Pictures of people who disappeared in Misrata
Rodrigo Abd  /  AP
Libyans look at pictures of people who were killed or disappeared, allegedly by Moammar Gadhafi's forces, during the fighting in Misrata. Misrata's missing list now contains at least 1,000 names.
updated 5/25/2011 4:40:33 PM ET 2011-05-25T20:40:33

Inside a small whitewashed building, a former Libyan prosecutor tends to the list of Misrata's missing.

It grows longer — at least 1,000 names so far — as rebels expand their territory and more families come forward with names of those who disappeared during the seven-week siege by government forces on Libya's third-largest city.

The costs from the bombardment and battles in Misrata are well known. But only now — after rebels have driven out the last of Moammar Gadhafi's forces and reclaimed the farms, olive groves and villages on Misrata's outskirts — another aspect of the fight is beginning to emerge.

It's contained in Tarek Abdel-Hadi's ledger: the disappearance of hundreds of people — sometimes even whole families — during the onslaught.

"We have to do this and tell the outside world what has happened to these people," said Abdel-Hadi, a former prosecutor now in charge of the missing persons file.

'Forcibly taken away'
Some were "forcibly taken away" by Gadhafi's troops, he claimed. Others may have left of their own accord to escape the relentless violence that once gripped Misrata. Others, of course, could have been killed and their bodies not yet recovered.

Abdel-Hadi logs each name, age and the date they were last seen. A passport photo is stapled to the top of each page. The names are then put into a computer database that is sent to the rebel leadership in Benghazi, as well as human rights groups and social networking sites in hopes that something can be done.

"We will always ask the outside world for help to find out about what happened to them," he said. "They can put pressure on Gadhafi to release those that are captured."

One father believes this was the fate of his wife and their seven sons.

Mohammed shuffles through Misrata's rubble-strewn streets clutching their photographs. He is convinced they were kidnapped by Gadhafi's forces in the closing days of their siege earlier this month, and has been told they are being held in a town in government-held territory.

While it is impossible in many cases to determine exactly what happened to the missing, there appear to be some patterns. Government troops hauled away young men in the early days of the battle, and later went after families as they retreated.

Mohammed, a quiet 48-year-old who walks with a slight limp, fears his family was targeted because he's a rebel supporter living in a housing development dominated by Gadhafi loyalists.

'Only Gadhafi knows'
"I have no answer for why they took my family — only Gadhafi knows," said Mohammed, who gave only his first name because of fears of reprisals or further endangering his missing wife and children.

"Maybe he wants to use them as human shields," he added before turning his away to hide his tears.

In the early days of the Libyan uprising in February, Mohammed drove four Egyptians trying to escape the chaos east to Benghazi. He was unable to return to Misrata by land because of the fighting along the coastal highway, but eventually returned to Misrata by sea, catching a ride on a fishing boat.

Father cries over lost sons in Misrata
Rodrigo Abd  /  AP
Mohamed (no second name supplied) cries while holding the pictures of seven sons who disappeared along with his wife allegedly taken by Moammar Gadhafi's forces during the fighting against rebels in Misrata, Libya.

By that time, government forces had already besieged the city. Mohammed was again trapped, this time unable to get through the front lines to his family in Kararim, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of Misrata.

For six weeks he waited without word, until the rebels finally broke the siege and expelled the last of Gadhafi's forces in mid-May.

Mohammed raced home the next day to his apartment in a new four-story, peach-colored block overlooking dusty fields, eucalyptus trees and the pillars of more buildings under construction.

Signs of the tumult that swept through the area were everywhere: smashed cars stood empty at odd angles in the parking lot and on the sidewalks; shell casings littered the asphalt; laundry left out to dry on balconies snapped in the wind.

He ran upstairs to the second floor and found the door to his apartment open a crack.

"I pushed open the door and rushed in, calling out the name of my eldest son, Salah," he said.

There was no answer. They were gone.

He tried to piece together what happened from his ransacked apartment. The bedroom shared by his three youngest sons — Youssef, 8, Abdel-Kadr, 5, and Zubeir, 12 — was charred black, the floor covered with ash and twisted metal.

Son vanished
In the bedroom of his four other sons — aged 13 to 22 — the beds were overturned. The red Liverpool football club flag was still taped to the wall, an Arabic-English dictionary still sitting on the desk.

Gadhafi forces had stayed at some point in the apartment. Flies swarmed the rotting food they had left in the kitchen, but there was no sign of what had happened to Mohammed's family.

Then a friend of Mohammed managed to speak to his own missing relatives on a borrowed satellite phone. The man's family told him they were being held in al-Hisha, between Misrata and Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, and that Mohammed's family was there, too.

Another man, Mahmoud Abaja, knows exactly what happened to his two missing sons: He watched Gadhafi's soldiers haul them away.

Over glasses of sweet tea, Abaja and his neighbors recounted how some 40 government troops stormed into their Misrata suburb of Kirzas in tanks and armored-personnel carriers on March 16 and moved house to house, rounding people up and spraying buildings with random gunfire.

They dragged Abaja, a slim 55-year-old with a close-cut white beard, from his house along with two of his sons, Mohammed, 24, and Salem, 30. The soldiers tied the men's hands behind their backs and sat them down in front of the local bakery along with eight others.

"They took seven of them sitting there and threw them into the back of a pickup truck," Abaja said.

The soldiers left behind two men who had been shot: one in the legs, the other in the stomach. Abaja, too, was not loaded onto the truck.

"I'm an old man, that's why they left me," he said.

Abaja said there's been "no word whatsoever of them," but he believes he will see them again. "I have hope in God that they will come back."

Back in Kararim, Mohammed sifted through the wreckage of his home, scavenging keepsakes.

From the sooty, blackened floor of his bedroom, he picked up a photograph of his kids taken around a decade ago, the boys sitting alert in two rows in a white horse-drawn carriage with red trim.

Mohammed carefully removed the photo from the shattered glass and gilded wooden frame, and tucked it away.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Released journalist recalls detainment in Libya

  1. Closed captioning of: Released journalist recalls detainment in Libya

    >>> story of journalist clare gillis. she was on her first assignment as a journalist in libya when she was captured and held 44 days before she was released a week ago along with some other jourmists. she joins us exclusively. good morning to you.

    >> good morning.

    >> first, welcome back. second of all, you are a ph.d. in medieval history .

    >> yes.

    >> you go to libya on your first reporting assignment, your first time in a war zone . what were you doing there?

    >> well, you know, you could say the middle east is kind of medieval in some senses. this is a joke we make. what was i doing there? i had been studying history from a distance of 1,000 years for a number of years to write my dissertation. i was really excited to see what looked like pro democracy uprising in the middle east which is a region people have been so used to seeing autocracy and corruption there. to see this historical change happen in front of my eyes it seemed a precious opportunity and one that i was, in fact, in a certain way well trained for. it's the same basic procedure. things happen. you consult all the sources or consult all the people who saw it and put the stories together to figure out what happened and what's the logic of the story people tell themselves.

    >> on the day you were captured you went with your fellow -- most freelance journalists.

    >> three others, yes.

    >> you were with a contingent -- a rebel contingent in their vehicle. you went toward brega. what happened?

    >> we sent our taxi back to benghazi when we got to the first or second checkpoint. then we rode with different rebel cars. you know, they're on the highway preparing the counter offensive, preparing to attack or just having tea, having some breakfast. we spoke to them and rode with them for a while. then we got out of the car again and we were given the information that gadhafi's ground troops were 300 meters up the road. we just looked at each other and thought, no way. they're not. we don't trust the information. the fact is they have such long range missiles that they have been clearing out rebels to advance on the ground.

    >> the rebels you rode with left you.

    >> they left, yes.

    >> you were running because you knew at one point they were coming.

    >> we heard shooting coming from behind. we saw the rebel cars, you know, book out of there and then we saw more trucks behind them shooting. that's when we ran into the desert to take cover in the very sparse trees ahead.

    >> one of your group, anton hemeril. you saw him shot.

    >> yes. we heard him call out "help." we knew he'd been hit. jim called out, "are you okay"? he said, "no".

    >> you knew how serious it was.

    >> it was the way people talk about it. it was like it was in a movie and i was watching the movie happen. i heard anton , you know, that he was hurt. there was still shooting all around us. the bullets were flying over our heads. we were flying flat in the sand. when the truck pulled up jim stopped and said stop, press, press. they stopped shooting but started hitting us, dragging us into the car. i looked down at anton as i got in the car and i just saw him with a very severe wound and a lot of blood. i just -- i have no words for that moment.

    >> he was left behind for 44 days.

    >> yes.

    >> you were held in captivity.

    >> yes.

    >> at times you had a tv, at times you had a computer.

    >> yes.

    >> i know your greatest fear was being assaulted sexually. you were not.

    >> my greatest fear was that for the first, about eight hours. while we were being held just with soldiers guarding us i figured that was the danger zone for something like that to happen. once we were transferred to a military facility and put in cells, i wasn't so worried about that anymore.

    >> we're glad you're safe and we're glad you got to have the burger.

    >> thank you very much.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments