The following will be sub-section 1.3 in the nearly-done report A Question Mark Over Yarmouk.
1.3.1: Satan Was Here
In late August 2011, the world was shocked by news of a string of barbaric massacres across Tripoli, accompanying the fall of the Gaddafi regime in the Libyan capitol. These also happened at the same time as those doing the final pushing, the NATO-backed rebel militias, swept into the city.
Perhaps the single largest and certainly the most visibly memorable among these was the alleged Khamis Brigade shed massacre, also called the Yarmouk, or 32nd Brigade massacre. This, as currently understood, was the mass execution of a group of about 150-160 prisoners, using machine guns and hand grenades, on August 23. It was carried out, witnesses say, by soldiers of the elite, 32nd mechanized Brigade. The most notorious military unit run by the Libyan leader’s son, Khamis Gaddafi, and otherwise known as the Khamis brigade, they operated the prison and the adjoining Yarmouk military base.
It’s an anonymous place, the prison where, witnesses say, soldiers cut down their wards before torching the remains and fleeing from the area. The shed (warehouse, hanger, barn, etc.) sits within a small, low-walled compound, used previously by an agricultural collective. Its rickety outer shell of rust-orange corrugated metal is lined with cinderblock walls, now soot-stained. Two interlocking, oversized, barn-style doors of thin metal would have held the prisoners in.
On the west door, in red spray paint, rebels wrote in Arabic Ash-Shaytan - Satan.
The east door has a smaller inset metal door with a sliding bolt lock. Inside were the bodies – as many as fifty of them - reduced to skeletons with only portions of their charred flesh remaining. As the world’s media filmed the scene on the 27th and 28th smoke continued twisting up from the victims as if they had just, moments before, stopped burning in Hell.
The CIWCL doesn’t put any stock in metaphysical explanations for these types of crimes. However what passes for the devil’s work does often make its appearance, during times of war especially. Journalist Janine di Giovanni said in the Daily Beast it was one of a few “haunted” places she’d visited, like Srebrenica in Bosnia. Walking up to the doors amid the stench of death and the noted graffiti, she wrote “I begin to feel a familiar sensation: something evil happened here.” [JG]
Something un-Islamic certainly happened there. Even willful cremation is forbidden in Islam, which mandates burial in the dirt within 24 hours and no harm to the body. [YA] Misrata fighter Majid Fayturi, who was among those that took the Yarmouk base, said of those who torched their victims “we cannot say they are Muslims. They do not belong to any religion in the world.” [FPS] Further, as widely noted, the killings and extreme harm to the dead were carried out at the height of Ramadan.
More dead men, at least 20 by some reports, lay scattered around the yard un-burnt. Some of them were bound, some brutalized, all apparently executed. Most of the eleven seen by news cameras are black men (see article 3.2.3). According to the witnesses, there were mass graves beneath the dirt all over the compound containing an unknown number of previous victims of Gaddafi regime violence.
1.3.2: The Location
Yarmouk was one of the two largest bases of the Khamis Brigade guarding the capitol (the other was southwest of the city). The base lies in the southern suburbs, on al-Hadbhah road, about 5 miles (8 km) south of central Tripoli. It’s in the Khalet al-Furjan neighborhood of the Salaheddin district, with the immediate area sometimes called the Yarmouk neighborhood. The base, which suffered NATO bomb damage throughout the war, has walls enclosing a space nearly a half-kilometer square, and it seems to take in surrounding buildings and areas as well. The main gate is capped with a dramatic eagle sculpture, and a giant metal “32” to the right announces the brigade’s presence.
Behind the base, just outside its east walls, is the prison compound (outlined in red in the map above). The shed is the only sizeable building in it, nine meters deep and 16 meters long, with a smaller building (guard house) next to it, and a covered space between them. The shed is divided into two chambers, a small 4-meter-wide room with at least one charred body, and the 9x12 meter main space everyone refers to: where people saw and counted each other.
Solid cinderblock walls covered the windows built into the shed frame, leaving no real light input aside from the grating above the door, and a large hole in the west wall that may or may not have been there before the massacre (accounts differ). Pins and ribbons of light enter through gaps in the walls and ceiling, and the hundreds of bullet holes that riddle the place. Wherever metal was not shielded by cinderblock - the doors, the uppermost walls on three sides, and the roof - all are holed extensively.
Within the main chamber, there were no partitions, no privacy, no furnishings whatsoever. There was nothing but some random mechanical junk on the floor of half-concrete, half-dirt. There is no sign of even the most rudimentary prison; no plumbing or fixtures, no lights on the ceiling, no electricity at all, it seems. Nowhere outside are high walls, barbed wire, spotlights, or guard towers seen.
1.3.3 High-Profile Prisoners
But the site has a long alleged history. Shieikh Sayyid Musa Al Sadr, the Lebanese Shiite cleric, is widely believed to have been killed in 1978 after disappearing, allegedly, inside Libya. In October, it was reported that he might have been held and tortured at this very site, and perhaps even buried there. The source is rebel commander and LIFG founder Abdelhakim Belhaj. [LBC]
Whatever happened there in the years between, in 2011 the shed compound seemed to be used for ordinary agricultural things until the brigade reportedly took it over and began holding prisoners there “as early as March 2011” [PHR p. 15], or “by March 2011 at the latest.” [UH]
Some of the self-described prisoners were even foreigners of repute working with the BBC. Journalist Feras Kilani, photographer Goktay Koraltan, and security man Chris Cobb-Smith reported being arrested by the Libyan military near Az Zawiya, accused of being spies. [BBC4] They were taken to a base with an eagle on the gate, Cobb-Smith said at the time, and finally to a “dirty scruffy little compound” behind the base. There they were held in a cage, then a room. Kilani was beaten and his Palestinian people were insulted. Cobb-Smith reported a mock execution they were subjected to shortly before release, and seeing other prisoners shackled, terrified, and speaking of torture. [CNN5]
Another more confusing report suggests Kilani and his team were detained in March after visiting the Yarmouk base itself, to film a documentary about the death of Sheikh al-Sadr. By this, Kilani was surprised to see a man come in with “dogs and special equipment to detect burials,” along with explanations that they were looking for buried bodies. But the newsman investigating the Sheikh’s burial there was threatened not to tell anyone about this, and was arrested, beaten, and released. [LBC]
Cobb-Smith at least returned to the massacre shed after the rebel victory, and verified it as the same spot that he was held. [CTV]
1.3.4: Prison Life and Death, Per the Witnesses
Otherwise the prisoners at Yarmouk were, by and large, ordinary Libyan civilians, men of mixed backgrounds, reportedly ranging in age from 14 to at least 70. They mostly hailed from Tripoli, Misrata, and especially from Zlitan, an important city between them. According to former detainees, those held in this primitive prison were partly rebel sympathizers and collaborators, but largely citizens of suspected loyalty, some innocent of anything aside from breaking curfew.
The prisoners report being held there anywhere from a few days to four months, all of it brutal. They describe witnessing or even experiencing treatment like people being crammed into tiny cells in police trucks-turned-adjunct-prisons for days or weeks, or hanged upside down for long periods, and beaten with sticks and metal cables, or even sliced up. Some were subjected to electrocution (in the neighboring guard-house, which did have electricity). All were starved, routinely denied water, and some report being made to drink urine or motor oil.
There are some interesting sub-themes to this system of torture and degradation. Self-described escapee Mustafa el-Hitri explained how “a uniformed woman commander called Nooriya, along with two other female officers […] kicked us repeatedly in our genitals while they screamed at us ‘your seed will give Libya no more children.’” [AL] Robert F. Worth of the New York Times heard a similar story, with racial overtones as well.
“Much of the torture was carried out by women, a special humiliation in Libya’s patriarchal Arab culture. There was a Chadian woman with a shaved head who used to beat the men on their genitals, several inmates told me. Her Libyan supervisor, also a woman, would watch these beatings approvingly, then jeer at the male guards: “See, she’s more of a man than you are!”” [RWN]
Between the abuse, the neglect, and frequent executions or killing of attempted escapees, most onetime prisoners describe witnessing at least a one death or even several. One man, rather outlandishly, swore in a documentary video that “this place has witnessed the death of thousands. I’m not exaggerating when I say thousands. Every day, there were about 20-25 bodies.” [FGM 4:55]
By more reasonable and supported assessments, a total of 90 prisoners were held there by the beginning of August. [UH] The reported number grew about 50% over the next three weeks, as the invasion of Tripoli loomed. That commenced on August 19 and 20, and on Monday the 22nd, survivors said that 153 names were read out for a prison roll call. [PHR p.15] On the 23rd NTC militias first entered Muammar Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli. Perhaps in revenge for this, the prisoners have speculated, the guards at this Khamis prison were given orders to kill all their wards before fleeing the rebel advance.
Prisoners reported seeing ominous signs: new prisoners brought in, and promises of freedom coming up soon, often accompanied by a wicked look, a bad feeling, or even being told that “free … meant that we will all be killed.” [KS] At least two witnesses, a soldier (“Laskhar”) [PHR] and a prisoner (el-Hitri) [AL], reported seeing Khamis Gaddafi there and apparently giving the fatal order.
The survivors describe the assault as coming just after sunset and the evening call to prayer and breaking of the Ramadan fast. About seven grenades were tossed in, joined with repeated fire from Kalashnikov rifles. They all agree that however many escaped, even more didn’t, were cut down under horrendous circumstances and then, in some accounts, burned alive.
1.3.5: The Witnesses / Some Notes on the Math
Everything we know about the massacre details-who the victims were and what exactly happened-comes from people who at least claim to be witnesses. These include locals who saw and heard, at least two soldiers who have confessed to taking part, prisoners who had served time there, and some dozens of prisoners who claim to have escaped the massacre itself. Those whose accounts the CIWCL is aware of and considered will all be listed and briefly explained in subsection 2.2, and analyzed over the three sub-sections after.
The bodies of about 45-55 people were found inside the shed, other bodies totaling apparently more than 32 in the immediate vicinity, and another 22 bodies were discovered about one kilometer from there, behind a mosque. The last, possibly related, is generally not counted in this massacre total, which was first given as around 150.
A.M. Haleem had said, on August 25, that roughly 180 out of 200 prisoners were killed, with 18 escapees. Mounir Own told CNN there had been 175 prisoners, with about two dozen of them escaping, leaving about 150 dead. [CNN2] Clean-up volunteer Bashir Own (no relation to Mounir) also spoke to CNN and said he saw and removed around 150 bodies on the 28th. [CNN2]
On the other hand, estimates of the dead range as low as 60 (Algala) [KS] and the number of escapees as high as an oddly complementary 90 (at least as reported, in a possible mix-up) by witness Senussi. [SZB]
By early 2012, the accepted death toll had been settled at 106, per Libyan authorities and a UNHRC report. This seems to be backwards math based on the “only 51” confirmed survivors subtracted from 157 prisoners. This means nearly one in three people escaped both the shed and the prison yard despite this close assault with grenades and machine guns. Further, as we’ll see in the close-up examination, they survived with very few injuries even claimed.
1.3.6: Global Commentary and the Drive for Justice
There has been no shortage of people near and far noting the horror and scale of this crime, especially back when it was thought to be about 50% bigger than it now is. One local announced it to be “the greatest massacre in recent history.” [FPS] The Yarmouk shed has been called a “holocaust camp” by Libyan survivors, family of victims, and supporters congregating on Facebook as “the Association of Holocaust victims of Yarmouk prison.” [FBR]
The media knew the story’s rightful place. Consider Richard Spencer of the UK Telegraph, who called it at the time “the most clear-cut war crime of this six-month uprising.” [RS] Months later, Spencer decried the “damnable” widespread torture, often to death, committed by the “once-heroic” Misrata brigades who had been at the front of liberating Yarmouk. But it all seemed tame, he thought, “to anyone who witnessed […] the remains of the scores killed and cremated by Khamis Gaddafi in a single incident in a shed-prison as he fled Tripoli in August.” [RS2]
Amnesty International said in August the reported massacre showed a “flagrant disregard for human life and international humanitarian law,” and demanded “loyalist forces in Libya must immediately stop such killings of captives.” [AI] Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said “these merciless murders took place in the midst of Ramadan and those responsible should be brought to justice and punished.” [HR]
Susan Rice, The US ambassador to the UN, went to the warehouse in November and found “the stench of death & cruelty was pervasive.” [ABR] At a press conference, she called it a “very important site” where “over 100 people were killed by grenades and bullets and then,” showing some confusion, “their bodies [were] burnt to death.” [USN] UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon made a pilgrimage to the site, was shocked, and the perpetrators “should be brought to account.” [UM]
The chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo, visited the site on November 23 and met family members of alleged victims, desperately seeking closure. [ITN] After the visit, a spokesman for the court, Islam Shalabi, said Moreno-Ocampo believed “the site merits investigation.” [SG] Alex Loyd, writing for the Australian, said of the survivors: “their accounts are likely to provide the backbone” of evidence the ICC would use “to bring charges against Colonel Gaddafi and his sons for war crimes.” [AL] Khamis, clearly the most relevant son to this case, was reported dead in battle on the 29th – the same day Loyd’s article ran. But named officers and intermediaries would continue to be hunted down in his stead.
1.3.7: Different Reports
From the above statements, we can see this episode matters to Libyans and to the outside world alike. The CIWCL agrees with the ICC’s Mr. Shalabi that a close look – an investigation - is very much merited.
The closest the world has to that, at the moment, is a December report about the massacre issued by the Massachusetts-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Deputy director Richard Sollom called it “the first comprehensive forensic account of the massacre.” [GPP] The report, titled 32nd Brigade Massacre: Evidence of war crimes and the need to ensure justice and accountability in Libya “sought to clarify what took place,” to correct the confused record of earlier reporting. [PHR p.7] The only thing their expertise added was verifying the injuries of two of their four subjects as consistent with detention and abuse, most of that claimed as happening previously at Zlitan. Otherwise, their talent was in taking down and believing whatever the witnesses told them, which improves nothing on what the media had been doing.
A special commission of the UN Human Rights Council issued a report on March 2, which addressed the massacre under study, among many other things. With original witness interviews, this added some useful information. They concluded the witness “testimony is broadly consistent and corroborative.” They added “similar mass killings perpetrated around the time that opposition forces seized control of Tripoli have been reported by Human Rights Watch,” and “these allegations warrant further investigation.” [UH] Again, the CIWCL agrees.
A report from the Independent Civil Society Fact-Finding Mission to Libya, January 2012, also heard about this incident: “Mass Killings: Yarmouk Detention Centre.” [CS] Their report added little, passing on vague characterizations they were handed.
Only the PHR report and now this one, those dedicated solely to this complex alleged event, qualify as further investigation of any real scope. The PHR report describes itself as “provid[ing] a measure of truth and acknowledgment for victims and helps to build an important historical record.” This report works towards these same laudable goals, but its conclusions are very different.
In contrast, this report will de-emphasize immediate accountability; somehow, it doesn’t even seem worth asking the NTC to have its Misrata militias hunt down and hold themselves to account, if that’s what proves to be warranted. Well before anything like that can happen, someone has to first speak the possibility and give it a chance to be ruled out, rather than ignored. Until now, no one in the world community had seriously done that.