Libya: Living in fear and caught in the crossfire

By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s
Crisis Researcher
1 April 2011, Ajdabiya

Ajdabiya, a city of more than 100,000 people, is again empty of its residents. Yesterday, even the few residents who had begun to return earlier in the week were again fleeing eastwards in horror at the news that Colonel al-Gaddafi’s military forces are once again advancing and have already reached the smaller oil town of al-Breiqa, a mere 50 km to the west of Ajdabiya.
News that Mousa Kousa, Foreign Minister under Colonel al-Gaddafi, has left Libya and speculation about how this latest senior defection may affect the Libyan leader’s grasp on power did nothing to diminish the fear felt by the residents of Ajdabiya and those living in the villages along the road from Ajdabiya to Benghazi.

All they know is that if Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces recapture the area they will not be safe. When the news spread that that his forces had already reached al-Breiqa, families did not even wait until it was light before fleeing the city for fear that if they delayed they might come under fire from the advancing al-Gaddafi forces or be caught in the crossfire between those forces and the opposition fighters trying to halt their progress and force them back.

This is precisely what happened to several families from the area two weeks ago during the previous advance on and capture of Ajdabiya by al-Gaddafi forces who, in that occasion, advanced all the way to the southwestern outskirts of Benghazi.

Yesterday, in the desert east of Ajdabiya, virtually in the middle of nowhere, I met the mother of two children, Khadija, a girl of six, and ‘Attiya, her 10-year old brother, both of whom had been shot dead on 15 March as the family was fleeing from Ajdabiya.  The children’s father was shot in the back and arm.  His injuries are serious but he survived and remains in hospital.

The children’s mother, Na’ima, who is expecting her seventh child, told me about the family’s ordeal:

“We live in the 7 October neighbourhood in Ajdabiya, near to where Gaddafi’s forces came into the town; we were scared and decided to leave. We got into the car. My husband was driving and I was sitting next to him and our six children (three sons and three daughters, the oldest 13 and the youngest three) were sitting at the back. It was about 10pm; we reached near the eastern gate of the city, past the petrol station; there were no cars in front of us, only one car some way behind us. Gaddafi’s forces were there.”

“Suddenly our car came under fire.  My husband turned around to go back to Ajdabiya but they continued to shoot at our car.  My husband was hit and he stopped the car.  I run out of the car screaming that my husband had been injured and rushed to open the back door to get the children to safety. I found that ‘Attiya and Khadija had been hit and were not moving any more.”

“A car took us to hospital in Ajdabiya.  Khadija was hit in the head and chest and ‘Attiya in the neck. Why did they shoot at us? Why did they kill my children? We were just trying to leave.  We cannot go back if they are there; I don’t want my other children to be in danger”.

At the hospital I saw the death certificates of the two children: Khadija’s states that she died from a large gunfire wound at the back of her head while ‘Attiya’s says he was killed by a bullet to the neck.

The tragic events experienced by this family are similar to those suffered by other families whose cases I have investigated in recent days and who also came under fire as they were trying to flee in their cars from the area of fighting (see previous blogs).

Evidence which has emerged in the last few days that Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces placed land mines and anti-personnel mines in the area around Ajdabiya before their previous enforced retreat from the city, only serves to heighten the fears and anxiety of its residents.

I also tried to investigate the killing of another six-year-old child, a young boy who was killed as he played outside the family home when it was hit by a rocket, but his family told me that they did not want to talk about his death and how it occurred because they are afraid of possible reprisals.

Over the past 10 days, other families have also told me that they are unwilling to talk in any detail about attacks to which they or their relatives have been subject, citing fears that this could open them up to reprisals by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces and/or loyalists.

These fears have grown as the Libyan leader’s forces have continued to advance eastwards. Two days ago, for example, when I contacted the family of a young man who was shot dead by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces during the peaceful protests that were held on 17 February in Benghazi, they told me they were unwilling to speak about it because they feared reprisals.

Later, after I had reassured them that we would take care to protect their names and would not disclose other any details that could lead to their being identified, they told me that several of their relatives had been detained and taken by al-Gaddafi’s forces some weeks ago and that they remain disappeared. They are very fearful for their safety and for the safety of other relatives, especially those living in the towns and villages to the west of Benghazi, including the areas that have now been recaptured by Colonal al-Gaddafi’s forces.

I have also spoken in the past two days to some young men who were released a few days ago after having been detained for 18 days by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces in Sirte.  They had been captured in the Rass al-Anouf area.   One told me:

“We were first taken to the Internal Security (amn al dakhili); there I was kept in a tiny cell which is made for one person but we were several people.  Then I was moved to the Military Police. There we were held in overcrowded cells for five people or so but we were 40 or so in each cell.”

“I was handcuffed and blindfolded all the time, though sometimes I managed to see something because my blindfold moved a bit.  I was beaten and tortured in both places and often I fainted and they threw water on me to wake me up.  I was already in a poor state when I was captured because I had been walking for two days in the desert without food or water and in detention I thought I was going to die.”

“They beat me with their riflebutts and other objects; they fired in the air and then burned my skin with the hot gun barrel; they suspended me by hanging my handcuffed wrists (tied behind my back ) on the wall or on to a door; it was very painful. There were some people from Misrata detained there who were subjected to mock executions.”

“We were about 300 detained there, I am not sure exactly how many. Three of the guys who were captured with me have not been released. I don’ know if they are alive or dead or where they may be detained now.  Some people who were injured when they were brought in were not cared for and were left to die”.