Photographing the final days of Gaddafi and his last stronghold
“It is a conflict that still gives me chills every time I stop to look back at my old photographs, or when I remember those unimaginable sunny days and the cruelties human beings are capable of inflicting on one another in the worst of times.”
In February 2011, anti-government protests began in Libya, inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Months later, the demonstrations turned into civil war as forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi faced off against armed opposition groups.
Brazilian photographer Mauricio Lima travelled to Gaddafi’s hometown in October 2011, where he witnessed some of the most memorable events of the Libyan conflict. He recounts the last days of the Battle of Sirte and the day the former leader was killed.
In October 2011, Sirte, the hometown of late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was the last stronghold of his loyalists after seven months of civil war between the Libyan army and anti-Gaddafi forces. It is a conflict that still gives me chills every time I stop to look back at my old photographs, or when I remember those unimaginable sunny days and the cruelties human beings are capable of inflicting on one another in the worst of times.
When I arrived in Sirte – where I would spend about 20 days on assignment covering the final days of the war – the monochromatic beachfront town was almost completely surrounded by anti-Gaddafi forces, dominated by ‘katibas’ (squads) of men only – adults and youths – with a few stray dogs to distract them amid the chaos.
The young fighters had a sense of joy about them – just for the opportunity to be a part of the fight. Some, clearly inexperienced, seemed to be there for fun regardless of the high risk of being killed. They carried their AK-47s as casually as they did their mobile phones and cigarettes, many wearing only sweatpants, tank tops and sandals. They walked around, relaxed, near the front line, next to tanks confiscated from Gaddafi soldiers or disfigured pick-up trucks with heavy artillery loaded on the back.
The five daily prayers were important for some. Normally, these are times when everything stills, when the only sounds you hear are of people standing, kneeling, and prostrating – their breath and the friction of their bodies moving against the air. But in Sirte, these holy moments were punctuated by the sound of incessant gunfire mixed with a thirst for revenge as the fighters moved forward in their battle to control more territory.
The last battles
The final assault into Sirte began at the main highway, called Coastal Road, about 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) from the city centre, led by two different groups from Misrata and Benghazi, comprised of civilians – experienced fighters and novices – and mercenaries, who were the apparent leaders of some of the katibas.
Under a stunning blue sky, I walked alongside the anti-Gaddafi squads as they advanced into Sirte. We passed by looted compounds, a destroyed concert hall, and a crowded hospital where patients – most likely residents and loyalists of the falling government – were lined up along corridors without the guarantee of assistance.
Outside, the silence of the empty streets was only broken occasionally by the sound of ambulances carrying rebel fighters to a makeshift hospital set up by anti-Gaddafi fighters just outside Sirte. There was also the constant, though hidden, presence of pro-Gaddafi snipers who were the main threat dominating the daily routine.
Days later, after several intense battles had been fought and the rebels were halfway to the city centre, I was on the rooftop of a residential building near some teenage fighters who were taking selfies and photographing each other while shooting their rifles and machine guns. Young and inexperienced, they were better with their cameras than they were with their guns. But neither one could help them when the bullets and rockets from the pro-Gaddafi side landed. Right beside me, one of the teenagers and a middle-aged man were shot in the chest and the leg. They were evacuated immediately, seemingly lifeless.
Later, the fighters from Misrata reached a street called Dubai Road, where a fierce battle took place for a few days. There, the rebels caught a scared man in an olive jacket, alleged by them to be a Gaddafi loyalist. By instinct, the moment a fighter raised a knife to the man’s throat, I picked up my camera. But suddenly, from behind me, a group started shouting excitedly. Although I did not speak the language, I knew they certainly meant for me to stop. Sometimes, in tense situations, you don’t need language to understand if you are accepted or not. So, I stepped aside, watching as the man was put into a pick-up truck by his captors and driven away, leaving only a dense cloud of dust in the air behind him. The remaining fighters, who were initially angered by my presence, laughed in celebration. I don’t know what happened to their captive, but I doubt he is around to read these words today.
The battle at Dubai Road was a key point for the Misrata fighters advancing towards the centre of Sirte from the south. Gaddafi loyalists were putting up a tough resistance. But the rebels, apparently larger in number and using the surprise tactic of moving forward when bullets were incoming, managed to advance. One katiba from Benghazi started squeezing out pro-Gaddafi fighters block by block from the east, until they reached a residential area through the broken gate of a destroyed school. This was followed by an intense firefight at an intersection of residential compounds that lasted the whole afternoon. In an attempt to kill a couple of snipers shooting at them from further down on the other side of the street, the Benghazi fighters almost hit one another with their AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
Meanwhile, not far from the corner, some rebel fighters laid their weapons down on a wall and rested on the sidewalk amid the debris of ammunition around them. They almost looked like they were enjoying a weekend at the beach, without any worries, as they waited their turn to rejoin the fight.
Nearing the end
By then, the end was near. Nearby, in a two-storey compound with large balconies facing the ocean, I smelled something unusual and soon discovered what it was: corpses already wrapped in white sheets, ready to be buried. I remember counting 10 to 15 bodies in two separate rooms on the building’s top floor. All of them men. Only their faces visible. Some with several bruises. Around them, there were dry traces of blood on the floor.
The only sound I heard was the hum of flies around the bodies. I didn’t know who they were; maybe fighters, maybe civilians, it was difficult to be sure. But most likely Gaddafi supporters, as fallen rebel fighters were quickly evacuated from the front line. Days later, there was news that 340 unidentified bodies were buried in a mass grave by two Sirte residents; perhaps these men were among them.
In the compound, there were a couple of abandoned radios, chargers and a green lighter, left next to messy blankets, pillows and broken beds – perhaps used by the men in their unsuccessful attempt to survive. There was an eerie silence, together with the strong odour of decomposing bodies in the warm temperatures. So I left.
This was October 19, the day before Gaddafi was discovered elsewhere in Sirte, captured and killed.
When the news of his death reached our position, some three or four blocks away from where it happened on October 20, the euphoric fighter next to me conveyed that Gaddafi had been hit by an air attack while trying to escape Sirte early that morning. He was reportedly injured during the attack, had managed to hide himself and a few bodyguards alongside a road but got caught in a pipe under construction, and was killed by rebel fighters.
The anti-Gaddafi fighters carried his body away on the back of a pick-up truck to a makeshift hospital nearby. From there, it travelled by ambulance to Misrata, the closest city to Sirte where basics (like water, electricity and the internet) were, somehow, still working. The fighters wanted to celebrate the end of the government by parading Gaddafi’s dead body through the streets and finally putting it on display inside a refrigerated container that the public could visit.
I travelled to Misrata to document it. The surreal moment brought thousands of Libyans to the city, all waiting in a long line for countless hours to see in person, and for the last time, their former leader, without his traditional brown turban and robes.
The powerful man who had ruled their country for more than 42 years was suddenly gone, left wearing nothing but simple trousers, his body – bruised by shoes, knives and other wounds – laid out on a thin mattress inside a refrigerator at a vegetable market, on display as a trophy for those who killed him.
Inside the space, smiling countrymen gathered, pushing each other in an attempt to get the best angle for their proud souvenir selfies with this man they had strongly disagreed with. They finally – albeit temporarily – felt truly euphoric: This was the last time Gaddafi would appear in public, and he would never have power over them again.