For Libyans, photos of the dead recall their sad history

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 21, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — In the main square of this coastal city, portraits of the dead cover every wall.

The photos show old men and young men. Some were killed in battle just this week. Others perished a decade ago or longer, in Moammar Gadhafi's notorious Abu Salim prison. At least one woman is among the faces.

This makeshift memorial is where Benghazi families can, for the first time, share their private heartbreak over the victims of Gadhafi's 42-year rule in the newly renamed Freedom Square. Similar displays are springing up in other cities, grim illustrations to the Libyan story of suffering and, finally, rebellion.

"I'm so angry to see all these faces, how many he killed," said Wilad al Shukri, 68, whose two sons died in Abu Salim prison and are included in the Benghazi memorial. "It was not only my sons, but generations of Libya's sons. God willing, we'll have a museum one day, but not now. People are still dying."

International aid workers say at least 850 people from Benghazi and the surrounding area were killed in the uprising that began here in February. More than 1,300 are still missing, and bodies still arrive daily from fierce battles for the last Gadhafi loyalist strongholds, where local men are fighting alongside brigades from other parts of the country.

A national death toll from the violence is impossible to pin down. Libya's interim authorities have said the tally is as high as 30,000, but that number can't be independently verified, and humanitarian groups warn that it could be inflated because of the lack of a central accounting mechanism.

Saleema al Gatous has one son among the portraits at the square and another at home in recovery after a bullet tore through his lung in May. The son who died, she said, was incinerated when a rocket struck the truck he was riding in with four other fighters on July 15 in the oil hub of Brega, a particularly tough battleground.

The men's ashes were buried together in a single unmarked grave, Gatous said, so she visits her son's portrait in the square as a substitute for a burial site. His name was Hassan Abdelfattah, and he was in his final year of geology studies at a local university.

"The last time I talked to him, I asked him, 'My darling, when will you come back?'" Gatous said. "He told me, 'Mom, it doesn't look like I'll be coming back.'"

The hundreds of photographs in Freedom Square are labeled with dates of births and deaths, but few details of what happened in between. Families of the "martyrs," as the dead are called here, personalize their relatives' displays with photos of their children, the pre-Gadhafi flag adopted by the revolutionaries, or verses from the Quran.

Many of the photos are juxtaposed with images of Omar Mukhtar, the beloved resistance leader who fought the Italian occupation and was executed 80 years ago.

By now, there are so many portraits that new ones are plastered over the old as empty surfaces grow scarce. An 8-year-old boy who said his name was Mohamed struggled to move a large, heavy framed portrait from behind others that had been stacked in front of it. A passerby asked what he was doing.

"I want my father to be seen," he whispered before disappearing into the crowd.

At night, the square can be a haunting place, with so many eyes peering from the walls. There are life-sized posters of very young men posing with the bravado of newly minted soldiers, in camouflage uniforms and carrying rifles in their hands. Others are frozen in their civilian clothes, such as Waleed Tawfiq, a baby-faced 16-year-old wearing a denim jacket. He was killed May 11.

"It's a strange feeling when I look around here," said Mona al Fitory, 17, a high school senior who had tears streaming down her face as she looked at the walls. "They're so, so young. Some are even younger than me."

She led a visitor to another corner of the square and pointed to a portrait of a man identified as "Gibril Ali al Fitory, martyred 1993."

"He's my uncle, but I never knew him," she said. "He was killed before I was born."

At dusk one evening, Farhat Milad, 42, and his wife, Kamla Hassoun, 39, brought their six young children to the square to show them the photo of their uncle, Milad's brother, who died in Abu Salim, a crowded, notoriously filthy and brutal prison in Tripoli where Gadhafi sent his political prisoners. In 1996, prison guards set up sniper nests and killed as many as 1,270 of the inmates during a protest over conditions.

"This is the price of Libyan freedom, and they must know that," Milad said. "Because of them, my children will breathe fresh air."

"I look at these photos and think what's worse is how they were killed, the suffering," Hassoun said. "But now that we see Libya becoming freer, it eases the pain."

The family didn't flinch when gunshots rang out and calls of "God is great!" filled the floodlit plaza. The bodies of three new martyrs had arrived in the square. Their photos are sure to follow.

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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