TRIPOLI, Libya – Dr. Salem al-Farjani secretly recorded details about the dead filling his Tripoli hospital during Libya's civil war, knowing the search for them would one day come.
The surgeon took down the names of as many slain fighters as he could before they were hauled off by Moammar Gadhafi's forces, presumably to be buried in mass graves. He concealed his files at home, hiding his activities even from his wife because of fears of retaliation by the regime.
Now the evidence he gathered is helping Libya's new leadership as it intensifies a search for fighters who went missing in the war. The uncertainty over their fate is adding to the grievances in a land still traumatized by the dictator's long rule and lingering tensions between those who supported him and revolutionary forces.
"We won't have reconciliation in the country if we don't take care of this," al-Farjani said. "People are suffering. They want to know the fate of their loved ones."
The process has been slowed by the chaos plaguing the country as it struggles to emerge from months of civil war and build many institutions from scratch after nearly 42 years of brutal rule by one man.
Officials aren't even sure of the number of those who vanished amid the fighting that broke out after the uprising against Gadhafi's rule began in mid-February. Many are believed to have been dumped in mass graves; others imprisoned in detention centers run by former rebels who have broken off into armed militias.
Al-Farjani believes there could be 25,000 people still missing -- though part of his mission is to confirm a more precise figure. International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo put the possible total at around 20,000. Many political and army leaders have refused to give estimates, saying it will take time to determine the scope of the problem.
Reminders of those who disappeared are everywhere, with their pictures plastered outside morgues, mosques and bullet-scarred buildings across the oil-rich North African nation of some 6 million people.
Families are furious and accuse the government of doing too little to find them.
"People are lying missing all across the desert," said Anas Maghrabi, a volunteer with the Libyan Society of the Missing who joined dozens shouting their frustration last month in a demonstration in Tripoli. "We need to find them."
Libyans have been traveling to the group's office in Tripoli from all over the desert nation in past weeks to register the disappeared. They fill out forms that ask for a photo, physical details and whether the missing person was a civilian, a rebel or a member of Gadhafi's forces.
One mother at the protest, Zeinab Abrahim, described the torment of not knowing the fate of her 18-year-old son who was shot in Tripoli on Feb. 22 and dragged away by Gadhafi's forces. She isn't convinced he is dead. After his disappearance, some people said they saw him roaming around Benghazi unkempt and brain-damaged from head wounds. She and other relatives keep traveling to Benghazi in a desperate search, so far without luck.
"We need a solution," said Abrahim. "The government doesn't care at all."
But officials insist they do care and are working with as much urgency as they can. They stress that the war only just ended, with Gadhafi captured and killed on Oct. 20, and they need time to develop tools for the search -- from forensic teams that will exhume bodies to DNA labs.
The governing National Transitional Council has founded a national commission to deal with the matter. It is headed by al-Farjani, a cardiac surgeon, and a DNA specialist, Othman Abdul-Jalil.
The challenges are huge, starting with the need for funding. Most of the search so far has been carried out by unpaid volunteers and funded by private donations.
The regime was eager to hide evidence that it was killing its own people as it tried to portray the rebels as al-Qaida influenced thugs trying to destabilize the country. Regime opponents also often would not recover the bodies of their relatives because they were afraid they would then be targeted as sympathizers.
Now, with the revolutionaries reveling in their victory, families of those who fought for Gadhafi won't seek help, fearing retaliation. Many alleged Gadhafi supporters have been rounded up and imprisoned in detention centers run by former rebels who refuse to surrender their arms.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, is training Libyan volunteers in recovering and handling human remains, said spokeswoman Soumaya Beltifa.
Libyan authorities have also reached out to other war-ravaged nations that have spent years -- or decades -- looking for their dead, including South Korea. Bosnia is emerging as a key partner because its Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has huge experience after identifying more than 16,000 people who went missing in the Balkan wars.
Even before the war ended, the ICMP appealed to Libyans to avoid tampering with mass graves and is now in near daily contact with Libyan authorities, director Kathryne Bomberger said. She said her group is impressed with the Libyan handing of the problem, in particular its vow to search for those on both sides of the conflict "in a nondiscriminatory manner."
The country's first ever DNA lab is also being built in Tripoli.
Al-Farjani began his evidence collecting three days after the revolution broke out on Feb. 17 as bodies of protesters that were brought to his sprawling 1,200-bed Tripoli Medical Center were seized by Gadhafi forces before their families could recover them.
He knew that many families would be desperate for knowledge of sons, brothers and husbands -- few women were among the dead -- so he began copying the names from identifying documents on cadavers. Sometimes he got details by talking to doctors in other hospitals. He wrote down whatever he learned on paper and hid his files at home.
His only confidant was his father, who would travel with him on fact-finding missions to the sites of suspected massacres or mass graves. He hoped the presence of a 70-year-old man would make him seem less suspicious to Gadhafi's men.
Officials stress that they want to help find the missing on all sides.
"We don't discriminate," said Hatem el-Turki, the head of the Libyan Society of the Missing.