My Walk through the Valley of Death

By Di Giovanni, Janine | Newsweek, October 24, 2011 | Go to article overview

My Walk through the Valley of Death


Di Giovanni, Janine, Newsweek


Byline: Janine di Giovanni

When Janine di Giovanni arrived in Libya, she hoped to find a triumphant nation basking in newfound freedom. Instead she was confronted with a land haunted by the ghosts of Gaddafi's reign of terror.

When I first arrive in Tripoli, long past midnight on a hot September night, driving in from the Tunisian border, the smell of burning rubber permeates everything. Near Fashloom, the first neighborhood to rise up against Gaddafi, there are a row of littered, desecrated shops and a scarecrow of the dictator hanging from the electricity wires.

There is also the flag of the new Libya--modeled after the one from the days of King Idris--flying. The restaurants and shops are not yet open, but there are tea sellers with vast silver pots working street corners. Even at midnight, there is heavy traffic, mainly soldiers sitting in the back of trucks, and everyone seems to have a gun. The sound of AK-47s firing in the air--in celebration, not war--is unnerving. And it is constant.

And people are tentatively coming back. The borders are packed with some of the million expatriates now returning after nearly four decades in exile. They gape at their old neighborhoods. Some are here to find out their own secret histories, some to open up old wounds, some to discover exactly what happened to people they loved who died under Gaddafi's rule.

In one southern Tripoli neighborhood, Yarmuk, the stench of death lingers after 45 people were summarily executed.

Yarmuk was once a place full of Gaddafi pride, and the base for his 28-year-old son Khamis's political and military headquarters. His was the feared 32nd Brigade, an elite "protection military unit" of 10,000 men.

Khamis's HQ was behind 12-foot gray cement walls wrapped with barbed wire, with an enormous entrance topped by an imposing eagle. Local people say it was a son's pathetic attempt to model his base after his father's elaborate compound, Bab al-Aziziya. Khamis means "Thursday" in Arabic, and some Libyans joke that Gaddafi's son had an inferiority complex about his name and that there was constant infighting between all the male heirs about who would succeed their father as the next Libyan dictator.

A month on, Khamis is believed to be either killed in battle or in hiding with his father. His former compound is now filled with weeds growing in the fierce Mediterranean heat. But the fear in Yarmuk remains because people still remember when they heard bullets in the night, and the sound of men screaming, in the last days of the fall of Tripoli.

There are places in the world, like Srebrenica in Bosnia, like Hama in Syria, where the ghosts of death linger long after the event. You smell them and you see them even before you arrive: these are haunted places. In a small field, part of the compound, belonging to the 32nd Brigade, a guard leads me to a corrugated-iron warehouse, terra-cotta colored, about 30 feet by 50 feet. I'm not so far away when I begin to feel a familiar sensation: something evil happened here.

The guard says it was used for farm supplies; someone else says auto supplies. There is an exploded pickup truck with the Khamis Brigade insignia, and the field is scattered with objects the prisoners left behind--a single sandal, perhaps lost while fleeing; a plastic bag of toiletries hanging on a nail in the wall--but otherwise the place is eerily silent.

It was here the Khamis Brigade killed the detainees--some of them innocent men--on Aug. 23. At one point, at least 150 were crammed into the warehouse, without water or sanitation, in the raging heat.

Instead of releasing the men, Khamis himself arrived, according to survivors. He gave orders. Then the killers tossed grenades into their crammed cell, then machine-gunned them, then tried to get rid of the remains by pouring gasoline around the cell and burning it. Two days later, witnesses who came across the warehouse told Human Rights Watch that they saw the smoldering remains and, outside the warehouse, two corpses. …

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