Libyan prisons grow as rebels pursue their enemies and questions arise about the missing

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 18, 2011 

TRIPOLI, Libya — The last time Hussein Ibrahim Saleh saw his brother Jamal was more than one month ago. On Saturday, Saleh received confirmation that his brother was body number 531 in a cemetery for fighters loyal to former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in Misrata, 120 miles east.

"He left Tripoli on August 10 to visit our brother in Hisha," Saleh said, referring to a town taken over by rebels two weeks ago on the road between Misrata and Sirte, one of the cities where fighting continues between fighters loyal to Gadhafi and the rebels that deposed him last month. "He was missing since then."

The majority of the more than 800 bodies and sets of remains in the "pro-Gadhafi" cemetery are without names or identification other than digital photos of their faces taken by the volunteers who run the cemetery. Many of the bodies have simply been left at the cemetery by the rebels to be buried, with no information about where they were killed or found.

In a revolution where rebel fighters have banded together in local groups answerable only to the communities they come from, much remains unresolved. One emerging problem is the apparent persecution of black Libyans and non-Libyan Africans, which has resulted in at least one instance of racial cleansing, as rebels from Misrata have pursued residents from the nearby predominantly black village of Tawergha, which many Libyans say offered support for Gadhafi. Residents also fled a predominantly black neighborhood in Misrata.

Prisoners from Tawergha captured in Tripoli after they fled fierce fighting in and around the village before it was taken by rebels August 15 have been taken back to prisons in Misrata, with the aid of rebel units in Tripoli. Likewise, the pro-Ghadhafi cemetery has become a burial point for bodies of those killed between Sirte and Tripoli.

Jamal Ibrahim Saleh was simply one of those that fled the fighting, his brother said.

Misratan rebel units have developed a reputation for being tough fighters, after they battled a months-long siege of their city by Gadhafi's forces that left more than 1,000 dead and did serious damage to Misrata and the cities nearby before invading Tripoli in August.

"Yesterday, the leader of the military council in Garabulli asked a unit from Misrata to come and arrest people," said Hisham Embarika, a volunteer who runs the cemetery and one of the city's two prisons, referring to a town on the road between Tripoli and Misrata.

None of the 420 prisoners held at a secondary school-cum-prison in Misrata has been officially charged with any crime. There are no trials in sight. Embarika does not know the name of the justice minister appointed by the National Transitional Council, the rebel's nominal government in Tripoli. Embarika said that justice for those who had committed crimes against Misrata would be left to Misratans, not to a national government.

"Misrata will decide what to do," Embarika said.

The rebel units who have nearly fought their way to victory against Gadhafi's troops in Libya's bloody seven-month civil war have taken thousands of prisoners, some of which have been held since the revolution began on February 17.

Meanwhile, Embarika, like many of the volunteers across the country who have taken on sudden positions of power since the revolution began, is dealing with more pressing matters.

"We are preparing to move them to a bigger location," Embarika said. "We are continuing to receive prisoners from the revolutionaries and the national army."

One of those prisoners is Hamza Ali, a resident of Tawergha, who was arrested on Sept. 5 in Tripoli. Ali said he worked at the hospital in Misrata and wept openly after speaking about his pregnant wife. He said he spent 10 days at a prison in Tajoura, another rebel stronghold 10 miles east of Tripoli, before being transferred to Misrata. His wrists were pink, still raw from handcuffs.

The man who sat beside him, Abdullah Yousif, had similar marks on his wrists and a cut on the back of his head that was beginning to heal. Yousif said he was a former soldier in Gadhafi's army, stationed in Sirte, but that he had defected and fled to Tripoli with his family when NATO bombing began in March. He was arrested in Tripoli on August 12.

"The Misrata brigades are looking for people from Tawergha," Yousif said. "I was hit on the back of the head after they arrested me. They arrested me because I'm from Tawergha."

At least 50 men were arrested from a pair of refugee camps for Tawergha residents in Tripoli on Sept. 11 by fighters from Misrata. On Friday, 35 of them were in Shuhada Mgasbah, another school that serves as the city's other rebel-run prison, which now houses more than 500 prisoners. The fate of the other men was unclear. In addition to the two prisons in Misrata, the rebels hold at least 2,000 in four other locations in Tripoli.

The leader of a rebel unit in Souk Al Jumaa, a neighborhood on Tripoli's east side where residents had prepared for months to rise against Gadhafi's government when Misrata's rebels entered the city in August, confirmed that units from Misrata were searching for residents of Tawergha in Tripoli.

"Khamis Gadhafi's katiba was made up of people from Tawergha," Kara said, referring to the military unit led by one of Gadhafi's sons. "There are a lot of black people that loved Gadhafi because Gadhafi loved black people and gave money to African governments."

At a refugee camp for Tawergha residents west of Tripoli, a man named Feraj said residents of Tawergha were in hiding all over the country. He had fled first to a house in Tripoli and then to one of the camps that was raided on the 11th. He said that security for the camp's residents was being provided by a brigade of fighters from Ben Ghazi who were treating the Tawerghis well.

"We don't know what we'll do if they go back to Ben Ghazi," Feraj said.

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(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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