Meeting the families left behind by Gaddafi’s prison massacre
As I took off my shoes to enter the house, I realised this would be emotional.
About a dozen women and men were sitting on sofas around the living room, each silently holding up a photograph of a son, a brother, a husband, a father.
They were relatives of some of those killed in the most notorious massacre of Colonel Gaddafi’s rule, when security guards machine-gunned 1,200 men in Abu Salim prison in 1996. It was their story which sparked the uprising in Benghazi.
For years, the families continued to take food and clothing to the prison, believing that – although they weren’t allowed to see their relatives – they were still there being held without trial on suspicion of opposing the government.
“We did this for 14 years before we were told that he was dead,” said Fouad Assad ben Omran, a grizzled old man in a traditional dark red hat, whose brother-in-law was amongst the victims.
“They told us he was there, but we weren’t allowed see him. The government said we could come every second month, and we used to spend a day or two at the gate.”
An elderly woman in black wept as she showed me a handwritten letter from her son. She had framed it. She thrust a passport-size photograph of a plump-faced boy into my hands. He looked about 20. Two years ago, after 12 years of denial and silence, the government gave her a death certificate. It simply said he had died in Tripoli in 1996. That’s all.
Over the years, information has came out in dribs and drabs, as people have been released from Abu Salim. In the 1980s and 90s thousands of men were arrested all over Libya and taken to gaol in Tripoli. Some were Islamists, others secular opponents of the regime, still others just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their conditions were abysmal, and in June 1996 they protested.
“They said ‘we want better conditions because even animals cannot live like this’,” said Faiza Ahmed Zubi, whose brother was killed. “They didn’t even ask for release but just to be treated like prisoners elsewhere. They said ‘we want to breathe, to see the sun, to live’.”
After a few days, according to Human Rights Watch (who investigated in 2004), Colonel Gaddafi’s brother-in-law Abdullah Sanussi sent negotiators to the prison, but instead of holding discussions, Sanussi allegedly sent troops armed with machine-guns onto the prison roof and ordered them to shoot the men assembled in the courtyard.
Just as the gassing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 was the clearest example of Saddam Hussein’s brutality, so Abu Salim is the atrocity which defines Colonel Gaddafi’s 42-year misrule.
Over the last four years, the families in Benghazi have demonstrated every Saturday, demanding justice and answers. Where are the bodies? Who was responsible? Who will pay?
When their lawyer, Fathi Terbil, was arrested on 15 February, they came out again, but this time, thousands of others joined them. This was the spark that lit the fuse in Benghazi.
“We, the Abu Salim families, ignited the revolution,” he told me. “The Libyan people were ready to rise up because of the injustice they experienced in their lives, but they needed a cause. So calling for the release of people, including me, who had been arrested became the justification for their protest.”
Mr Terbil still fears for his life, believing that Colonel Gaddafi’s agents could still be in Benghazi.
Every day more photos appear outside the courthouse, where Benghazi’s new anti-Gaddafi administration is based.
Some families have been so terrified for so long, they’ve never before dared to admit that their relative had disappeared.
After Colonel Gaddafi gave up his weapons of mass destruction – and compensated the Lockerbie families – he was rehabilitated internationally. Tony Blair came to visit. The Colonel travelled to Italy. But people I’ve met in Benghazi are not prepared to forgive and forget.
They blame him for the murder of their sons and brothers, and this uprising is their demand not just for freedom, but for justice.