McClatchy’s David Enders reports from Tripoli:
The last time Hussein Ibrahim Saleh saw his brother Jamal was more than one month ago. On Saturday, Saleh received confirmation that his brother was body number 531 in a cemetery for fighters loyal to former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in Misrata, 120 miles east.
‘He left Tripoli on August 10 to visit our brother in Hisha,’ Saleh said, referring to a town taken over by rebels two weeks ago on the road between Misrata and Sirte, one of the cities where fighting continues between fighters loyal to Gadhafi and the rebels that deposed him last month. ‘He was missing since then.’
The majority of the more than 800 bodies and sets of remains in the ‘pro-Gadhafi’ cemetery are without names or identification other than digital photos of their faces taken by the volunteers who run the cemetery. Many of the bodies have simply been left at the cemetery by the rebels to be buried, with no information about where they were killed or found.
There is nothing terribly wrong with the story itself. Alas, it was immediately misrepresented on Twitter:
Let me try to set the record straight.
First of all, this is not a new “find”. I visited the cemetery four months ago, on May 21. The New York Times had published a story by CJ Chivers, with photographs by Bryan Denton, about the place on May 17. Jerome Starkey of the London Times had also been there. After I left, Al Jazeera and Reuters arrived.
The cemetery is easy enough to find. It’s on a desolate plot surrounded by sand dunes that offer little shelter from the hot wind that blows from the nearby Mediterranean. On that Saturday afternoon, there were no rebel checkpoints in the vicinity; you could just walk in. Here’s what it looked like:
I counted nine rows, with between 50 and 80 graves in each. In all, at least 600 bodies were buried here. Fresh ones were awaiting last rites:
Since Misrata’s rebels hadn’t yet broken the siege and fierce fighting was taking place on the city’s outskirts, I have no reason to doubt that the remains buried were those of Gaddafi soldiers fallen in battle. And as far as I could tell, all the proper burial customs were observed. The bodies were bathed here:
… and sprinkled with fragrance:
For comparison, here’s Maqbarat-e-Shuhada, or Martyrs’ Cemetery, where Misratans have buried their own war dead:
Not that different — except that all the dead here have names. (The first one buried in this cemetery was Khalid Abu Shahma, who was shot by Gaddafi’s troops on February 19. Contrary to what some observers erroneously claim, unarmed Libyans were being killed with heavy machine guns already a month before NATO intervened.)
So what happened to Hussein Ibrahim Saleh’s brother? How did he end up as body number 531 in that windswept cemetery? Was he indeed killed by rebels as the McClatchy story seems to imply?
Here’s the thing: On August 10, when Saleh’s brother reportedly left Tripoli, there was really no way to get to Hisha, where Saleh said he was heading, without crossing both loyalist and rebel lines and finding a way through Zliten, which was heavily contested at the time. While it’s possible that the poor guy managed to reach his destination alive against all odds and was killed later for one reason or another, it’s just as possible that he perished in fighting en route before ever setting foot on Misrata. A sad story to be sure, but just as unmarked graves don’t always point to an atrocity, not every disappearance is a war crime.