Libya’s revolutionaries, part 3
Mustafa Omar, 29, is a radiologist from Misrata and he is tired. (Photo: Eric Kampherbeek.) Since the siege on his city began in March, he’s been working as a surgeon in the city’s hospital. It was in such bad repair before the uprising that another was to be built to replace it. During the siege, Gaddafi’s forces targeted the building, but their shelling was off. A hotel across the road was demolished, but the hospital survived.
The siege ended in May, but Omar and the other doctors began to receive wounded from nearby Zliten and other towns. There isn’t enough medicine. Now the injured from Sirte are being brought into triage in Misrata. About 1,400 people died in the hospital during the siege; another 65 have died in the building from their injuries on Sirte’s frontline. Money from the Temporary Financial Mechanism is being used to fly some injured to Europe, Jordan and Tunisia for treatment. But the casualty unit is still inundated. “We sleep in the hospital,” he said. “We can’t go home. We never know when more will be brought in.”
Some of the injured from Sirte are Gaddafi soldiers. I asked Omar what the men said to him: whether they gave any reasons why they were still fighting for the colonel.
“I don’t talk to them,” he said. “Three of my cousins died. If I talk to them then I get angry. And if I get angry then I cannot treat them like patients.”
5:05 pm • 2 October 2011 • 1 note
Libya’s revolutionaries, part 2
Hisham Belhaj, 31, grew up in Denmark, where his father was in exile. (Eric Kampherbeek took the picture of him above.) He returned to Libya ten years ago. When Benghazi rose up against the regime, Hisham joined other Tripolitanians in his neighbourhood and took to the streets. Gaddafi’s army shot them with a “14.5”, named for the large-caliber shells that come from Russian-made KPV anti-aircraft guns. Belhaj kept turning up on the street, and kept getting shot at. He put his wife and three girls, aged between one and five, into his car and they drove to the Tunisian border. His name was on a wanted list, so the family crossed without him. Then he ran, with Gaddafi soldiers shooting at his back, into Tunisia, where border guards protected him.
He left the family in Tunisia and crossed back into Libya’s Western Mountains. In Nalut, he was handed an AK47 and given a month’s training. Hisham killed at least 14 regime troops from the back of a technical. His ultimate commander was Abdul Hakim Belhaj, and under his direction Hisham was one of the first rebels into Gaddafi’s Bab al Azizia compound. He was there for two days, losing contact with his family, who were told that he had been killed. They only learned that he was alive when Hisham knocked on the door of the Tunisian house they were staying in.
He invited us to his home in Tripoli (where I took the picture above yesterday). The guns are his Kalashnikov and FN FAL, the Belgian-made semi-automatic rifle that Qatar passed to rebels during the war. Afterwards, we went to Bab al Azizia — Hisham is helping to secure it and open the tunnels beneath it. I had my headlamp with me and Hisham had a torch and we spent an hour exploring the vast subterranean labyrinth Gaddafi had built: the colonel knew his day would come.
Hisham told me the best snipers he faced were Serbian women. A Nigerian woman they caught, who’d been shooting at them during a battle in the Western Mountains, said she’d become a Gaddafi mercenary to raise money for Haj — a common excuse, apparently.
Each time he leaves home Hisham’s eldest daughter, whose name is tattooed down his arm, begins to cry. “She understands,” he said. “The other two are young.” Today or tomorrow, Hisham will head southeast to join the battle for Bani Walid, which he and others think will be one of the bloodiest and most dangerous yet.
4:37 pm • 2 October 2011
Libya’s revolutionaries, part 1
Kids are going back to school in Libya’s liberated areas. The picture above was taken this morning by Eric Kampherbeek, at the Shohadaa al Shat secondary school in Tripoli. It is the second day of teaching since the revolution, and not all of the school’s pupils have come back. Some died on the frontline. The school was established before Gaddafi took power and now, after his fall, it is still going. Many faculty members were in Tripoli for the duration of the war and when rebel forces liberated the city on August 23rd. The students were away, but the teachers guarded the school’s premises, sitting outside it without weapons. This morning they called the children into a well-preserved astro-turf football pitch behind the school. The kids lined up as for assembly. Then they put the Green Book on top of a rusty oil barrel and burned it.
4:13 pm • 2 October 2011 • 13 notes
Misrata: still fighting while Tripoli celebrates
A brigade from the Western Mountains was in Tripoli last night and the boys were in party mode by the time they got to Martyrs’ Square. Fourteen-year-olds were waving pistols around. Some of their trigger-happy chums were spraying the sky with automatic rifles. One or two were testing new liberties with water bottles full of moonshine. Kids barely tall enough to see above the steering wheel were spinning doughnuts in the square. Families were dragging overtired toddlers to an inflatable slide.
The kids with guns aren’t the only ones having fun. The business hotels are doing brisk trade, soaking up an ever-growing crowd of foreign businessmen and their creepy earpiece-wearing bodyguards. The markets are bursting with fresh fruit. You can find Western news magazines in the shiny downtown towers. Cafes are spilling onto streets.
Two hours and 30 checkpoints down the road, meanwhile, is the deadzone of Misrata. The party hasn’t reached it yet. Misrata’s main drag, Tripoli Street, and the area around it were all but demolished during almost three months of shelling and urban fighting. The rest of the city is slowly waking up from a nightmare. Some are still without homes; and salaries – suspended since March – have only recently begun to be paid again.
At the hospital, doctors are weary. About 1,400 people died in the siege, not including countless missing. Since the siege ended in May, the hospital has been a triage centre receiving fighters – from both sides – wounded in battles in Zliten and other nearby towns. Now it is handling soldiers from the frontline in Sirte, where casualties have been steady since late August. About 300 have come in so far and 65 of them died. “We sleep in the hospital,” Mustafa Omar, a radiologist-turned-surgeon, told me today.
Misrata is an obstacle to the NTC’s efforts to form a new government. In Tripoli, people are tiring of the town’s stubbornness, which they say could stall progress. Misrata has proposed its own candidate to become prime minister, and has resisted some NTC initiatives. If you’re a Libyan from another town, you can’t easily enter Misrata – unless, like our driver today, you’re traveling with journalists, who also need special permission to visit.
People in Misrata see the Mardi Gras mood in Tripoli, though, and wonder why rebels in Martyrs’ Square are shooting at the sky when rebels outside Sirte are dying. Members of the Misrata Brigade are still fighting there and at Bani Walid and around Sebha. Soldiers aren’t wasting ammunition or dancing around in Misrata’s squares. Its formidable fighters aren’t gloating yet. “We’re not against anyone in the NTC,” said Omar. “We’re against dividing the country into celebrating cities and suffering cities.” He’s got a point.
* First photo by Eric Kampherbeek. Second, lesser image, by me.
11:30 pm • 29 September 2011 • 3 notes
The world must help with Abu Salim, quickly
It was a disturbing introduction to Tripoli. A mass grave had been found just outside Abu Salim, a prison in the city’s south where more than 1,200 inmates (and as many as 1,700) were murdered by guards in 1996. People had begun digging for the remains. It was my first day back in Libya and I went along, thinking interviews would be easy.
Finding people who would let me ask questions was easy. Listening to what they told me wasn’t.
A group of former inmates led me through wards where they’d seen rats eating the corpses of men who’d died in the cells. They showed me the courtyard where, following protests about the appalling living conditions, the guards had slaughtered the 1,200. (It’s the picture above. It had neither the wire roof nor the tiled floor in 1996.)
They heard the gunfire. Then they smelt the blood; and, later, the stench of the fluids the guards used to cleanse the walls.
One of the men guiding me had studied in England in the early 1980s. He’d married a woman from Marske-by-the-Sea, a town near Middlesborough. They had two children together. He left his wife and toddlers to return home in 1984. Before he could bring them to join him in Libya he was imprisoned in Abu Salim. His wife didn’t know. He was there for 18 years and for four of them he wasn’t allowed to leave his cell.
Others were Warfalla army officers who’d taken part in the coup attempt against Gaddafi in 1993. Abu Salim specialised in dissidents. They talked of the loud speakers inside the prison that blared the colonel’s speeches and other mumbo-jumbo 24/7 for three days at a time. All of them were tortured while they were inside.
Periodic visits and pressure from Human Rights Watch improved things — sometimes. Following one visit, Gaddafi made a great show of breaking down a wall in the prison – they showed me where – and letting the inmates out. After HRW left Tripoli, the men said, the tyrant rounded them up and brought them back.
HRW has helped uncover the mass grave outside the prison wall. After reading some conspiracy theories on the internet (the usual stuff: people denying the massacre; others alleging it is a conspiracy to discredit Gaddafi, etc, etc), I emailed Peter Bouckaert, HRW’s emergencies director, to ask him whether he believed the claims of mass graves were true.
He wrote back:
If the account of the guard who led us to the site is correct, the remains buried at the presumed mass grave have been reburied there in 2000 or 2001, from the original burial site inside the prison compound. His account was detailed, and he even showed us where the prison wall had been rebuilt after being broken down to allow the trucks with the remains to move in and out of the prison compound. The fact that this is a reburial site presents great challenges for an exhumation, as the remains would have been intermixed when they were taken from the original mass grave—they would already have been skeletons by then, and probably were dug up by an excavator at the time. We are thus dealing with a mass grave that contains the remains of over 1,200 people—which is larger than any of the mass graves associated with the Srebrenica massacre—and where skeletons and bones are extensively disturbed from the reburial. It will be a massive task to exhume the grave and identify the remains, requiring careful exhumation by hand to try and keep individual skeletons together to the extent possible, and then DNA testing to identify those remains. In effect, you are not dealing with 1,200 bodies but tens of thousands of bone fragments and other remains that need to be individually tested and reconstituted.
The International Red Cross/Red Crescent could deal with the remains, but DNA testing will need specialists, he said. Finland or Argentina could help. But the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), originally set up in Bosnia, is probably the best option. “We are talking about a process that will take years.”
The NTC needs to start that process now. While I was there, people were digging at the ground with bare hands. I inadvertently kicked up bone parts while I walked around the field. The area hasn’t been cordoned off. No one is guarding it. Most of the people there are victims’ families. They need some kind of peace. Libya’s era of truth and reconciliation is here – and with help from outsiders it should begin with Abu Salim.
8:16 pm • 27 September 2011 • 1 note
“I took gifts to my brother in Abu Salim for nine years and then they told me he’d been dead all along”
Libyans today starting digging up a mass grave underneath Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, scene of one of Gaddafi’s most notorious acts: the massacre in 1996 of 1,700 inmates, many of them dissidents.
The picture above (taken today by Eric Kampherbeek, the photographer I’m in Libya with right now) is of Abdel Hakim Gheit, who was 28 when he was shot dead inside the jail.
Gheit was sent to Abu Salim, his brother Abdul Basset told me, because he took a trip to Dubai and came back wearing a beard. Like that other crazy autocrat, Russia’s Peter the Great, colonel Gaddafi didn’t like beards, because they signified someone’s religiosity. (Not surprisingly, you see a lot of rebels sporting beards in Libya these days.)
Or at least that was the explanation Gheit’s family came up with. There wasn’t a trial, an investigation or any reason given for his arrest.
After they’d murdered the 1,700, including Gheit, the killers poured acid over the remains to destroy evidence of their crime, Salim al-Farjani, a member of the committee set up to identify the remains, told Al Jazeera today. Then they built a building on top of the grave.
It’s a gruesome tale. But that’s not all of the story. While Gheit was in prison, his family took him food, presents and medicine every month. They would turn up at Abu Salim, hand over their parcel and ask after him. “The guards always told me my brother was okay,” said Abdul Basset.
Then, one day in 2005, a man knocked on Abdul Basset’s door to ask if Gheit was his brother. “Here,” the man said, and handed over a piece of paper. It told them Gheit was dead, and had been since 1996. No cause of death was given.
The same happened to other victims’ families. For years, they brought gifts and souvenirs of the outside world to their relatives in Abu Salim. But the men inside were dead, and had been all along, and, of course, the prison guards knew it.
There was a humiliating coda to it all, too. The regime paid Gheit’s family the Libyan dinar equivalent of about $100,000 not to talk. “You had to take it,” Abdul said, or face the consequences. Now no one needs to keep quiet or accept the colonel’s blood money.
9:33 pm • 25 September 2011 • 3 notes
Anonymous asked: Hey Derek, my name is Tom Lee, I'm Australian, I've been in Tripoli since September 3. I'm kind of claiming to be a journalist, but the only paper I'm writing for is the student weekly at Sydney University. I came to Libya for some work experience and to bolster my application for an ABC cadetship back home. I read on your recent post that you're on your way here. I want to ask if I can hang out with you. I'm keen to venture out of Tripoli but that's hard to do on my own.
Hi Tom — sure thing. I don’t have a local sim card yet, so difficult to get hold of. But I’m staying at Attawfeek. No idea what the schedule is, but it may be a lot of Tripoli and not much else. The photographer I’m with is keen to get down to Bani Walid, though…
8:31 pm • 25 September 2011
How many Libyan rebels are there, really?
Last night in a hotel in Djerba I got talking to a Libyan man who said he’d just returned from the frontline. He had a compelling story. He was a British-Libyan, he said, though his accent was American, and he’d returned to Libya in February to fight. He joined up with the rebels in Gharyan, before undergoing training in Zintan. He’d been given a weapon and a job manning one of the .50 caliber anti-aircraft guns in the back of a technical. He said he’d seen three friends die.
There’s no way of verifying his story. I’m generally a sceptic, but I felt awkward when doubts started to creep into mind as he was talking. He was pretty short on specifics. And what was he doing staying in a plush hotel in Djerba while others are fighting in Sirte and Bani Walid?
None of that means he’s lying. He could be suffering from PTSD, too, which may explain his oddly hyperactive behaviour at 2am. (Eric Kampherbeek, a photographer, and I had just met up—we’re on our way to Libya in a couple of hours.)
But I was struck that, for many Libyans, a personal history that claims a role in the anti-Gaddafi movement of 2011 will be essential. Who’d like to be a 25-year-old Misrata man who can’t claim to have fought against the colonel? And it’s going to be impossible to verify the tales, though some impostors will be found out, eventually.
There was no real chain of command in the rebel army. No numbers or registers, so far as I’ve been told, of who was fighting. Some journalists who’ve spent more time than I on the frontline say the number of rebel soldiers has been remarkably small. In some areas, skirmishes have been between platoons, at best, or squads or firestreams or even smaller — if one can give these units a name at all.
So how many fighters have there actually been? And how many kept their heads down? I’d have been keeping my head down. The courage of those who rose up against a dictator and took arms when victory wasn’t remotely assured is something to behold. I wouldn’t blame anyone who didn’t fight. But I’ll be curious to watch how many Libyans claim a role in the resistance. My guess is that, mysteriously, the number of fighters — rather like the number of “mercenaries” fighting for Gaddafi — will be a very fluid statistic.
10:51 am • 25 September 2011