|Haraga (C) and cellmates Mohammed Tukmak (L) and Mohammed al-Busufi (R) spent a decade in prison [Evan Hill]|
Anwar Haraga was 26 when men from Libya’s Internal Security agency came to his door in Tripoli one night.
It was 1989. Haraga was newly married and had just returned from five years of study in England. He was heading toward a promising career in computer engineering.
But Haraga had a problem. He wore a beard and traditional Arab Islamic clothes, and he prayed regularly. In Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, that made him guilty of zindaka, or heresy, a crime prosecuted zealously by Gaddafi’s internal security forces.
Haraga was taken to Abu Salim prison in southwest Tripoli, home to more than 1,000 political prisoners and fellow “heretics”. He spent the next 11 years in custody.
During his time in Abu Salim, Haraga said, he also bore witness to one of the most notorious episodes in Libya’s modern history – the massacre of hundreds of prisoners in 1996.
Though Gaddafi himself alluded to the killings eight years after the fact, the Abu Salim massacre has always been shrouded in mystery, a cornerstone in the opposition’s hatred for the regime. Families in Benghazi began regular protests in recent years over the lack of information about the killings, and it was the arrest of Fathi Terbil, a human rights lawyer representing some of the Abu Salim families, that sparked demonstrations in February that swelled into a revolution.
Libyan human rights groups outside the country say up to 1,200 inmates were killed, out of a population of roughly 1,700. Only a few witnesses have come forward; one spoke to Human Rights Watch in 2004 and 2006. But the Libyan government has never given a detailed account.
Haraga, who recently returned from Manchester to aid the revolution against Gaddafi, spoke with Al Jazeera on Friday evening just outside the cells where the killings allegedly took place. He was touring the prison with a former cellmate, Mohammed Tukmak, revisiting his own cell for the first time since arriving in Gaddafi-less Tripoli.
Haraga offered new details about the events that led to the massacre, and a first-person account of the horror. Details of his story are corroborated by the accounts received by Human Rights Watch.
The three mujahideen
It all began in the summer of 1996, Haraga said, when guards brought in three new prisoners. Like other Libyans, the men had traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Russian invasion and, later, against other groups of mujahideen. At some point during the conflict, they had been arrested by Pakistani authorities and extradited back to Libya.
Haraga remembered it clearly – the men were placed in Cell 9, Block 4. Each block extends roughly 10 cells deep in either direction off of a main corridor. Each cell held around 25 men. Haraga and his cellmates were in Block 2.
Before the new men arrived, 13 inmates had escaped from Cell 7 in Block 1, and prison conditions had deteriorated. The inmates received only plain pasta in meager portions. Guards beat them when they left their cells for any reason.
The three men decided to escape, Haraga said. They were mujahideen; they had gone to Afghanistan prepared to die. They were not going to waste away in prison.
On Friday, June 28, they set their plan in motion. It was 4:30pm, and guards were delivering dinner. In line with protocol, one unarmed guard went into the block to deliver the food room by room, while an armed contingent waited outside. The food delivery guard carried keys to the entire “political wing” of the prison, where the 1,700 men were held.
When the guard reached Cell 9 and opened the door, the men rushed him. They seized the keys. Hussein al-Shafai, a prison cook who gave one of the only accounts of the massacre to Human Rights Watch, said the guard and a colleague were taken hostage. Haraga said the man somehow escaped.
The three prisoners hurriedly began to open cell doors in their block, then moved on to others. One man came to Block 2 and tried key after key. None would open the door. It was that stroke of fate that would save the lives of Haraga and his companions, Haraga said.
The men managed to open Blocks 3 through 6; only Haraga’s block and Block 1 remained shut. Haraga could hear the voices of the freed prisoners echoing outside his cell.
Prelude to a massacre
After half an hour, Amr al-Masalati, the now-deceased prison warden, arrived and announced that anyone who left his cell would be shot. By that time, armed guards had swarmed onto the prison’s roofs.
Each block was separated from the other by an open courtyard overlooked by high windows in the cells. Nowadays, the courtyards are roofed by metal mesh and floored in concrete and tile; in 1996, there was no barrier, and the ground was mere sand. As prisoners tried to find means of escape, guards looking down into the courtyards shot dead seven men, Haraga said.
Soon, Abdullah Al-Senussi, Gaddafi’s head of military intelligence, arrived and angrily ordered a stop to the shooting. Muftah al-Diwadi, a well-known prisoner, was appointed to negotiate with Senussi. According to Human Rights Watch, he was joined by three other representatives.
“Tell them all to go inside their cells and close the doors, or I’ll call in two jet fighters and bring this place down around your head,” Senussi was said to have told Diwadi, Haraga recalled.
Diwadi relayed the prisoners’ requests. They wanted better food, visits from their family and legal due process. Few of the men, if any, had seen a judge or been properly brought before a court and charged.
Senussi first told the men to hand over the seven dead prisoners and 120 inmates who were seriously infirm. The sick men were put on buses and taken away. Haraga said they were never seen again; he and other inmates presume they were killed.
As the negotiations continued, Senussi was speaking regularly with Gaddafi, Haraga and his companions were told.
Before dawn, guards broke down the door to Haraga’s block and went cell to cell, breaking off the locks. The commander treated the men gently, placing his hand on their shoulders.
“My son, go out, take your shoes and blanket,” he said.
‘They were killing our brothers’
Block 2 contained around 270 people, according to Haraga and Tukmak. Along with a similar number from Block 1, they were led out into a walled courtyard separating the political wing of Abu Salim from the military wing, where servicemen were held. Bright arc lights illuminated the courtyard, and armed guards stood atop the walls. Anti-aircraft guns pointed down at the inmates. They were ordered to stand facing the walls. Haraga thought they were about to die. Men recited the Koran softly.
Instead, the men were led into the military wing, intentionally separated from those they had bunked with before, and put into new cells.
Shafai, in his account for Human Rights Watch, gave a different description of which blocks were separated and why, but he agreed the men in Block 2 had been shifted to the military wing. According to some accounts, Block 2 survived because the men held there were considered “low-security,” but Haraga said it was simply because the escaped inmates could not open the door to their hall.
At 7:30am, Haraga and his new cellmates received a stunning breakfast of coffee, milk, bread, cheese and eggs. It was better than anything they had eaten for years. Some men had forgotten the taste of eggs. Some still thought the treatment was a precursor to execution.
Then, around 10:45, they heard a distant explosion. A second blast followed. According to Shafai, guards on the roof had thrown at least one grenade.
Then came the sound of constant automatic gunfire, for around two hours. It sounded like soldiers in training, Tukmak said.
“We knew what was happening 100 per cent,” Haraga said. “We knew they were killing our brothers in other cells, so we thought they would kill us too. Some people were crying, some peopel were vomiting.”
After two hours, the gunfire quieted. Around 15 minutes of sporadic fire followed, as the gunmen killed the survivors, Haraga said.
Shafai said the armed men, dressed in special khaki uniforms with green bandanas, were moving among the bodies with pistols.
A guard who lived in Haraga’s neighbourhood – and who had informed Haraga’s family he was in Abu Salim after first seeing him there – told Haraga the day after the shooting: “Your brothers were killed”. They were buried inside the prison, he said. When Haraga and the inmates asked other guards, they refused to talk about what had happened.
According to Shafai’s account, the escaped prisoners had been convinced or forced to gather in the courtyards between blocks. Haraga believes they were told they would hear an announcement from Senussi. The doors behind them were then barred shut, and the shooting began, Haraga said.
The smell of new paint
Shafai said the bodies were buried and cemented in a construction trench in Abu Salim but later removed.
Haraga and the others were kept in their new cells for three months with only the blankets and shoes they had brought with them the night of the attempted breakout. After complaining to guards, they were allowed to return individually to Block 2 to retrieve mattresses and other belongings they had left in their cells. The door to the next block was shut, Haraga said, but he could smell new paint.
After the shootings, conditions improved. There were fewer beatings and better food, but family visits were totally banned, “so nothing would go out of this prison”, Haraga said.
Like other Libyans interviewed by Al Jazeera, Haraga said that care packages continued to arrive for dead inmates whose families were never told of their relatives’ fate. When Haraga was released in 2000, he informed some families himself. The brother of at least one of Haraga’s prison friends who had disappeared after the shooting still has not told his mother, Haraga said.
Standing outside the cell he occupied until the day of the shooting, Haraga said the memories of long prison days and nights came flooding back.
In prison, he memorized the Koran and other books. Though he fell a decade behind in his technical studies – he came out of prison in 2000 with no knowledge of Microsoft Windows, for instance – he went back to school in England and earned a master’s degree in network security.
He rode into the capital with the rebel Tripoli Brigade on August 21 and plans to return soon to Manchester.
“I don’t feel sad or regret for what’s happened, but I feel as a Muslim, it’s from God,” Haraga said.