Published May 25, 2011
MISRATA, Libya – 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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.