The flatbed trucks are the first sign of trouble. They are empty going from Misrata to Sirte; in the opposite direction they are loaded with cars, stacked sideways to fit as many as possible.
The next sign is a bit more blunt. At Sirte's Mahari beach hotel civilian volunteers are removing dozens of bodies from the lawn close to the beach.
There were at least eighty of them, says Faraj al-Hamali, who worked at the Mahari’s restaurant. On Sunday, Human Rights Watch counted 53. On Monday, the last of the bodies were being removed to a nearby cemetery.
“They were executed by the rebels from Misrata,” says Mr. Hamali. “These rebels are worse then Qaddafi.”
According to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, “it is by far the largest single killing allegedly perpetrated by the Libyan rebels.”
Who the victims were is not so easily determined. They appear to have been killed three to four days ago, around the time that Muammar Qaddafi was captured and killed as he tried to escape from Sirte.
Hamali says many of them were civilians from Sirte. Other Sirte residents identified four of the victims to Human Rights Watch as Ezzidin al-Hinsheri, allegedly a former Qaddafi government official, a military officer named Muftah Dabroun, and two Sirte residents, Amar Mahmoud Saleh and Muftah al-Deley. Journalists in Sirte when it fell on Thursday saw former rebels pulling apparently unarmed people our of houses.
Who shot them?
What seems beyond doubt is that they were executed. The bodies were all lined up on the hotel lawn and there are no signs of a gun battle other than the spent cartridges from AK-47 and FN-1 rifles.
The identity of the killers is only slightly less certain. They left a calling card -- dozens of graffiti slogans claiming the hotel for the Nimr Katiba (Tiger Brigade) from Misrata, the same brigade that captured and killed Qaddafi on Thursday.
The Tiger Brigade has controlled the Mahari hotel since early October and lost two of its top leaders in the fierce fighting over the hotel.
“This is the revenge of Misrata,” says Hamali. Misrata is a coastal city to the north that withstood a six-month long siege by Qaddafi's troops.
Downtown Sirte was a ghost town on Monday. The fighting here was fierce, but it doesn’t explain why not a single house seems to have been left untouched.
Haj Otman Belhaj, a rebel commander from a different Misrata fighting group, says: “We would destroy a building if there was a pro-Qaddafi sniper holed up in it. But the Tiger Brigade, they would just blow up buildings for the hell of it.”
On Dubai Street, Sirte’s main drag, a young man in a red hoodie strikes a lonely figure amidst the devastation. Every single building is riddled with bullets and grenade holes, and the entire street is flooded.
“My name is Qaddafi,” he says, referring to the tribe that Muammar Qaddafi belonged to.
“I returned three days ago with my brothers. We were among the last ones out; we were the first to come back in. We had no choice; we were living in tents in the desert.”
But on the second day, the young Qaddafi ran into rebels from Misrata, easily recognizable because they all paint their vehicles black.
“As soon as I told them my name, they threw me in the water, beat me up and kept me for a day until a rebel from Benghazi got me released,” he says. “Qaddafi never did this to me.”
Three rebels come strolling up through the deserted street. From Brega and Ajdabiyah in the East, they say it is their job to protect the civilian population.
“We have had to ask the rebels from Misrata to treat the civilians better,” admits Hathiya Ali Salim Jadren, from Ajdabiya. “But Sirte is now mostly under the control of units from the east and from Sirte itself. Only a handful of units from Misrata are left. It should be okay now.”
Sadik Ahmed Mohammed, dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt that says ’81 Miami,’ is not reassured.
“At night the rebels from Misrata come back. They race through the streets shooting their guns,” says the young man, standing on a corner in his ravaged neighborhood.
Dozens of civilians like Mr. Mohammed returned to Sirte on Monday, but most of them only came to see what could be salvaged from their houses. Few were planning to stay the night.
“We need water and electricity in Sirte, but most of all we need security. We are all afraid of the rebels from Misrata. Somebody needs to take their guns away from them,” says Mohammed.
In one of the few intact government buildings in Sirte, Salah Al-Baida and Adil Nasr sit behind a huge desk in a deserted meeting room. Mr. Baida is the chief of the Sirte brigade, rebels from Qaddafi’s hometown who joined the fight against him. Mr. Nasr is his second in command.
At first, they say the usual things.
“We are all Libyans now.... the destruction is the result of the fighting with Qaddafi’s troops... we don’t know who was in control of the Mahari hotel.”
Tentatively, Nasr admits, “the rebels from Misrata did many bad things out of revenge. But we don’t blame them because we know that the Qaddafi troops raped their women.”
Then Baida gives his second in command the nod and Nasr lets go.
“We are happy and sad at the same time. We are happy that we have won the fight over Sirte, but we are sad to see what has been done to our city.”
“I am from Sirte but I fought in Misrata for months. My brother was arrested because Qaddafi’s people found out about me. We haven’t heard from him since. But the Misrata rebels have destroyed whole streets.
“Most of the destruction that you see in Sirte has been caused by the rebels. They destroyed even my house. That was unnecessary. We haven’t seen our families in months; now we can’t even bring them home. No house in Sirte has been left untouched: what NATO didn’t bomb, the rebels from Misrata finished.”
“There are bad rebels. They are thieves. They have stolen everything from the cattle to the garbage trucks. We have to start from nothing.”
They have spoken to the military council in Misrata, but all they said was that they were powerless to control the brigades.
“When the revolution began many people in Sirte loved the rebels from Misrata. Today it will be very difficult to find a single person from Sirte who loves Misrata,” says Nasr.
“They can do what they want with Qaddafi and his soldiers. We have no problem with that. But if the rebels act in the same way as the Qaddafi troops then the revolution has been for nothing.”
“Tell the world what’s happening in Sirte, urges chief Baida. “The NTC and the international community have to do something for Sirte.”
At the cemetery where the victims from the Mahari hotel are being buried, Bouckaert agrees.
“We know that what happened here is not the intention of the National Transitional Council,” says Bouckaert, “but it is clear that there are units operating outside their control.”
Earlier, the rebels from Misrata declared that the inhabitants of Tawargha, a city of 30,000 mostly black Libyans, would not be allowed to return to their homes because many Tawarghans sided with Qaddafi the fight against Misrata.
“These actions are inconsistent with the NTC’s international obligations,” says Bouckaert. “The NTC now has a short window to prove that this war was also fought for the people of Sirte, and that there will be no mass vengeance.”
Back in Misrata, Halbous brigade commander Haj Otman Belhaj, is aware of the challenges ahead.
“Now that Qaddafi is gone our main job should be to protect the civilians against vengeance.”