Galaa, Libya In a grove of pine trees near this mountain village, residents have dug up the remains of 35 bound and blindfolded men who they say were shot at close range by Moammar Gadhafi’s military.
Dozens of miles away, a search team has exhumed the bodies of 18 detainees who died on a hot summer day while locked in a shipping container by Gadhafi guards.
As Libyans cope with the aftermath of their six-month civil war, more evidence is emerging that loyalists of the former regime savagely abused and in some cases killed detainees just before fleeing from advancing rebel troops.
There’s no proof of systematic killings ordered from above, but Gadhafi’s incitement against the rebel fighters he called rats “opened the door for this kind of barbaric conduct,” said Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch.
A warrant for Gadhafi’s arrest, issued in June by the International Criminal Court, focuses on killings and arrests during the initial phase of the uprising that began in February and eventually toppled the regime.
If Gadhafi is ever caught and tried, whether in Libya or abroad, any new evidence of atrocities might buttress the case against him.
For ordinary Libyans, the healing process from the war will be slow, with at least 30,000 believed dead and 50,000 wounded, according to the former rebels’ health minister.
Many have suffered unspeakable trauma. Geography student Mohannad Berfat said he endured 10 days of beatings and electric shock in the shipping container-turned-prison in the coastal town of Khoms. Mohammed Ajal, a volunteer, helped dig up the mass grave in the Nafusa mountain village of Galaa in western Libya, only to find his father and brother among the dead.
Gadhafi and his loyalists are “monsters,” said Ajal, 36, standing next to the grave site on the outskirts of Galaa, the stench of decaying bodies still heavy in the air.
Berfat, 22, said he is counting on divine retribution.
“God will punish them,” he said of his tormentors, as he helped unload the remains of 18 fellow detainees from Khoms, including a cousin, who died June 6 but were found only Thursday.
Abrahams said he expects more atrocities will come to light. In Tripoli, dozens of charred bodies of slain prisoners were discovered after loyalists fled the capital in late August. The detainees had been held by troops commanded by Gadhafi’s son Khamis. Some 4,000 people are missing across Libya.
Before the rebels’ decisive August offensive, they only controlled eastern Libya, while Gadhafi held most of the west. Fierce battles raged around two rebel pockets of resistance in the west: the Nafusa mountain range and the city of Misrata.
As part of their deployment in the mountains, Gadhafi’s troops were encamped in a center for boy scouts on the outskirts of Galaa, a village of about 7,000 people, in late spring and early summer. Residents said the loyalists seized dozens of men at checkpoints and in raids of nearby homes and detained them at their makeshift base.
Some detainees were eventually released, including postal worker Omar Huzar, 55, but scores of others disappeared without a trace after Gadhafi’s forces fled the area in early July, residents said.
In mid-August, Abdel Gassem Kreir, a photographer in Galaa, said he saw cellphone video on YouTube showing a group of bodies, most of them bound and face-down, in a familiar-looking wooded area. Huzar, the released detainee, said he recognized some of the men in the video as fellow prisoners.
A group from Galaa, aided by a team from the Red Cross, began exhuming the bodies Aug. 20.
Kreir said the remains were still in the same position as in the video, and that a Red Cross forensics expert told him most had been shot in the upper back or head. The Red Cross said Friday it had dispatched the expert to help identify remains, not to try to determine how the men were killed.