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How the Memory of a Prison Massacre Helped Ignite the Libyan Revolution

Journalist Lindsey Hilsum examines the notorious Abu Salim prison massacre and how the memory of its brutality pushed Libyans to throw off Gaddafi's rule.

Photo Credit: The Penguin Press

From Sandstorm by Lindsey Hilsum.  Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © Lindsey Hilsum, 2012.

 

I walked into the comfortable, middle- class living room in Benghazi and knew immediately that this would be a less than comfortable encounter. It was early March 2011, and the revolution wasn’t yet a month old. There were some twenty people sitting on the plump sofas that lined the walls, men on one side of the room, women on the other, each silently holding up a portrait photograph pasted onto a board. These were the Abu Salim families, relatives of men who had been murdered in Colonel Gaddafi ’s most notorious prison. A stooped, elderly man, wearing a traditional dark red fez and huge black- rimmed glasses which dwarfed his thin face, came forward to speak. Fouad Assad Ben Omran described how every two months he used to make the long journey to Tripoli, taking food and clothing to his brother-in-law in Abu Salim.

“I used to go to Tripoli with his wife and children. His son was seven and his daughter five when we started,” he said. “We took the basic thing she needed and gave them to the guards. They told us he was there, but we weren’t allowed to see him. We used to spend a day or two at the gate. We did this for fourteen years before we were told that he was dead.”

That haunted me for days after the meeting; it haunts me still. A massacre is somehow an imaginable horror. But fourteen years of false hope, the deliberate not- telling, allowing the families to keep faith that one day their men will come home when in fact their bodies were lying in an unmarked pit, cemented over, possibly yards from where they queued up to deliver their baskets of food and piles of clean clothes, seemed to me cruelty of a different order. Repressive governments frequently make their opponents, or imagined opponents, “disappear,” and families dwell in limbo for years, never knowing what happened to their sons and daughters.

That is a particular kind of agony. Others live with the pain of knowing that someone they love is in prison, being tortured, maybe never to be released. Or they weep as they take delivery of a shabby parcel of belongings and learn that their relative has been executed or died under mysterious circumstances in custody. The Abu Salim families’ not knowing combined all of this into an extraordinary aggregation, wrought by a regime so callous that it encouraged its citizens to keep visiting the prison, to keep bringing comforts they could ill afford, which it knew would be stolen, long after it had murdered their husbands and sons.

On June 28, 1996, 1,270 men were killed in Abu Salim. No official list of the dead exists. The number has been gleaned from families who knew their son or brother was in the wing of the prison where the massacre took place, and from eyewitnesses. There may be more, because some families never knew that their relatives were in Abu Salim, or maybe fewer, because many men died of hunger, disease or torture before the massacre. In a country where families are large, and tribal connections bind together those separated by distance, such a massacre touches tens of thousands of people. In eastern Libya, where most of the victims came from, nearly everyone I met seemed to have a relative who was killed there. Some were Islamist fighters who had taken up arms against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime while others were just religious men who went to the mosque too frequently, and so came under suspicion. Some had been arrested just a few weeks before the massacre while others had been inside for years.

It’s hard to imagine the terror of that day. While protesting about their conditions the prisoners killed a guard they were trying to take hostage. The officials sent to negotiate agreed to improve conditions, and sick prisoners were loaded onto buses, apparently to go to the hospital. When they were led into the yard, the remaining prisoners believed that their demands had been met. What happened next was like canned hunting, in which big cats are caged so hunters have a better chance of making a kill. Soldiers positioned on the roof shot into the crowd in the yard until none was left alive. Blood splashed up the walls, and the noise of gunfire echoed across the neighborhood surrounding the prison. The smell of death lingered for days.

I knew none of this before I went to Libya. None of the people in that living room had spoken to a journalist before. Each held up their picture and pronounced the name of the person they had lost, followed by the word shahid, meaning martyr. A plump woman in a full black abaya stepped forward. “My brother was a normal person, practicing his religion, attending prayers and studying the teachings of Islam,” said Faiza Ahmed Zubi. “He never did anything unacceptable or out of the ordinary. The day he was arrested, he was bringing the shopping home. They stopped him in the middle of the street on January 12, 1993, and from that moment on we didn’t see or hear from him again.” Everyone listened in silence as she told her story, even though they must have heard it a hundred times before. Faiza had heard rumors of the massacre four years after it happened, when released prisoners came to see her. “They told us that the walls were covered in bullet holes; they saw body parts and other proof that a massacre had taken place,” she said. “They told me my brother was among the martyrs.”

In 2009, the government presented the family with a piece of paper that said simply that her brother had died in Tripoli in 1996. No details, no cause of death, no admission of guilt. She had already joined others in approaching a young lawyer named Fathi Terbil, who encouraged the families to protest. “For more than four years we’ve been out there almost every Saturday demonstrating and demanding our rights. First, we want the bodies of our martyrs, and second, we want the criminals who killed our sons brought to justice.”

I asked what kind of justice.

“I want Gaddafi, his sons, and all those who helped him to be killed,” she replied, her face impassive, her voice steady.

“Kill them all?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Is there no other way? ”

She shook her head.

“No.”

As we said our good- byes another woman thrust a small blue envelope into my hand, the kind used by old- fashioned photography shops. I opened it in my hotel room and found a faded color passport picture of a round-faced boy with thick black hair in a cream shirt, and a similar- size photograph of an older man with white hair, wearing a black fez and a traditional black robe, a jird, fringed with gold brocade. A closer look reveals that he is sitting in a wheelchair. His legs, which are covered in white bandages, have been amputated at the knee. A father, a husband, an uncle? How did he lose his legs? Was he already disabled when they threw him in prison? I keep the pictures in my study. The boy and the old man stare out at me: people I never knew, victims of a crime I never heard about until long years after their killers tossed their bodies into an anonymous mass grave.

. . .

For years, anyone who mentioned the Abu Salim killings risked arrest or worse. But Seif al-Islam Gaddafi , the Brother Leader’s second son, realized in 2007, when he was trying to open Libya up to the world, that the massacre could no longer be ignored. The families would never forgive and forget. Their pain and anger had to be acknowledged and diffused in some way, so he tried to engage with them, under the auspices of his Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. The campaign of the Abu Salim families was personal for the lawyer Fathi Terbil. His brother, cousin and brother-in-law were killed in the massacre, so when other families asked him to represent them he couldn’t say no. He had a plump figure and always wore a baseball cap and a black- and- white checkered kaffiyeh; he had never married, devoting his time to unpopular and dangerous human rights cases. He knew he was taking a risk by championing the Abu Salim families, but it was his cause too.

Sometimes he would demonstrate alone, outside the Benghazi courthouse, sometimes with the families. He was arrested seven times. When the state finally admitted to the massacre— nearly a decade after it had taken place— most of the families rejected the paltry compensation offered. Terbil understood that they needed to know every detail: who had given the orders; who had carried them out; where the bodies were buried; who had decided to lie to them for so long about what had happened. As the regime tried to cauterize the running sore that was Abu Salim, it had no choice but to deal with him, but he remained, in its eyes, a dangerous agitator.

In February 2011, Libyans were looking west and east, to their immediate neighbors Tunisia and Egypt, hearts in their mouths. It was called the Arab Spring by those observing it, but the unrest was more like a fever, spreading from person to person, town to town, country to country across North Africa and the Middle East. It had started in Tunisia, where the government of Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali was toppled after twenty eight days of ferment. In Egypt, it took just eighteen days to oust Hosni Mubarak. Both fell on a Friday. As Libyans planned their Day of Rage for Thursday, February 17, the joke went around the Middle East that Muammar Gaddafi had banned Fridays. They chose the seventeenth because it was the anniversary of demonstrations that had happened in Benghazi in 2006, when people protested against the Danish newspaper that had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. As Muslims, many Libyans found the cartoons insulting to their religion, but when the demonstrators also started to shout slogans against Gaddafi , the police tried to stop the protest. The police shot into the crowd and eleven people were killed.

This time the authorities in Benghazi wanted to stop the protests before they started, so on the afternoon of February 15th, two days before the planned demonstration, twenty- four police officers arrived at Fathi Terbil’s house and arrested him. Word quickly spread, and far from deterring the protesters, it spurred them on. The moment they heard the news, instead of waiting until the seventeenth the Abu Salim families immediately went to the police station where Terbil was being held to demand his release. Benghazi, in eastern Libya, had long been a center of resentment against Colonel Gaddafi’s rule, but as the number of protesters grew, the authorities dithered. They were determined to stop an Egypt- style uprising, using force if necessary, but taking on the Abu Salim families was especially difficult. For a start, most of them were elderly women.

After midnight Terbil was taken to see an apparently nervous and confused Abdullah al Sanussi, Colonel Gaddafi ’s brother-in-law, who was not only the head of military intelligence but also widely regarded as responsible for the Abu Salim massacre, the man who had assured the prisoners that their demands would be met. He promised to release Fathi Terbil but requested that he tell people to stop protesting. But it was too late. By then the families had been joined by other lawyers, as well as by doctors, engineers and hundreds of other people. Even if Terbil had wanted to tell them to stop, no one would have listened.

I met Fathi Terbil a week after the uprising. He was brought to see me in my hotel room in Benghazi— smuggled in, because he feared that his life was still in danger from lingering Gadaffi loyalists in the town. By releasing him, the regime had revealed its vulnerability, but now Colonel

Gaddafi’s men were fighting for survival, and would show no restraint. Terbil had long thought this moment would come. He saw Abu Salim as just one of dozens of issues that made Libyans angry and ashamed. The list was long. Gaddafi had, for example, started a war in neighboring Chad, which most Libyans saw as futile and in which thousands of Libyan soldiers had perished. He had spent the country’s money on schemes in sub-Saharan Africa while Libya’s infrastructure crumbled. He had sponsored terrorist groups around the world in pursuit of his idea of worldwide revolution.

Now the accumulation of grievances had toppled over, like a huge pile of documents. Fathi Terbil’s arrest was the last file thrown on top, causing the whole lot to collapse.

“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.”

Throughout the sixteenth, after Terbil was released, the crowds in Benghazi kept growing, their chants swelling through the night. “Rise up oh Benghazi, the day you have been waiting for has come!” they shouted, and— in a persistent echo of Egypt and Tunisia—“The people demand the fall of the regime!” During the years they had been forced to demonstrate in praise of Gaddafi, the standard slogan was “God! Muammar! Libya! That’s all we need!” Now they changed it, crying: “There is no god but God, and Muammar is the enemy of God!” Abdullah Sanussi met local committees, Gaddafi’s enforcers, to encourage them to crush the uprising. A video of a meeting shows a roomful of men each more eager than the next to show loyalty to “our father,” meaning Gaddafi . Sanussi is dismissive of the rebels. “They’re mostly alcoholics and drug addicts who have no family,” he says. “We’ve described these recent events to The Leader, and reassured him that ‘Benghazi is your city, the people are up to the task.’ ”

Unconvinced, The Leader sent his third son, Saadi, to sort out the problem. It was a strange choice— Saadi was hated in Benghazi like nowhere else because of what had become known as the Football Revolution eleven years earlier. Football was always a fraught issue in Libya—people were passionate about it but fans were permitted to refer to players only by number, never by name, in case any became stars whose popularity might exceed that of the Brother Leader, Gaddafi himself. All, that is, apart from one player— Saadi.

Gaddafi ’s football- mad son fancied himself a great midfielder, and in the late 1990s was appointed not only as captain of the national team, but as owner, manager and captain of Tripoli Al-Ahly, a first- division team in the capital. Unfortunately, Benghazi had a team by the same name. Saadi decided that this situation could not continue— the team might have been in existence since 1947, but Benghazi Al-Ahly must be no more. Fans of the team say he set about destroying it by buying the best players and bribing referees, until it sank to the point where it was about to be relegated from Libya’s Premier League. Then, on a hot day in July 2000, when one too many penalties had been awarded to the opposing side, the fans had had enough. They booed. They shouted. They invaded the pitch. They spilled out into the town, burning pictures of Gaddafi and— this being what angered the Gaddafi s most— parading a donkey dressed in a football jersey bearing Saadi’s number.

Punishment was swift and severe. About eighty fans were arrested, some held for years and tortured in custody. That might have been the end of it, but on September 1st, the thirty- first anniversary of the coup that brought his father to power, Saadi moved decisively against the team. Soldiers driving bulldozers were sent to destroy Benghazi Al-Ahly’s clubhouse, while people were reportedly forced to watch and cheer. Saadi went on to play without distinction, and only very occasionally, for a couple of Italian teams, in a rare deal whereby the player pays the team rather than the other way round. The men of Benghazi nursed their resentment and bided their time.

What triggers the moment when people lose their fear? A sense of humiliation as much as anger drove people out onto the streets. For four decades they felt ashamed of having a leader who made them a laughingstock. Westerners might see Libyan religiosity and conservatism as a throwback to earlier times, but they saw themselves as modern people. In recent years an increasing number had traveled abroad to study or work, so they knew how other countries were developing economically and politically. Under the influence of satellite TV the society was gradually growing more open and cosmopolitan, but Libyan politics never changed. Gaddafi defined Libya, and Libyans began to feel like aliens in their own country.

Among the demonstrators in Benghazi on February 17th was businessman Ali Raslan and his fifteen- year- old son, Idris. He told me the story just after I arrived, when I was staying at his home in Benghazi— like others in those early days, he happily accommodated journalists in the belief that getting the news out was the best way to ensure that the revolution would not be reversed. His was a middle- class life, with a comfortable, large house full of marble and soft, ornate furnishings and frequent business trips abroad. At first he was reluctant to get too involved, but his son Idris insisted not only that they should demonstrate, but that they should go right to the front. Among Gaddafi’s forces that day were a number of black men wearing yellow hard hats, who most demonstrators believed to be mercenaries from sub- Saharan Africa. It was the first time I had been told that Gaddafi was using foreign as well as homegrown fighters, something that fueled Libyans’ anger and would store up trouble in the coming months. The crowd swelled, and the men in yellow hats began shooting. As everyone began to shriek and run, Ali ran too, and he lost sight of Idris. By the time he got home he was full of dread. He found his brother at the door and knew immediately that the worst had happened.

Ali’s bottle- lens glasses misted up as he spoke. He looked bewildered.

“Idris was my favorite son. He used to come on private business trips with me— I took him to China and Turkey. I treated him like a friend. Now I will never hold him again.”

He showed me a photograph of a handsome boy, with dark hair, in a smart blue shirt.

“Idris died in the defense of freedom, and for an end to Colonel Gaddafi,” he said. “God is good.”

When interviewed a few weeks after the uprising, Saadi Gaddafi denied that he had given the order to shoot into the crowd the day Idris was killed. His uncle, Abdullah al Sanussi, is believed to have been commanding the forces in Benghazi as they did their brutal best to quash the uprising. A cycle of funerals began, as more people turned out in mourning than had attended the original demonstration, and of them still more were killed, as Gaddafi’s gunmen attacked those who were grieving. Four months later the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno- Ocampo, issued a warrant for Sanussi’s arrest. There were reasonable grounds to believe, it said, that— once instructed by his brother-in-law, Colonel Gaddafi — he had directly ordered troops to attack civilians demonstrating in the city. If that could be proven, the prosecutor said, it was a crime against humanity.

 

Lindsey Hilsum is the international editor for Britain's Channel 4 News, and has been covering major international events like the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Rwandan genocide for over 20 years.
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