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A Libyan town reckons with its past horrors and uncertain future

‘People were buried alive. Whole families were eliminated.’

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Wadah al-Keesh is used to handling dead bodies; fighters and civilians abandoned on Libya’s front lines. But a decade after the violent revolt that unseated Muammar Gaddafi – and after yet another year of fighting – recovering people from mass graves in a town notorious for brutal violence against civilians is different.

“The first body I touched, I felt intimidated,” recalled 31-year-old al-Keesh, one of a 30-member government forensic team combing through Tarhouna’s fields and emptied prisons. “The body was so decomposed that if you didn’t carry it carefully, it would break.”

It wasn’t just the fragility of the human remains – left out or buried longer than he was accustomed to – that startled him. It was the eerie emptiness of the town.

During 2019 and 2020, Tarhouna became a strategic base for eastern forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army, as they tried to take the capital, Tripoli, from the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). When al-Keesh arrived in June 2020, the clashes had just petered out. Around 16,000 people had recently fled Tarhouna – some 60 kilometres south of the capital – and its surroundings.

“It was a ghost town,” al-Keesh told The New Humanitarian. “People were afraid [to go back].”

For years, Tarhouna had been ruled by a militia known as the Kaniyat – believed to be behind a series of atrocious crimes, including torture, killings, and forced disappearances. Among the many militias involved in Libya’s civil war, the Kaniyat has the dubious distinction of having served on both sides. Led by Muhammad al-Kani and his brothers, it vaguely backed the GNA before switching in 2018 and retreating east with Haftar last June. 

 
 
 

Since then, al-Keesh and his team have been trying to identify the dead and get a handle on what happened in Tarhouna’s secret torture chambers. Others are busy searching for relatives; at least 350 people have gone missing from Tarhouna since 2014. Many more – most having taken refuge in eastern Libya – wonder if they’ll ever be able to go back.

For Elham Saudi, co-founder and director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, Tarhouna typifies years of traumatic conflict in the country: Foreign powers meddle as they please; lawless militias see no consequences for their crimes; in the end, civilians pay the price. 

“Tarhouna embodies a horrible truth about Libya’s… conflict and the culture of impunity: a reality where armed groups commit violations and then leave the scene,” she said. “Then victims [are also forced to flee], pressured into accepting a reality that they didn’t create.”

Libya’s warring factions have mostly kept to a ceasefire signed in late October, and earlier this month a UN-facilitated process agreed to an interim government. But many question the viability of this government, which is supposed to set the groundwork for elections this December. Key questions – like who will run a united Libyan armed forces – remain unanswered, as do calls for justice and reconciliation.

Timeline: Libya’s decade of wars and displacement

This matters in Tarhouna, where grievances from Libya’s latest conflict – inextricably linked to those from the revolution against Gaddafi 10 years ago – continue to simmer and could bubble over into violence yet again.

“People are demanding a judicial investigation,” said al-Keesh, who has seen firsthand the horrific results of what happened in Tarhouna. “They want to know who is responsible for these crimes. They ask for justice.” 

For Saudi, before places like Tarhouna, and Libya as a whole, can begin to move forward, wrongdoers must be made to answer for their crimes – something that hasn’t happened at all so far.

“There is a constant pressure to ask the victims to forgive, accept, or recover, and to be brave, and to take the steps necessary for reconciliation for the country,” she said. “But there is not the same amount of pressure on the perpetrators to be held to account.”

What happened in Tarhouna

So far, 139 bodies have been found across 27 locations in Tarhouna, according to Kamal Abubakr, head of Libya’s Authority for the Search and Identification of Missing Persons.

But numbers don’t tell the full story of what happened in and around the town, where the al-Kani brothers are accused of meting out cruel treatment to those who opposed their rule or who fell afoul of them in some other way.

“People were buried alive. Whole families were eliminated,” recalled Tareq Ibrahim Mohammed Dhaw al-Amri, a 48-year-old father of four who told TNH he was detained for more than seven months in a small cell in al-Daam prison – one of several locations where the militia is alleged to have held and tortured people.

Today, abandoned clothes, socks, and photos lie on the prison grounds in front of a defaced mural of Mohsen al-Kani, another of the brothers, referred to sarcastically as the “Minister of Defence”.

 

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Two pair of muddy shoes – a pair of sneakers and low-heeled pumps – lie on the grass and are pictured from above.
Nada Harib/TNH
Abandoned shoes of a husband and a wife who investigators say were shot dead at a Kaniyat detention centre, in Tarhouna, Libya.

 

The Authority for the Search and Identification of Missing Persons was established in 2011, both to identify human remains from the conflict that brought down Gaddafi and to investigate human rights violations during his 42-year rule.

While Abubakr insists the authority is neutral, it has received funding from the GNA and has been affiliated with previous governments. It sent al-Keesh’s forensic team to Tarhouna in early June to look into the recently discovered mass graves. They have been working non-stop since, with bodies found stacked inside a local hospital morgue, left in prisons, and buried in a reddish-brown field that has yet to be fully excavated.

Former prisoners like al-Amri believe they were imprisoned because of allegiances that go back to at least 2011. Al-Amri took up arms against Gaddafi as part of a group that eventually found itself aligned with the GNA. When the al-Kani brothers joined forces with Haftar, that put him and his two brothers in the militia’s sights.

“From time to time, they would take men from their cells and shoot them. We would hear the sounds of shooting,” al-Amri recalled of his time in the prison.

Migrants – of which there are around 600,000 in Libya – were also kept in al-Daam prison, and were forced by the militia to carry out tasks they reckoned the Libyans couldn’t be made to do, according to al-Amri and three other sources.

 
 
 

Faraj Asgheer, a resident of Tarhouna and a member of the recently created Association of the Families of the Missing, told TNH that a member of the Kaniyat militia had confessed that some of the migrants detained in the prison were used to bury the bodies of other victims.

“They let them out for half an hour, enough time to do the dirty work, and then brought them back,” Asgheer said. “They exploited migrants to bury bodies, or load ammunition, and a lot of other dirty tasks.”

Several Tarhouna residents, in addition to al-Amri, told TNH their family members had been targeted because of political beliefs that dated back years, because they spoke out against the militia, or because they had money or property the al-Kanis and their fighters wanted.

Abduladim Jaballa said 10 of his male relatives were either killed or went missing. “They were targeted because they opposed the militia, or because their family had supported the 2011 revolution,” he said. “They were killing people, and then seizing their money and property.”

The flight from home

People began to flee the clashes around Tripoli in April 2019 – around 200,000 people across the country left their homes during the course of the conflict, including around 16,000 from Tarhouna and the surrounding district. By the current mayor’s estimate, the town itself has a population of around 70,000, but other sources put it closer to 40,000.

Many of those who left Tarhouna were fleeing the fighting and the constant danger – as a Haftar base, the town was an important target to take back for the GNA. Some of these people have since returned to Tarhouna, although it’s not clear how many.

But others left with the Kaniyat as it retreated to Haftar’s eastern stronghold of Benghazi. Among those who left were those who fought with the militia, or were perceived to have supported it or benefited from the al-Kanis’ time in power.

Muhammad Ali al-Kosher, Tarhouna’s interim mayor, told TNH there are around 1,500 Tarhouna residents now in Benghazi and another eastern city, Ajdabiya, who he considers “fugitives” from justice rather than displaced people as he alleges they were involved in murder, kidnapping, and other crimes.

 

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A man is seen sitting behind a large wooden desk in an office.
Nada Harib/TNH
Muhammad Ali al-Kosher, the interim mayor, in his Tarhouna office, on 5 January 2021.

 

But much like some residents were singled out by the Kaniyat for their past and present political affiliations, some people who left their homes in Tarhouna believe they did nothing more than pick the wrong side.

“I feel as if I am a stranger in my own country,” said Muhammad Jibril, a 43-year-old mechanic who left Tarhouna when forces allied with the GNA took over mid-2020.

Initially, Jibril thought it was just a short-term move as fighters allied with the government had asked him to evacuate because rockets might fall in the area. “I left with just a few things,” he said. “We didn’t know where we were going until we reached Benghazi.”

Now living nearly 1,000 kilometres from his hometown, he holds out no hope of returning soon. “I am from a family that is loyal to Haftar,” he said. And according to friends who have been back in Tarhouna, Jibril is now wanted by the GNA-aligned forces that run the town.

And then there are families like Nawal al-Tarhuni’s, split in two by the conflict.

Al-Tarhuni ran from her home amid last year’s clashes in Tarhouna and is sheltering with her two sons and several other displaced families in an unfinished building in Tripoli.

 
 
 

“Half of my brothers supported the Kaniyat; half did not,” she explained. “[One of my brothers] went east, and we’ve not heard from him since. I still don’t know if he is alive or dead.”

Al-Tarhuni said the war had left her husband sicker, her sons traumatised, and her family torn apart.

Whatever reason people had for fleeing Tarhouna, returning, for most, is far from easy. Some fear retribution from their former neighbours and friends, while others have been put off by mines or homes destroyed in the war.

Those who do come back find a town where the municipality has no money and is unable to provide basic services – the hospital has been looted, its ambulances stolen. Houses have been damaged or ruined during fighting, and with mines and other explosives left behind, danger could be around any corner. Al-Kosher told TNH he had asked for money from the GNA to get Tarhouna going again, but his requests have gone unanswered.

Justice delayed

The fighting has largely ended, but after so much violence it’s not just families like al-Tarhuni’s who are at odds with one another. The town of Tarhouna, and Libya as a whole, remain bitterly divided.

Fear of falling victim to this anger is one factor that leads people like Jibril to believe their exile will become permanent. He has reason to worry. Around 48,000 people from the western town of Tawergha, mostly of an ethnic group of the same name, were forcibly displaced during the 2011 revolution. They were accused of having backed Gaddafi and participating in atrocities like rape and murder, even though most of those uprooted were civilians.

Despite reconciliation agreements that were supposed to allow them to go back, their hometown remains largely empty and destroyed, leaving them among the some 316,000 Libyans who are still displaced inside the country.

 

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The image shows a line of people looking at pinned images on a hospital wall, their backs to the camera.
Nada Harib/TNH
Families look at photos of items found with corpses unearthed in the mass graves in the hope of identifying loved ones at Tripoli University Hospital, on 11 January 2021.

 

Libyan officials insist they do want to hold those behind the worst atrocities to account. “Justice for war crimes, whether through Libyan or international judicial institutions is needed,” GNA Defence Minister Salahedin al-Namroush told TNH.

But the truth, despite such comments – and numerous calls to investigate or help from the international community – is that any meaningful justice seems a long way off.

The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya from 2011 onwards, but it’s unclear if any cases will ever go to trial.

There has only been one visit from an ICC delegation, last December. A separate UN investigation, meanwhile, is stalled due to a lack of funding.

Read more → UN cash crunch still delaying Libya rights abuse probe

For the time-being, local groups are unable to do much more than carefully collect and preserve bodies and evidence; both for their own records and for any Libyan or international trials that might take place at some point in the future. And even this is difficult.

Although bodies are being recovered from mass graves or other sites, the Authority for the Search and Identification of Missing Persons doesn’t have the funding to test their DNA in Abubakr’s Tripoli lab – he said more than 6,000 bodies found across Libya since 2011 haven’t been identified.

In Tarhouna, of the 139 bodies found, only 23 have been identified, and that is by family and friends recognising their clothing or identifying marks. The rest are being kept in two Tripoli hospitals where some personal belongings are on display, in the hope that people looking for lost relatives spot a familiar watch or wallet.

 
 
 

Even as Libya’s politicians talk optimistically of government formation and elections as early as December, Tarhouna’s recent past has already come back to haunt the present – to the surprise of almost nobody here.

In late January, after the funerals of a few people who had been identified from the mass graves, frustrated locals burned down the homes of several families perceived as having supported the Kaniyat.

Saudi, of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, warned that moving forward without truly interrogating the past – as the interim government seems now to be doing – is dangerous and simply not good enough for a country that has been suffering conflict on and off for a decade.

“A process that does not include vetting for human rights violations and war crimes at its core, it’s not an adequate process for the appointment of Libya’s next executive,” she said. “The system is designed from the top down not to hold people accountable.”

 

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A woman in a headscarf walks out of an office room holding a document in her hand – several men are seen in the background.
Nada Harib/TNH
A woman leaves the Authority for the Search and Identification of Missing Persons office in Tarhouna, on 5 January 2021.

 

Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch, also believes it is a mistake to try to turn the page without greater efforts to reconcile the past.

“Intermittent armed conflicts and political rifts in Libya since 2011 resulted in the collapse of central authority, the division of the country, and have prevented institution-building processes, which in return have had a devastating effect on civilians,” said Salah. The process “needs to include a clear commitment to accountability for serious crimes, as the failure to see justice done will impede prospects for durable peace.”

Any justice must include people like 35-year-old Zainab al-Ganouti, who has been struggling to raise her six children alone since February 2018, when she says her husband Ali and his brother were kidnapped outside their home.

“I need to find the body of my husband,” she told TNH, having just filed a report to document his disappearance with the municipality in Tarhouna.

Today, she lives in their partially destroyed home, even though it has no furniture and not much else.

“My children ask me every day [about their father]. What should I tell them?”

With local reporting support from an individual whose name is being withheld due to security concerns.

All images by Nada Harib for TNH.

Voiceovers by Linda Fouad and Mohammed Ali Abdallah.

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