MAJAR, Libya — When late-night NATO airstrikes rained down on this hardscrabble farming village, then-leader Moammar Gadhafi's propaganda machine kicked into overdrive.
Closely monitored journalists were led on a tour of the site by sobbing locals, who pointed out powerful visuals such as a teddy bear or a woman's pink shoe amid the rubble. Regime officials claimed that the Aug. 8 strikes killed 85 Libyans, including many women and children — a fine example of "Western democracy," they sputtered.
The Gadhafi regime collapsed two weeks later. Now survivors of the Majar strike say that their heartbreak — so recently the tool of a desperate ruler — has been forgotten. They'd like compensation for the lost lives and property, they said in interviews this week, but most of all they're demanding answers to why NATO bombed them.
"I just want the truth," said a tearful Elmehemed Agil, who said his mother, sister and sister-in-law were among the dead.
The truth, however, remains elusive in Majar, as well as other sites in Libya where residents claim that NATO airstrikes killed civilians in the final days of Gadhafi's 42-year reign, and NATO has no plans for further investigations, NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said in an email.
"NATO does not have any troops on the ground in Libya and consequently no reliable method to verify the civilian casualty allegations," Lavoie wrote Tuesday.
NATO stands by its initial assessment that its precision-guided munitions hit four buildings and nine vehicles in what was described as "a military staging area," Lavoie wrote. He added that the site had been closely watched before the strikes and "a number of military or mercenary casualties were expected due to the nature of the activity we monitored."
In Majar, locals concede that the regime's figure of 85 dead was inflated, saying that that number included the wounded. They put the death toll at 35, and produced snapshots of 28 people they said were victims. Most of the photos were of young men, but there were older women and boys and girls as well.
It's still impossible to separate fact from fiction in Majar, where on a recent day some survivors appeared stilted and rehearsed in their retelling of the events, while others seemed genuine in their sorrow and anger.
A Western official in Tripoli, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity, said that even he wasn't certain about what took place. "It was a very confusing period," the official said. "There were disturbing reports that Gadhafi officials had arranged things in advance, but it was really difficult to say for sure."
On one hand, regime propagandists were notorious for exaggerating or inventing such incidents to tarnish the image of the revolutionary forces, whose success in toppling Gadhafi relied heavily on NATO air support.
On the other hand, experts on civilian casualties of war say that even the most surgical strikes run the risk of killing innocents. It's worrying to some humanitarian workers that NATO hasn't compiled figures for alleged civilian casualties or sought investigations at sites such as Majar.
"There's a huge problem in general with data in Libya, but in particular with response to civilian casualties caused by NATO, because there's no boots on the ground," said Kristele Younes, who visited the Majar site this week on a fact-finding trip for CIVIC, a Washington-based nonprofit group that focuses on civilian casualties of war.
"We hope they learn from their experience in Afghanistan and make sure they provide compensation and make amends for civilian losses," Younes added, referring to NATO.
It's apparent that support for the old regime runs high in Majar, a tiny community of farmers and small-time merchants nestled adjacent to the city of Zlitan, about 90 miles southeast of Tripoli, the capital. In Majar, not a single revolutionary flag flies, and Gadhafi-era graffiti in green paint still adorns some walls.
Survivors of the airstrike don't deny their evident loyalty to Gadhafi, but say that NATO was wrong in choosing its targets. They said four homes and buildings that belonged to private civilians were bombed, and they picked through the debris to show schoolbooks, hairbrushes, slippers and other items that suggested family life.
"There were no military targets. Nowhere. Not even nearby," said Attiyeh Jaroud, who owns one of the targeted buildings and said eight of his relatives perished in the strikes.
The Majar locals' version is this:
After 11 p.m. on Aug. 8, the first airstrike landed on the Jaroud home, where several men, women and children from an extended family were gathered. Some died instantly; others were trapped under the rubble with serious wounds.
Upon hearing the blast, Majar residents who were at a nighttime service for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan ran out of a nearby mosque and drove to the site to help in the rescue effort. A second strike killed and wounded many of the responders, the survivors said. The charred frames of their cars still littered the blast site. Apparent bloodstains were splattered across walls.
"When I got here, I saw horrific things. People burned; people cut in half," Jaroud said.
Farther up the road, a house that belonged to Ali Mufta Hamed also was struck. Hamed said casualties were even higher there because 10 families — relatives and friends from other cities — had taken shelter in the house after fighting forced them from their own homes. Hamed's wife lost a leg in the attack and is receiving treatment in Tunisia, he said. A vacant building on the same lot also was flattened.
One relatively intact room at Hamed's house is where the survivors keep framed portraits of 28 of the alleged victims, along with some shrapnel from the NATO bombs.
This week, Hamed's actions were nearly identical to his behavior when the former regime brought journalists to the site: He cried, threw up his hands, pointed to each portrait and asked: "Where's the human rights they always talk about?"
Hamed said he demands a full NATO investigation and, for each of the affected families, 10 times the compensation handed out to the relatives of victims of the 1988 midair bombing of a Pan Am passenger jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Gadhafi's government was held responsible for the blast.
"They killed us on our farms!" Hamed wailed. "What did the children do to deserve this?"
NATO's version, according to Lavoie's emailed response, is quite different:
Between 11:33 p.m. Aug. 8 and 2:30 a.m. Aug. 9, NATO carried out the strikes in Majar on buildings that Gadhafi forces used "to mount and stage attacks on the local civilian population." The strikes followed careful surveillance, Lavoie wrote, and were based on "clear intelligence" that the farm buildings were used as a staging ground for military operations, so it was unlikely that civilians were in the area.
Based on the level of destruction, he continued, it was likely that pro-Gadhafi soldiers and mercenaries had died. NATO forces, he said, are extremely careful to look for signs of civilian activity immediately before strikes.
"The allegation of civilian casualties made by the (Gadhafi) regime was not corroborated by available factual information at the site," Lavoie wrote.
The next day, Libyan television showed Gadhafi's son Khamis, who commanded a notoriously ruthless brigade that fought fierce battles against the rebels near Zlitan, visiting Majar victims in a hospital. Khamis Gadhafi stood at the bedside of one wounded man, inquiring about his injuries and wishing him a speedy recovery. He also reassured a bloodied, bandaged woman who spoke with difficulty.
"We welcomed the government when they came here," Jaroud said.
Nobody checks on the Majar residents these days. Their only visitors since the former regime's tour, they say, were a German photojournalist and a man who identified himself as a photographer from the office of Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council, which is now Libya's ruling authority.
Jaroud said that council delegates had met with some wounded residents who paid their own way to hospitals in neighboring Tunisia and were receiving some financial aid from the council. But there's been no talk about a fuller investigation or compensation.
They may not support the rebels, Majar residents said, but the revolutionaries aren't the focus of their anger.
"The most important thing is the truth: NATO bombed us," Hamed said. "During this revolution, no one else attacked us — neither Gadhafi's forces nor the rebels. Only NATO."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011