I just want to know if he is dead or alive. If we know [he was killed], at least we will be able to mourn, and start the healing process”, said Mostafa Ibrahim El-Baghdadi’s older sister.
Mostafa, 19, disappeared about two months ago in unclear circumstances in the area of Karzaz, south of central Misratah. Her words are echoed by many families in Misratah, who live in permanent uncertainty and agony over the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.
Since the beginning of the unrest in Misratah, hundreds or possibly more have disappeared, mostly men. Many were taken from their homes or from mosques by pro-al-Gaddafi forces; others have disappeared near the frontline. Some have left home, never to return.
In the area of Zawiyat El-Mahjoub alone, local activists have compiled information on and photos of 80 victims of enforced disappearance. They believe that there might be more, as some families fled the area when pro-al-Gaddafi forces took positions in the nearby Sahili Road (the main highway connecting Misratah to Tripoli and the west) on 16 March.
During our visit to Zawiat El-Mahjoub, south of central Misratah, Amnesty International met members of the El-Toumi family, who told us that pro-al-Gaddafi soldiers barged into the home of Mostafa Hadi El-Toumi on 18 March; leaving minutes later with ten male family members. The fate and whereabouts of Mostafa’s seven sons, their two cousins and their uncle is still not known.
The only two older men not taken during the raid - Mostafa Hadi El-Toumi and Hussein El-Toumi - told Amnesty International that the five armed soldiers, who entered Mostafa’s home around 5:30pm, asked no questions, merely shoving the 10 young men and boys into cars and speeding away. Hussein’s pleas to spare the minors, his son Hamza and nephew Abdel Wahad, were ignored.
A few blocks away, Amnesty International met another family distressed by the enforced disappearance of several male relatives. Brothers, Mansour Khalil Abdel Salam, 65, and Ali Khalil Abdel Salam, 64, were seized in front of eye-witnesses by pro-al-Gaddafi soldiers in Rahman mosque in Zawiat El-Mahjoub on 25 March, at around 12:45pm just before Friday prayer.
Two other men, Mohamed Shaqmani and Ali El-‘Aish, were also abducted while entering the mosque at the same time. Relatives of the Abdel Salam brothers told us that they saw the two brothers on Libyan state TV some three days after their abduction “admitting” to having been forced by armed gangs to oppose Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s rule. In the same house, another grieving wife told us that her husband Mohamed Khalil Mobas, 42, a father of six, was abducted by pro-al-Gaddafi forces when visiting his brother’s house in Bourwaya neighbourhood on 7 April. In a pattern that has become all too familiar in Misratah, all the men present at the time were taken during the house raid.
In a house nearby in Zawiyat El-Mahjoub, we also visited Rehab Faraj Am’ilf, 26, whose husband Mostafa Faraj El-‘Adani, 30, disappeared in unclear circumstance on 17 March - 15 days after the birth of their daughter Taqwa, and a day after the incursion of pro-al-Gaddafi forces into the neighbourhood. We could see how much effort Rehab had to make to force a smile, through teary eyes, when their 5-year-old son Faraj pointed to his father’s photo innocently asking: “Is papa coming home later?”
In addition to the agony of not knowing whether her husband is dead or alive, Rehab lost her 3-year-old daughter, Sukaina, when the family was caught in cross-fire fleeing their farm in Dafniya, another area in the western outskirts of Misratah that saw fierce fighting between pro-al-Gaddafi and opposition forces. On 11 April, the little girl was standing in front of a car door when a large calibre bullet hit her in the skull, exiting through her forehead. She died immediately in front of the whole family, including her brother Faraj and her 2-year-old sister Hawaa.
Sadly, Rehab’s suffering is not unique. In every home we enter to document one human rights violation, we find other tales of horror and abuse.
Most families we have visited have suffered multiple violations – relatives killed, injured or disappeared.
In one house in Karzaz, a young man showed us where his grandmother, Nouriya Abu Dabus, a 61-year-old mother of 10, was sitting when she was killed by a bullet that came through the living room window in her home on 16 March 2011:
“It was about 8.15 or 8.30 in the morning and Grandmother was sitting with some of my little cousins, my sister’s children, when a bullet came through the window and struck her in the head. She died instantly. Immediately after that, even before we could move her body, several soldiers came into the house and took me and my 17-year-old brother outside. Outside there were other soldiers and my father’s brother, Abubakr Faraj Abu Dabus, who was lying on his stomach with his hands tied behind his back. The soldiers asked him about weapons and he told them he did not have any weapons and a soldier shot him in the leg, above the knee.
"The bullet went through both legs from side to side. Then the soldiers took another of father’s brothers, Mohamed Faraj Abu Dabus, my sister’s husband, Mohamed Abdelsalam Abu Shahala and my cousins AbdelFattah, ‘Omar Hassan and ‘Omar Mohamed.
They took them all from the bakery opposite the house. The bakery belongs to our family and they were working there. They also took the sons of our neighbour, Salem Mahmud ‘Abaja and his brother Mohamed. They took them all away, except for Abubakr, who had been shot in the legs”.
To date the families have not been able to obtain any news about their missing relatives.
During a visit to Zaroug to document the indiscriminate shelling of a residential area causing the deaths of two teenagers, we met a large family who ironically fled to Zaroug seeking safety after armed pro-al-Gaddafi soldiers entered their farm in Karzaz on 19 March. After rummaging through their homes in search of weapons, the soldiers took away two brothers, aged 47 and 39, who between them have 13 children. Their whereabouts are unknown.
The some 30 women and children left behind, visibly shaken by the experience, asked us not to make the names of their disappeared relatives public in fear of reprisals. They managed to flee the fighting in Karzaz, after being trapped for three days, under fire. They told Amnesty International that several projectiles landed in their farm between 16 and 19 March causing considerable damage, but luckily no serious casualties. While the pro-al-Gaddafi forces have withdrawn from the area in early May, the family has yet to return home in fear of further attacks. Some of their male relatives have since visited the farm and brought back news of a ransacked and damaged property that pro-al-Gaddafi forces had apparently used as a base during their unwelcome stay in the area.
Families who had the misfortune of being at home when pro-al-Gaddafi forces entered their neighbourhoods recounted their traumatizing ordeals to us.
One tale particularly stands out.
A young woman in her twenties was forced at gunpoint into a bedroom by a pro-al-Gaddafi soldier, who proceeded to lift up her dress, pull down her underwear, and fondle her. Luckily, her screaming attracted enough attention for others to intervene, and avert any further sexual abuse. We have been unable to document other cases of attempted rape or rape in Misratah, despite the persistent allegations by every single person we meet – male or female - regarding their frequent occurrence.
The young woman we interviewed was ready to give her consent for Amnesty International to reveal the abuses she suffered until her male relatives advised against it, in order to “preserve her honour and reputation”. Given the sensitivity around the issue, we fear that we might never be able to confirm whether, and to what extent, sexual violence took place during the fighting in Misratah, and beyond.
One thing remains clear: Misratah residents have borne the brunt of the pro-al-Gaddafi campaign to quell the opposition, and the suffering of relatives of the disappeared will continue long after pro-Gaddafi forces leave the city.