His body lay pale in the half-light of a meat locker, head tilted to one side, blood streaking his chest. Men laughed and ridiculed him as the scent of onions rose from the souk.
In life, his specter was towering, but in death Moammar Kadafi was diminutive, put on display along a row of butcher shops and vegetable stands. Boys and their fathers lined up for hundreds of yards outside the market’s gates as if going to a carnival to glimpse the man they once believed invincible.
“I want him to keep the face of a tyrant in his mind,” said Abdul Rahmen Swasi, pointing to his 11-year-old son, Mohammed. “We saw Kadafi talking for so many years on TV. Blah, blah, blah. But now we see him dead.”
Swasi and his son inched forward, stepping over blowing trash, past men in fatigues brandishing guns. They pushed through the doorway into the room’s chill, hurrying past the bullet-marked corpse and out into the air of a country much changed since Thursday, when revolutionary fighters killed the man who had ruled Libya for decades in still unexplained circumstances in his hometown, Surt.
The viewing was emotional and surreal, but Kadafi’s reign was often beyond imagination. It seemed fitting that Misurata, a city by the sea that was pummeled into a hallmark of Kadafi’s brutality during a siege this spring, gave the leader — stripped to the waist, his once famous locks forlorn — his final humiliation.
“Yes, he’s gone,” said Nagwi Omar, “but I’m an old man. He took my youth.”
The United Nations on Friday called for an investigation into Kadafi’s mysterious death. Cellphone videos show the former leader bleeding but alive when captured hiding in a drain pipe by fighters of the Transitional National Council. Later pictures show Kadafi dead in the back of an ambulance. The council said he was killed in a crossfire, but some of the footage suggests he may have been executed.
“There seem to be four or five different versions of how he died,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. “There are at least two cellphone videos, one showing him alive and one showing him dead. Taken together, these videos are very disturbing.”
Kadafi’s burial — reportedly to be in a secret place so his grave doesn’t become a shrine for loyalists — has been postponed until an investigation is completed. This has angered some Muslims who contend that he should have been given a funeral quickly in keeping with Islamic law.
The eight-month civil war that led to Kadafi’s demise was one of the more disturbing dramas of the so-called Arab Spring, which has slipped from inspiring uprisings against tyranny into a succession of unfinished revolutions. For Libyans, the death of their mercurial dictator has silenced the personality that defined their collective hatred. They must now confront tribalism, a wrecked economy and other problems that could lead to suspicions and new divisions.
For now, those concerns have been tempered by the euphoria over Kadafi’s death. Celebratory gunfire rattles the sky, fighters toss candy into windows of passing cars at checkpoints, and streets and alleys are streaked in the colors of the new Libyan flag. But joblessness is high, phone cards are scarce, and heavy-caliber guns perch in the backs of countless pickups.
“There’s a joke going around,” said Reda Azzrroug, a university architecture student turned rebel who now limps from a gunshot wound. “An engineer from the U.S. came to fix Libya. He said, ‘Take me to the highest point in the country.’ They took him to a tower in Tripoli. He looked out over the country and said, ‘Cover the whole thing in dirt and start over.’”
Azzrroug smiled: “Yes, we have our differences, but it will never come to a gunfight or a civil war again.”
Across town, past a burned tank and streets of mortar-pocked buildings, Anwar Swan, a businessman who became an anti-Kadafi fighter, directed his men in an industrial courtyard of cement mixers, a pile of gravel, a forklift and three refrigerated shipping containers, all with shiny new padlocks. The middle container held the body of Mutassim Kadafi, killed in Surt the same day as his father.
Swan and his men were anxious, sweeping debris from outside the container and watering the ground to tamp blowing dust. In a few hours, he said, Moammar Kadafi’s body would be brought from the souk and placed alongside his son’s. Swan said the slayings of the two men would spare the country years of turmoil and recrimination.
“If we took him to trial, we wouldn’t now be seeing his body and his story would drag on,” said Swan, sweat running through his beard, his tunic stained with dirt. “We want the story of Kadafi finished. Today, the sun rose and Libya became new.”
He walked and sat in the shade near a whitewashed mosque and a crooked radio tower bombed by Kadafi’s forces. His men, all of them fighters, sat with him, listening. Bullet casings shone like dull pennies in the dirt.
“I want to block out the memory of war,” said Swan. “We want to end our lives as free people. We will never allow anyone to control us again. Kadafi believed in devils, not God.”
Swan waited for the truck that would bring Kadafi.
It would not be coming soon.
Miles away, a line of men and boys, and a few girls, stretched outside the souk. They moved slowly along a fence until a man with a rifle opened a gate, letting in about a dozen at a time. Each whispered, God is great. They hurried past onions drying in a stall and guards making tea. They turned the final corner and spotted the crowd at the meat locker’s door.
The guards laughed and took pictures. They wanted the world to see that no man can outrun his sins. As Abdul Rahmen Swasi and his son drew closer to the door, they quieted. Other men and boys quieted too. So did Mahmoud Jibril, Libya’s interim prime minister, who arrived with an entourage and moved to the front of the line.
Swasi’s brother, Mustafa, a merchant, stood almost at the door. “I never saw Kadafi face to face,” he said. “But victory is now mine. I never thought I’d see this. A divine power has helped us.”
He stepped into the half-light. Bullet wounds to belly and head. Blood on the mattress. Blood on the arms. Beige pants and thinning hair, so often disguised by hats. Mustafa Swasi left the souk before dusk, walking through the gate and into a city broken, but on the mend.
Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.