Can Libya’s people be protected if Qaddafi stays?
Libya's rebels, many of whom have stories of loved ones lost to Muammar Qaddafi's regime, are driven by his legacy of torture, murder, and disappearances.
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His brother was held at Qaddafi’s notorious Abu Salim prison. In 1996, when rumors began to leak out of a massacre of inmates there, the family feared the worse. But the government said nothing, so his mother continued to send care packages of food and clothing to the prison, hoping they would get through.
The murder was only confirmed for the family in 2006, when a tearful stranger knocked on the door. Recently released from Abu Salim, the man said he’d been eating the food sent for Saud’s brother for the past decade. An official notice of death was issued to the family only in 2008, though his body has never been returned.
“This is why the slogan, ‘We win or we die,’ is so powerful,” says Saud. “It’s not just words. My brother’s fate will be repeated for lots of us if we lose.”
Eyewitness account of Abu Salim massacre
Nour el-Din al-Sharif was an eyewitness to the 1996 massacre at Abu Salim, which has since been well documented by Human Rights Watch and others. Mr. Sharif became a Qaddafi opponent while a student in London, and was present at the 1984 anti-Qaddafi demonstration at Libya’s embassy in London when British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher was shot and killed by one of the Libyan embassy guards.
In 1989, Qaddafi offered an amnesty to his foreign opponents, and Sharif took him at his word. “I thought the ground for making a change was here [in Libya], not outside,” says Sharif. Nevertheless, he was soon arrested and spent the next 13 years at Abu Salim.
On June 28, 1996, a group of Islamist prisoners furious at their treatment seized two guards and demanded better conditions.
Shooting erupted, with about a dozen prisoners and one guard killed. Then Abdullah Sanussi – Qaddafi’s brother-in-law and his chief of internal security – arrived and ordered the shooting to stop. He met with emissaries from the prisoners to hear their complaints.
Shortly thereafter, Sharif and a group of about 40 members of the secular opposition were blindfolded and taken to a holding room inside the prison.
“We thought we were the ones about to be killed,” he recalls. “But, well, it turns out it was to save us. We had friends in the outside world; killing us would have caused problems for Qaddafi. The political Muslims didn’t have those kinds of friends. The only crime for about 95 percent of those guys was that they were very religious.”
The next morning, he says, Qaddafi’s guards opened fire on groups of prisoners who’d been herded into courtyards.
'Qaddafi is a murderer of sons'
Among the dead was Fateh al-Araibi, a close prison friend of Sharif’s, who was arrested at age 17 soon after an aborted trip to join the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1987. “He never made it out of Peshawar,” says Sharif, referring to the northern Pakistan city near the Afghan border. “He lasted a month there – he realized he didn’t want to hold a gun.”
Mr. Araibi’s mother has been at the Benghazi courthouse most days, near the tent erected for the victims of Abu Salim, with hundreds of faded portraits of young men who disappeared there.
“You have to understand this history to understand what drives us now,” says Sharif. “Qaddafi is a murderer of fathers, of sons.”