will likely have no other memorial than the various reports adding the terrible revelations of this site to the vast tally of crimes emerging since Qaddafi’s death (including, it must be noted, some apparent executions committed by the rebel side), those responsible for these deaths left a boastful marker commemorating what they’d done. I was with a small group of journalists who wandered over to a small, white, cubical building on the site. It was covered in graffiti. We recruited a volunteer to translate for us:
“God, Muammar and Libya,” said one. Another, boldly emblazoned, was the guilty unit’s signature: “32nd Enhanced.” It was the official name for the al-Khamis Brigade, distinguished from myriad other loyalist units and gun-slinging militias by its fierce oath of fealty to Qaddafi. A third read, simply, “Victory or death."
Saad Basir is an independent writer and photographer. His reporting spans the uprisings in the Middle East, conflicts in South Asia and human rights abuses in West Africa. He is based in London and travels frequently as a regular contributor to several South Asian publications. Photos by Saad Basir and Balint Szlanko.