Inside Gaddafi’s torture chamber: The bloodstained cells inside a former primary school used to brutalise his enemies
Published in The Mail on Sunday (August 27th, 2011)
The secret door in the corner of the nondescript office swung open and I was ushered through. The walls were hung with pictures of Tripoli’s beautiful old city because the former primary school was serving as the headquarters of the historic buildings society.
But behind this innocuous facade lay scenes of horror. For this was where Muammar Gaddafi’s secret police kept watch on the traders and residents of the city centre – and beat them if they stepped out of line.
Ibrahim Rapti, a former professional footballer, led me through neat offices filled with files. He told me of their shock as they discovered the intelligence centre, then learned that friends and neighbours had been acting as spies for the repressive regime. ‘We had no idea with some of them,’ he said.
I asked where they were now. ‘They have run away. Or disappeared.’
As we went downstairs, there was a door made of heavy iron bars. Inside were four tiny – and empty – cells, about 5ft by 3ft. With their tiled floors, they looked like nothing more than shower rooms. But several prisoners were often stuffed inside, their crimes perhaps nothing more than uttering a word out of place in a nation ruled by fear.
Chillingly, they were still smeared with blood, marking where brutalised prisoners had lain in agony on the ground after the torment of torture. Most terribly of all, in the first cell, there were two bloodstained handprints sliding down a wall.
These bloody handprints from an unknown victim of Gaddafi serve as a potent symbol for his vicious regime. He imposed his 42-year rule on Libyans using the terror of such neighbourhood torture chambers as much as his infamous prisons.
Now men such as Rapti are forming town councils and preserving such places as testimony to that reign of fear. Encouragingly, there has been little looting, apart from that which has taken place at Gaddafi’s massive compound at Bab al-Aziziah and some government buildings.
However, returning with a photographer to picture the cells yesterday, we persuaded a friendly guard to let us in, and slid the bolts on a solid steel door. Inside, we saw a captured Gaddafi loyalist slumped on the floor. But a second armed guard arrived and led us away quickly.
The incident demonstrates how, for all the determined talk of reconciliation, it will be hard to erase the legacy of a land riven with suspicion.
Another man told me he had swiped secret documents from the interior ministry that revealed the name of an informer in a nearby town. He had contacted six men fingered by the informer and left them to resolve the matter.
There has been evidence of atrocities and vicious reprisals on both sides, with summary executions of prisoners, captives blown up with grenades and bodies found with hands tied behind their backs. Above all, there is little sympathy for the hated mercenaries recruited by Gaddafi from Chad, Niger and Mauritania. Few African immigrants dare venture outside.
Despite the continuing threat of snipers, by yesterday morning I was able to stroll the ancient streets of the souk in the small hours. People of all ages were out happily enjoying a hot Ramadan night. Nearby, there was the constant cackle of gunfire punctuated by the nerve-jangling thump of anti-aircraft guns as the rebels celebrated their victory in Martyrs’ Square.
Families drove around waving flags. Children posed for photographs with fighters wearing specially made T-shirts proclaiming them the Eagles of Zawiah or Lions of Tripoli. Troops from Misrata 120 miles away in their black graffiti-sprayed trucks received special acclaim after the fury of the battle for their city.
I chatted to a shy 22-year-old from the city named Salah who had fought his way to Tripoli after enduring the hell of his home town’s struggle. He told me he was a university student. ‘I am happy and I remain ready to die,’ he said. ‘But now I just want to return to my studies.’
Driving into the square, spent bullets clattered down onto the car roof. As I walked around, a carpet of casings scrunched underfoot. Many of the lovely white Italianate buildings are pock-marked with the scars of battle.
Remarkably, the speed of the city’s well-planned downfall is such that just five days earlier this was called Green Square and it was filled with Gaddafi loyalists, chanting support for their leader. Today, the desert despot is a fugitive fleeing the wrath of his people – and they take immense pleasure trampling on the loathed portraits that once festooned the city.
Adel Saudi, a successful financier, left Libya three decades ago after Gaddafi started rounding up his school friends to fight in a war in Chad. ‘When I crossed the border I kissed the ground,’ said Saudi, who arrived the day before from Bahrain. ‘It feels so strange to be here in Libya and able to talk freely. I can’t tell you what that is like.’
The battle is not over yet, however. Fierce fighting continues in the outskirts of the city with overflowing hospitals, more Nato air strikes and the constant threat of snipers. I watched from my hotel room on Friday as rebels, one armed with a shoulder-held rocket launcher, hunted down a lone gunman. The previous day the building came under fire.
There are roadblocks every few hundred yards, where young men clutch AK-47s and photocopies of registration numbers from cars used in sniper attacks. Drivers must slalom round piles of sand and burned-out vehicles. But the mood is good and the soldiers friendly.
Incredibly, a network of secret hospitals has been established in people’s homes rather than risk ferrying injured people several miles across town.
I visited one where 35 medical staff were operating out of five rooms in a house. They had moved three times in a week. The children’s unit was in the kitchen – shelves were stacked with supplies while the man in charge was a vet.
Sitting on a treatment table was a stunned seven-year-old boy with bandages on his head. He was being comforted by his older brother and had been waving a new flag from his car window when a sniper shot his mother and younger brother dead. He was lucky to have survived, a bullet grazing his skull.
One doctor I spoke to was Samer Ammar Khiel, a 22-year-old medical student just four months into his hospital training. ‘It is an amazing challenge,’ he said. ‘But we must all help our people.’
These units demonstrate the way communities have closed ranks against Gaddafi’s forces, even sharing fuel and food as the sweltering city is plagued by power cuts and shortages. By the port, the roadblocks are manned by fishermen and, in the souk, by traders. Even in the city’s richest area, once home to some of Gaddafi’s children, residents have drawn up registers of guard duty.
I met one woman in a wealthy suburb logging weapons in her street. A student living nearby handed over his rifle while I was visiting; he had used it to help capture several snipers in the surrounding area.
Clearly, they did not know each other well. ‘See how this is bringing us together now,’ she said. ‘Before, everyone used to keep their distance.
Gaddafi gave people money to move in here and live among us, so you had to be careful. Now it is different. We are free.’
It is now emerging that the fight for Tripoli was very well planned, which may explain the rapid collapse. Despite claims Gaddafi had secured the capital, with loyalists patrolling suburbs for any signs of dissent, a secret operation had been under way for months with ‘sleeper cells’ of rebel supporters arming themselves and waiting for the signal to rise up.
Hours before the uprising began a week ago, Abo Bakr Haddood, 26, an engineering graduate and a member of a sleeper cell in the Tuwarja suburb, received a message that rebel boats were at anchor in the darkness outside the capital.
Along with fellow ‘sleepers’ – in reality, students, delivery drivers, labourers and doctors – he slipped past Gaddafi’s patrols and rowed out to the waiting arms boats, which had been sent by rebel fighters in Misrata.
Under cover of darkness, they loaded rowing boats with weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and paddled silently back to land. There, the weapons were distributed among supporters.
They received a signal at 9pm on Saturday night that ‘zero hour’ – the code name for the attack on Tripoli – was upon them, and took to the streets, firing at Gaddafi soldiers with automatic machines guns and grenades, as other sleeper cells were activated all over the city and took the fight to the dictator.
Now, as the final remnants of Gaddafi’s regime are cleared from the city and the hunt continues for the man who wrecked Libya, the challenge is perhaps even greater: to build a new nation from the ruins of one of the most unpleasant regimes in recent history.