Slowly they’re trying to fix up their shattered and looted homes overlooking the sharp blue of the Mediterranean and to pick up the pieces of their lives, one heavy concrete block at a time. There’s a bizarre quality to the scene: on one side gutted, shell-pocked villas and streets strewn with trash and rubble, the other a pristine beach and sea luxuriating in bright North African sun.
That isn’t the only sharp contrast. By day District 2, a once-prized, well-to-do neighborhood in Colonel Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, has a buzz of renovating activity with children playing here and there in the streets. But by night there’s gunfire and the danger of being targeted by gunmen presumably wreaking revenge. District 2 was one of the last pro-Gaddafi holdouts during the uprising.
Now, nine months after Gaddafi’s ouster, the district is getting some life back–60 percent of the families who fled during or after the fighting have returned, say locals. But getting back to something approaching normal is proving hard.
“I don’t know why they killed my son,” laments Almadany Alfadeel, a small-time jeweler. Standing in his tiny store, he explains what happened on the evening of June 6 to his eldest son, Abdul Gadar Almadany. While he talks with frequent invocations to Allah, two of his son’s three kids, a 7-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl, observe wide-eyed, half-comprehending.
“He dropped off a friend from the coffeehouse and as he turned his car, two other cars blocked him in and masked gunmen jumped out and shot him five times,” he says. It was just yards from the family house. The 64-year-old suspects his son’s death squad–style slaying was a reprisal killing, assuming someone thought he had sided with Gaddafi during the uprising. “He didn’t fight for Gaddafi. We are from Gaddafi’s tribe, but that is all.” The Foundation of Sirte, a local NGO, says that Abdul had no record of having been an active Gaddafi loyalist.
Abdul isn’t the family’s only loss. Two other sons, Hassan, 33, and Ashraf, 31, disappeared on Oct. 12 and remain missing, despite the family’s efforts to find them. Brandishing pictures of his sons, he says, “I want to find my missing children. If they are dead, they should tell me so I can bury them.”
Last October, Sirte became a vicious battlefield. Hundreds died—and no one has exact figures.But local human-rights activist Hassan Alsbaey, who was seized by rebels and held several days after pleading with them to stop killing and looting, says he witnessed more than 600 being buried in mass graves. Civilians, many of whom had been prevented by Gaddafi loyalists from fleeing were caught in the crossfire. Rebels claimed they found 42 bodies in three farmland pits, all civilians, they said, shot by Gaddafi loyalists.
But death did not end when rebels finally conquered District 2 after a ferocious fight. Six days after Gaddafi was captured trying to flee Sirte, where he had hidden in villas in District 2, executed bodies of suspected loyalists were turning up, by some accounts as many as 267. Alsbaey says he saw 53 dead, laid out in rows on the sea-view lawn behind District 2’s Mahari hotel after their execution, apparently by rebels—an incident that prompted an international outcry.
Some in the district hold fast to pro-Gaddafi sentiments. Hand-scrawled slogans are around, and they appear to have been daubed on walls since Gaddafi’s ouster, judging by their freshness. One announces, “Gaddafi Is Everlasting.” Another says, “Gaddafi Is the Conscience of the World.”
Maybe the public display of pro-Gaddafi sentiments acts as a goad for the killings. Whether they do or not, shootings continue. On June 7, an assailant gunned down local man Abdel Qader Madani and then sped off. On June 30, there was another murder of a District 2 man similar in manner to the killing of Abdul Gadar Almadany.
District 2 residents are wary of speaking openly about the killings. They shake their heads politely when asked or walk away saying they are too busy to talk. They are not unfriendly, just guarded. Their nervousness isn’t misplaced: hovering menacingly nearby, a new white pickup truck circles several times with the driver monitoring a Danish TV reporter and camerawoman as they film.
Standing near a villa Gaddafi may have hidden in, Nouri Alworfally, 30, has no doubt the killers are militiamen from the hardcore anti-Gaddafi town of Misrata two hours away. “They think this is Gaddafi’s city. They think anyone from Sirte is a Gaddafi person,” he says, drawing on a cigarette. He tells of young men being snatched by militiamen and taken to Misrata. “I am afraid to leave the city and go to Tripoli. You have to pass through checkpoints and the moment the Misratans see you are from Sirte, they abuse you,” he says. He denies that people in District 2 knew that Gaddafi was hiding among them last October, but he makes no pretense of his dislike of the uprising. And he’s not alone. Sirte’s turnout in last weekend’s landmark elections was one of the lowest in Libya, just 53 percent.
“Working on human rights here is very scary,” says activist Alsbaey. He too seems reluctant to talk, explaining apologetically there are dangers from both pro- and anti-Gaddafi loyalists. “There’s a security void here. There is vengeance.”