Libyan prisoners stuck in limbo as war drags on

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 17, 2011 11:04 AM
Libyan prisoners stuck in limbo as war drags on

By Maria Golovnina

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Abdullah once called himself a rebel. But after spending months in a rebel prison as a suspected government loyalist, the doctor says he has lost faith in the revolution against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Speaking inside a grimy cell in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the 28-year-old physician said he was captured by advancing rebel forces in the Mediterranean port of Ras Lanuf in March for working at a state-run hospital.

"When I was working in the hospital, I was a strong supporter of the revolution. But now my beliefs have changed," he said as he reclined on an old rug inside his dimly lit cell.

"I still believe Gaddafi should leave. But I don't support the revolution any more. We are in a state of civil war. It's difficult to solve problems by force. Impossible. Every drop of blood will make it worse."

The military detention facility, its facade peppered with bullet holes, was set up by the rebels early in the conflict to house government troops captured during fighting around Libya.

Most of the 75 detainees are soldiers and officers but a handful of people, like Abdullah, were civilians.

Snatched as Gaddafi loyalists in the confusion of the early days of the conflict, they are now stuck in limbo, unable to prove their loyalties and go back to their families.

Some, like Abdullah, are bitter and disillusioned.

"No one has been charged with anything here. We have been told that we are here for security reasons, as POWs," Abdullah, who asked not to use his surname, said in fluent English.

"Once I talked to my family. Once, a month ago. I spoke to my brother. We were instructed not to give any information about how we are being treated. I told them I am okay, in a safe place, that's it," he added.

For their captors, they are the inevitable victims of a messy and protracted war. Prison authorities have promised to release everyone -- both civilians and soldiers -- once the war is over and there is a proper mechanism for their departure.

"They all come from their tribes. When Gaddafi dies or flees, we will have a big tribal meeting and people will come here from their tribes and they will take their people away," said Captain Tariq Muftah, 40, a senior prison warden.


Before becoming a prison, the facility housed administrative offices under Gaddafi's rule, rebels said. Broken furniture was scattered around its crumbling rooms and corridors when Reuters was allowed to visit it this week.

Small cells housing up to five men lined the main corridor. Detainees sat in their cells on old striped rugs and blankets.

Surrounded by heaps of clothes and rubbish, they stared blankly at passing visitors through iron bars. Some smoked and played cards. Flies buzzed around in the thick, stale air.

Pictures of helicopter gunships were scribbled on the walls. People's faces were gaunt. Some refused to speak altogether.

Gritting his teeth and unable to hold back his tears, one man, his eyes swollen and cheeks drawn, whispered that he used to be a fighter pilot. Then he turned away to face the wall.

Prison wardens accompanying Reuters confirmed people's stories. Reuters was not allowed to take video or still images.

Sitting on a grubby mattress in the corridor, Abdusalam Osman, 23, said he was working in a car parts workshop near Ajdabiyah when he was seized by Gaddafi soldiers in March.

He said he was subsequently released and returned to the rebel-held east, only to be detained this time by rebel forces suspicious of his experience while in government detention.

"I am not a soldier. I work in a workshop fixing cars. So now we are here," he said, pointing at three other men sitting nearby who he said were also civilians from his home town.

"Revolutionaries caught me. They said: We are not sure you are on our side, you are coming from Gaddafi's side, so you are going to prison. I believe in the revolution. Every day they tell me: Tomorrow you will be released," he added with a shrug.

Human Rights Watch, whose researchers have visited the facility, said prisoners were generally being treated well.

"There have been some problems at the point of capture. A few detainees told us they were mistreated or shot after they were caught on the frontlines...," Sidney Kwiram of Human Rights Watch told Reuters.

"It is critical that the opposition authorities demonstrate unambiguous leadership on how to treat captured Gaddafi forces and that they continue to underline their message about humane treatment, including to their fighters on the frontlines."

Speaking to Reuters as their captors looked on, most Gaddafi soldiers said they now supported the revolution.

"I was told in (my hometown of) Sirt as a soldier that Benghazi was full of al Qaeda. So I went to fight them," said Nasrdin Mohammed, an army sergeant detained on March 15.

"Then I realized I was on the wrong side. Now I just want freedom." Then he added quietly: "I was promised to be released once Gaddafi's government collapses but I don't believe that. I don't believe that. I am puzzled."

(Editing by Sami Aboudi and Peter Graff)