Libya: Ajdabiya civilians tell of their dead amid the rubble

By Donatella Rovera,
Amnesty International’s Crisis Researcher
Ajdabiya, 30 March 2011
Visiting Ajdabiya for two days I met Adam al-Tarhouni who told me how his 67-year-old father, Miftah, and his 36-year-old brother, Mohammad, were both killed on Sunday, 20 March, near Ajdabiya’s eastern gate, when their car was hit by a projectile – either a rocket or an artillery shell.

Adam broke down in tears as he showed me the fragments of his father’s and brother’s ID cards that he had found by the wreckage of their car when he was able to get to it on 26 March, after Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces had retreated from Ajdabiya and the surrounding area.

“They were blown to pieces. We did not find their bodies, only shreds of flesh.  They had set out to look for me in Zwaytinah, where I work.  I got stuck there after al-Gaddafi’s forces invaded the area the week before.  In the meantime my family had fled Ajdabiya on 18 March, after the town was shelled the previous day.  They went to take shelter in the desert to the south of the city, with many other families. The telephone network in the area had been cut off and we could not call each other.  My father was worried about me and on Sunday (20 March) he decided to go to Zwaytinah to see me. As they passed near Ajdabiya’s east gate they were killed by a missile”.

Others were also killed in the same area as they fled Ajdabiya after the town was surrounded by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces, then advancing eastwards towards Benghazi.

Ruqaya’s mother, Khadija, told me: “It was between 3 and 4 pm and we were near the petrol station on the road which leads to the eastern gate on the way out of town. My other children and grandchildren were in other cars in front and behind us. My son was driving and I was sitting in the front and Ruqaya and my other daughter, A’isha, were sitting at the back. There was shooting and Ruqaya was hit twice, in the back and in the arm.  We drove on, looking for a hospital but the hospitals in Zwaytinah, Sultan and Maqrun were closed. We eventually got Ruqaya to hospital in Gmeynes (about 100 km from Ajdabiya on the way to Benghazi); they operated on her and took out the bullet from her back but she died shortly after”.

Another relative, Salma, who was in the car behind with her children told me: “There was a lot of shooting; we got caught in the crossfire.  A bullet came through the left rear window of our car and hit my daughter Ala’, who is nine years old. I was sitting in the back with the children.  I was next to Ala’ and I was holding the baby.  The bullet went straight past me and scraped Ala’s forehead, by her left eye. Luckily it was a superficial injury. Our car was also hit in the wheel and we had to stop. We took cover from the shooting in a building by the side of the road and then went back into town and stayed there for two days before we managed to leave town and went to take shelter in the desert”.

Such tragic and disturbing cases are difficult to investigate.  The bullet holes in the vehicles in which the families were travelling are consistent with their accounts, but all that we can establish from this is that the vehicles came under fire, but not the circumstances of the shooting or even who fired the shots, whether the forces supporting Colonal al-Gaddafi or those opposed to him. Judging from the size of the impacts it appeared that the cars had been hit by 7.62 caliber bullets fired from Kalashnikov or similar type rifles, which both sides are using.

Another family told me of their ordeal when the vehicles in which they were travelling came under fire at about the same location near Ajdabiya’s  eastern gate on the night of 16 or 17 March – they were uncertain which – as they were trying to reach Zwaytinah.

They said that soldiers from Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces opened fire on their vehicle, killing ‘Abdelmalik Nasser Mosbah al-Mahshahsh and his 8-year-old daughter Hamza. As well,  two of his sons, Mondher, aged 18, and 20-year-old Yahya, were wounded together with his daughter Zaynab and two other children, ‘Abdallah, aged five, and Houda, (F) aged 14. The family’s care was immobilized as the tyres had been shot out but the soldiers told them to go back to Ajdabiya in  another vehicle, which they did.

However, they were not allowed to take the dead bodies of ‘Abdelmalik and Hamza – they found these at the place of the shooting days later after Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces had retreated from Ajdabiya.

Nor were they allowed to take Mondher, who they said had been wounded in the shoulder but was still alive when they left. He is still missing. The family hope that he is still alive somewhere, perhaps having been detained and taken away by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces.

These families, like many others, have not yet returned to their homes in Ajdabiya.  They know that Colonel al- Gaddafi’s forces have left the area but they fear they may return. Meanwhile, there is no electricity or water in much of the town, though repairs are underway and residents hope that services will be restored in the coming days and that they will soon be able to return to their homes and start to rebuild their lives.

In Ajdabiya itself, where I have just spent two days surveying different neighbourhoods, the destruction and damage was far less extensive than had previously been suggested.

While the town was under siege by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces it had been impossible to go there or to speak to those residents who had remained in the town as the telephone networks had been cut off, fuelling concern for the safety of those remaining there.

Reports that injured patients had been seized from the hospital and that snipers had taken position on the hospital roof were denied by hospital staff, who told me  they had remained in the hospital throughout.

In Ajdabiya I saw at least five houses that had been completely destroyed and several others that had been damaged in attacks, but the overall number of houses destroyed by rocket or artillery shells, thankfully, is lower than some reports had suggested.

As I stood by the ruins of one house on Saturday (26 March), members of the family who had lived there arrived back to see what was left of their former home. Like most of the residents, they had fled about 10 days earlier. On their return, they found only a pile of ruins.  It had been the home of Marzouqa ‘Ali Qabaili, who had lived there with her children and grandchildren. Her daughter told me: “This was the home of two families and my mother; I don’t know where we are going to live now.  My mother is elderly and ill; how can I tell her that our home has been destroyed?”.

Most of the damage was sustained in two neighbourhoods, Sha’abiyat Atlas and 7 October, both near to Ajdabiya’s west gate and the ring road that connects the town’s west and east gates. Some of the houses had clearly been hit by Grad-type rockets, others by artillery shells.  Such munitions are inaccurate; they cannot be aimed at specific targets and as such should never be used in residential areas.

In one house I looked at, an artillery shell (bearing the marking: 155MM P3 LOT SIL-1-10-83) was lying on the kitchen floor.  It had gone through two walls before landing there, causing severe damage to the house. The family have not yet returned to Ajdabiya. According to a neighbour, they were present at the house when it was shelled but, fortunately, escaped injury.

Others were far less fortunate. I was told that Ahmad, a six-year-old boy, had been killed while playingd outside his home when it was struck by a rocket.  His family have not yet returned to Ajdabiya; I will  try to find out more details of this desperately sad case when they do.

In another street a rocket landed outside the home of the Mughrabi family, killing two brothers, ‘Ezzat and Seif, and injuring three others, ‘Ali, Basset and Lafi. The rocket also killed a friend of the family, Ahmad al-Qabaili, and injured three other people, Mohammad and Mahdi al-Qabaili and ‘Atiya Msheiti.

A 20-year-old woman, Fatima al-Mughrabi, who was living across the street from the Mughrabi home was also wounded by shrapnel which penetrated the metal door of her house.  Fatima’s family told me that the nine young men had been sitting outside the house when the rocket landed nearby in the street on either 21 or 22 March – they were not sure which – at about 5.30 pm.  Their neighbour’s car was also destroyed in the blast.

I had met one of the injured brohers, Lafi, in a Benghazi hospital where he was receiving treatment before I travelled to Ajdabiya.  He too had described how he and his brothers and friends had been sitting together outside the family his home when the rocket struck. His two injured brothers are still in intensive care with horrendous injuries and it remains uncertain whether they will recover.

It was also in a Benghazi hospital that I met 13-year-old Hanin Zwaiy who had been injured in the right leg when a rocket or a shell smashed into her home in Ajdabiya.

She told me: “I was staying at my sister’s house with my family and on Wednesday 16 March me and my brother went back to our home.  The following afternoon, at about 5 pm or so I was in the courtyard when something hit the house. The house shook and the window panes broke. I ran into the house, where my brother was. There was more shelling and I was hit in the leg and my brother was also hit.  We rushed outside to go to the hospital but found that my brother’s car had been burned. My brother carried me on his shoulders and while walking to the hospital he was shot at three times in the leg. He managed to carry me to the hospital and we stayed there for a few days.  On Monday (21 March) I was finally evacuated to here (Benghazi) and my brother was evacuated to Tobruk.  I have not been able to speak to my parents because there is no telephone line.  My relatives here have sent messages to them via other people that I am in the hospital here”.

As more families return to Ajdabiya in the coming days it should be possible to obtain details of some of the people who were killed and injured during the two-week siege of the town by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces. By then, I hope, the unused munitions that the retreating al-Gaddafi forces left when they vacated the area will have been removed to a safe location, so as to reduce the risk these will otherwise pose to returning residents.

When I was there on Saturday and Sunday (26-27 March) unused artillery shells and fuses, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other highly dangerous munitions were littered about the ring road on the edge of the own and children and even adults were picking them up seemingly without any appreciation of their potential danger.

Also, on the road from Benghazi to Ajdabiya, I saw damaged but unexploded rockets that were obviously left behind by the retreating al-Gaddafi forces but which had yet to be removed and fighters opposed to Colonel al-Gaddafi celebrating the retreat of his forces by firing vast quantities of ammunition into the air in a very reckless manner.

On Saturday such reckless celebratory fire could be heard all over Ajdabiya and as I approached a roundabout in the city centre I saw fighters and others firing handguns, Kalashnikovs and even large-calibre anti-aircraft machine guns into the air right beside a line of traffic. I decided then and there to take a long detour around the edge of the town in order to reach my destination…..

Such reckless use of weapons is a serious problem throughout eastern Libya and it, together with danger caused by the littering of munitions, is causing more victims than anyone cares to admit.

In one single visit to a hospital I came across three victims, two boys and a young woman.  The boys, aged 13 and 14, had both been seriously injured while playing with what appeared from the description to have been an artillery shell fuse that they had found in the street and had been smashing against a wall when it exploded. One of the boys had lost an eye and several fingers while the other had also suffered a wound to the eye, which he may lose, and shrapnel injuries all over his body.

The young woman, meanwhile, told me: “I was preparing dinner for my boy in the courtyard of my house and was bending down over the fire when I was hit by a bullet in my right buttock”.  There had been no al-Gaddafi forces there or armed clashes taking place in the area at the time but there had been reckless firing by local youths and this was probably the source of her gunshot wound.

For the moment at least, the youths who have got hold of guns do not seem much inclined to take instructions from anyone about how they should or should not handle the weapons which, all too often, they seem to be treating as if they are new toys. Unfortunately, and worryingly, the politicians also do not seem to be willing or able to address the problem with the urgency and seriousness that it deserves.