Libyans find mass grave, bodies of slain detainees

GALAA, Libya

Dozens of miles away, a search team has exhumed the bodies of 18 detainees who died on a hot summer day while locked in a shipping container by Gadhafi guards.

As Libyans cope with the aftermath of their six-month civil war, more evidence is emerging that loyalists of the former regime savagely abused and in some cases killed detainees just before fleeing from advancing rebel troops.

There's no proof of systematic killings ordered from above, but Gadhafi's incitement against the rebel fighters he called rats "opened the door for this kind of barbaric conduct," said Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch.

A warrant for Gadhafi's arrest, issued in June by the International Criminal Court, focuses on killings and arrests during the initial phase of the uprising that began in February and eventually toppled the regime.

If Gadhafi is ever caught and tried, whether in Libya or abroad, any new evidence of atrocities might buttress the case against him. For ordinary Libyans, the healing process from the war will be slow, with at least 30,000 believed dead and 50,000 wounded, according to the former rebels' health minister.

Many have suffered unspeakable trauma. Geography student Mohannad Berfat said he endured 10 days of beatings and electric shock in the shipping container-turned-prison in the coastal town of Khoms. Mohammed Ajal, a volunteer, helped dig up the mass grave in the Nafusa mountain village of Galaa in western Libya, only to find his father and brother among the dead.

Gadhafi and his loyalists are "monsters," said Ajal, 36, standing next to the grave site on the outskirts of Galaa, the stench of decaying bodies still heavy in the air.

Berfat, 22, said he is counting on divine retribution.

"God will punish them," he said of his tormentors, as he helped unload the remains of 18 fellow detainees from Khoms, including a cousin, who died June 6 but were found only Thursday.

Abrahams said he expects more atrocities will come to light. In Tripoli, dozens of charred bodies of slain prisoners were discovered after loyalists fled the capital in late August. The detainees had been held by troops commanded by Gadhafi's son Khamis. Some 4,000 people are missing across Libya.

Before the rebels' decisive August offensive, they only controlled eastern Libya, while Gadhafi held most of the west. Fierce battles raged around two rebel pockets of resistance in the west: the Nafusa mountain range and the city of Misrata.

As part of their deployment in the mountains, Gadhafi's troops were encamped in a center for boy scouts on the outskirts of Galaa, a village of about 7,000 people, in late spring and early summer. Residents said the loyalists seized dozens of men at checkpoints and in raids of nearby homes and detained them at their makeshift base.

Some detainees were eventually released, including postal worker Omar Huzar, 55, but scores of others disappeared without a trace after Gadhafi's forces fled the area in early July, residents said.

In mid-August, Abdel Gassem Kreir, a photographer in Galaa, said he saw cellphone video on YouTube showing a group of bodies, most of them bound and face-down, in a familiar-looking wooded area. Huzar, the released detainee, said he recognized some of the men in the video as fellow prisoners.

A group from Galaa, aided by a team from the Red Cross, began exhuming the bodies Aug. 20.

Kreir said the remains were still in the same position as in the video, and that a Red Cross forensics expert told him most had been shot in the upper back or head. The Red Cross said Friday it had dispatched the expert to help identify remains, not to try to determine how the men were killed.

Using brushes, members of the search team gently laid bare the remains in the shallow pit.

There were particularly painful discoveries. Ajal, one of the volunteers, found his father and one of his brothers. Kamal Grada, 31, discovered a younger brother. Although the bodies were in advanced stages of decay, 28 were identified, using clothing, keys and cellphone memory cards, according to searchers and the rebels' justice minister, Mohammed al-Alagi.

After 10 days of digging, the bodies were laid to rest Wednesday in a special cemetery in Galaa, each grave marked by a gray cement block. Large photos marked the graves of those who were identified, while the other graves remained bare.

Kreir set up a memorial and photo exhibit in the cemetery, including frame grabs from the cellphone video and pictures from the dig. Grieving relatives and village residents paid their respects Thursday and clustered around the photo exhibit.

Grada brushed the dust off a glass-covered photo in the exhibit, showing a row of bodies. He pointed to one corpse, lying facedown and wearing jeans, and said that was his brother, Abdel Hamid. "They are all brothers," Grada said of the dead, explaining the communal grief. "It's not just my brother."

A day after the Galaa burial, another search team found 18 bodies near a road construction site dozens of miles away. The bodies are believed to be those of 18 men who died June 6 in a makeshift Gadhafi detention center in Khoms, said Col. Salem Tweer, head of the former rebels' local military council.

On that scorching day, 29 detainees were being held in two shipping containers at the Khoms camp, said Abrahams, citing testimony from two survivors.

The guards had shot air holes into the containers, but the temperature inside the metal boxes rose rapidly. Banging on the walls, the detainees pleaded for water and air, Abrahams said. When the guards finally opened the door around 4 p.m., 18 men were dead and another died later, the researcher said.

Tweer said one of the guards was asked by his commander to burn the bodies, apparently to destroy evidence. Instead, the guard drove the bodies to the remote location and buried them, apparently because burning the corpses would have violated his Islamic beliefs, Tweer said.

On Thursday, the guard led Tweer to the burial site.

The team exhumed the bodies, wrapped them in plastic bags and trucked them to the morgue of the Tripoli Medical Center.

As the back doors of the truck swung open just after midnight Thursday, volunteers wearing surgical and gas masks against the stench loaded the bodies onto gurneys. A doctor unzipped each body bag in search of identifying signs, a difficult task considering the advanced stage of decay.

At one point, Berfat, the former detainee whose cousin died in one of the containers, was called over to help with an ID. He briefly lost composure, leaned forward and rested his hands on his knees, as if expecting to be sick.

It's not clear to whether new evidence of atrocities could lead to additional charges against Gadhafi.

Al-Alagi, the justice minister, alleged that the orders for the killings came from the top. At the least, he said, brigade commanders would be brought to justice.

The international court's prosecutor said recently he is unlikely to launch fresh cases, even though he has evidence implicating other members of Gadhafi's regime, including Khamis, the military commander.

Even as the search for the victims continues, Abrahams said the degree of savagery displayed so far is shocking.

"In other wars, it's often the enemy from other ethnic groups, a religious group or nationality, but this was Libyan on Libyan."

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