Qaddafi's Abattoir: Page 2 of 2

by Saad Basir

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.

Prisoner remains inside the warehouse ©Saad BasirHRW 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.”

Corpses with attribution ©Saad BasirWhile 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.