The warden didn’t leave room for ambiguity: Freedom was not an option, no matter what happened outside the walls, where the gunshots and explosions of a growing insurgency regularly shattered the evening calm.
“If we win, you’ll stay here for the rest of your lives,” said the man, a functionary of Moammar Kadafi’s government whom prisoners knew only as Khalifa. “If we lose, we will kill all of you.”
He seemed indifferent about which it would be.
Khaled Abu Harber, a 27-year-old doctor caught smuggling medicine to Libyan rebels, reckoned he was a doomed man. “I don’t think any of us thought we would get out alive,” he recalled.
Among the final sites in Tripoli to be liberated in August by the rebels who ended Kadafi’s 42-year reign was Abu Salim, an ominous citadel on the city’s southwestern edge.
Abu Salim was more than a prison: It was a brick-and-mortar embodiment of a dictator’s capricious sway over his subjects. Motorists avoided driving near it, as if it could draw them into a malevolent gravitational field.
But the notorious lockup also played a part in the revolt that finally toppled Kadafi. And as Libyans start rebuilding their society, it is taking on a new role — as a kind of memorial to Kadafi’s victims and a cautionary reminder of how a revolution can go astray.
“Everyone cheered for Kadafi when his revolution overthrew the king,” said Abdul Rahman Shengheer, a lawyer and former Abu Salim inmate, referring to the 1969 military coup that ousted King Idris. “We all thought Kadafi would be the one who brought us freedom. But look what happened. We must be sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
Long before the reeling Kadafi regime launched a desperate roundup of suspected rebels and sympathizers, swelling Abu Salim’s population, the penitentiary was infamous as a warehouse of humanity and a killing ground.
In June 1996, say human rights groups and survivors, about 1,200 inmates were killed after a prison uprising that infuriated Abdullah Senussi, Kadafi’s brother-in-law and, as Libya’s longtime security chief, his chief enforcer. Senussi, like Kadafi, is still on the run.
Anwar Haraga, 49, a computer engineer who now lives in Manchester, England, said he survived by chance. When the protest broke out, he had been in Abu Salim for seven years, probably because he wore a beard and clothing that made him look like an Islamist, he said. Leading the 1996 prison rebellion, he said, were Libyans who had fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. At the time, Kadafi viewed Islamists as his greatest threat.
Inmates angry about restricted family visits, poor conditions, lack of court hearings and other issues took several guards hostage, grabbed the keys and opened cell doors, according to witness accounts.
Senussi rushed to Abu Salim and promised to listen to the inmates’ complaints, prompting prisoners to return to their cells, witnesses said.
Haraga was among more than 200 inmates in a cell block where they were unable to open the cell doors, and he thinks that is the reason they were allowed to live. They were transferred to a separate wing and the next morning were served a sumptuous breakfast. They started hearing gunfire — multiple shots at first, and then single shots, which Haraga said survivors interpreted as prison guards “finishing off” other inmates. The gunfire lasted for more than two hours, he said.
“Your brothers are dead,” a guard told Haraga.
He was finally freed in 2000, reunited with his fiancee who had waited 11 years for him, and resumed his studies in England. He now has five children.
Witness accounts gathered later by Human Rights Watch and a Libyan opposition group said prisoners had been herded into several courtyards, and guards opened fire on them from rooftops.
Kadafi’s government never fully acknowledged the deaths. The prisoners’ disappearance was for years a taboo topic. But families pressed for clarification, even holding public protests, a perilous undertaking in Kadafi’s Libya.
In February, Kadafi’s men arrested a Benghazi lawyer, Fathi Terbil, working on behalf of Abu Salim families. Outrage over the lawyer’s detention, combined with the inspiration of Arab Spring uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, helped spark Libya’s Feb. 17 protest movement, which later erupted into armed rebellion.
Abu Harber, the doctor caught smuggling medicine; Shengheer, the balding lawyer arrested for providing material assistance to the rebels; and Haraga took up the fight in different ways.
The doctor and the lawyer were among thousands of rebel suspects scooped up in Kadafi’s chaotic final weeks. Haraga, meanwhile, filtered back into Libya and joined a rebel brigade.
When Haraga finally returned to his hometown, it was with the rebels streaming into the capital from Libya’s western mountains. After months of fighting, Kadafi’s defense crumbled surprisingly quickly.
In those final weeks, however, Abu Salim’s captives had no knowledge of when — or if — they would be liberated. The prison was a world unto itself.
The isolation began when detainees were brought in hooded, naked and handcuffed, Shengheer said. A “reception committee” methodically beat them and chanted pro-Kadafi slogans.
“Moammar is your master!” the guards shouted in a torrent of dignity-sapping verbal abuse. “Rats! Dogs! Traitors of NATO!”
Eventually, Shengheer said, he was unbound, issued prison clothes and placed in an 18-by-12-foot cell with nine others, many of them also professionals, part of the educated and business classes that Kadafi distrusted. Many had long ago tuned out the leader’s revolutionary rhetoric.
Each day, Shengheer said, inmates received one meal, typically a plate of couscous, and a 1.5-liter bottle of water. The lawyer said that during his 70 days in Abu Salim, he never left the rat-infested cell, and never saw sunlight, as he nervously awaited his dreaded interrogation.
“We knew the only way out was in a body bag or being liberated by the rebels,” Shengheer said during an interview at his home in a middle-class district of Tripoli.
During interrogations, prisoners were coerced with beatings, electric shock and other forms of torture to give the names of underground contacts, survivors said. Some would provide names only of people who had fled the country or who were already safely with the rebels.
Abu Harber said that after he was detained, he was taken to a police station, where an interrogator fired a Kalashnikov assault rifle until the barrel was scalding hot and then applied the rifle to his skin. The doctor says he gave his captors the name of a rebel contact who was in Tunisia and therefore beyond Kadafi’s reach.
However, Abu Harber says the police did the unexpected: They brought in the man’s father, a 75-year-old former army colonel. Lawmen hung the old man from his thumbs in front of Abu Harber, beat him, and applied electric shocks to his hands and ears.
The doctor said the victim was eventually released and fled the country. He hopes to find him and apologize.
Shengheer, it turned out, was never interrogated. Even Kadafi’s notoriously effective secret police were overwhelmed at the end. With detainees everywhere, police didn’t have time to get to all of those crowding Abu Salim and other lockups.
On Aug. 24, some prisoners feared that the rebels storming Abu Salim were guards coming to finish them off. But the prison staff had fled. Abu Salim’s final inmates from the Kadafi era were free men.
Since then, the now-deserted prison has taken on a role as a monument to injustice during the Kadafi decades and a site of pilgrimage for ex-inmates and relatives of those killed in 1996.
Last week, the country’s transitional government said it had found the probable burial site of the 1996 massacre victims, a barren expanse of desert outside the prison walls. It will take months, even years, to excavate the remains and complete DNA analysis.
“We know our brothers are buried here somewhere,” said Haraga, who visited the prison recently to ruminate on the events of 15 years ago, and on the marvel of the last several months.
“I feel like a new man,” he said, “in a new country.”