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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.
 
 
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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.

 
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