EVERY SATURDAY for the past four years, the women have gathered outside Benghazi’s seafront courthouse to demand answers.
Dressed in black, they hold portraits of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers who were taken by Muammar Gadafy’s security services and never seen again.
These are the women of what are known here as the Abu Salim families – those whose male relatives disappeared into the void of Libya’s most notorious prison.
In an attempt to root out dissidents in the 1980s and 1990s, the Gadafy regime rounded up thousands of men all over Libya.
Most ended up in Abu Salim, which is located in the suburbs of Tripoli. They included Islamists and secular opponents of Gadafy, but many were guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The conditions at Abu Salim were horrific.
“For one whole year I did not see the sun,” recalls Mahmoud, who spent seven years there. “When they failed to break us with electrodes, they reduced our food allowance so that we began to starve. We were treated worse than animals.”
In June 1996, inmates at the jail, many of whom were from Benghazi, rebelled. The regime’s response left 1,200 prisoners dead, according to Human Rights Watch. It has become known in Libya as the Abu Salim massacre.
For years, Libyan officials denied that the killings at Abu Salim had ever taken place. The first public acknowledgement was by Gadafy in 2004. He said that prisoners’ families had the right to know more. To date, however, there has been no official account of what transpired at Abu Salim over two summer days in 1996.
The families have maintained their Saturday vigil outside the courthouse since 2007.
“Abu Salim is the deepest wound in our country,” says Salah, a Benghazi resident. “Every time I passed these women protesting, it made my eyes fill with tears.”
Nadia Terbil carries a lovingly embellished photograph of her husband Jamal who was picked up by the security services in 1989. He was 27 at the time.
“We don’t want money, we want answers,” she says. “We want to know what happened to our loved ones.”
Nadia’s brother is Fathi Terbil, a lawyer representing many of the Abu Salim families. Their brother Ismail is also one of the disappeared. On February 15th, Terbil was arrested, prompting protests not just by the families, but by thousands of locals. It was these demonstrations that evolved into the full-blown revolt now shaking Gadafy’s 42-year rule.
“We, the Abu Salim families, ignited the revolution,” Terbil said this week. “The Libyan people were ready to rise up because of the injustice they experienced in their lives, but they needed a cause. So calling for the release of people, including me, who had been arrested became the justification for their protest.”
Today at the courthouse, which has now become a headquarters and rallying point for the protesters who have swept away Gadafy’s writ across eastern Libya, the women of the Abu Salim families still stand.
Among them are septuagenarians with rheumy eyes who sit with the fading photographs of sons, not seen for decades, resting on their laps.
“I just want to find out what happened to him before I die,” says one of her son who was taken away in 1977. “They told me many years ago that I shouldn’t look for him any more. It has torn at my heart every since.”
On the walls of the courthouse the photographs of men believed to have died at Abu Salim in 1996 peer from large banners. Few are bearded, something Libyans say was enough to get a man arrested during those dark days. Most are shockingly young and fresh-faced.
One is Akram Zubi, a clothes trader who disappeared, aged 23, in 1993. His family learned from a friend who was later released from Abu Salim that Akram had died in the massacre.
“He was not political, his only crime was praying at the mosque,” says his sister Faiza. “We want to know who killed him and why. We want justice.”
The crowd starts singing: “We will stay here until the pain goes away.” Kiria Terbil approaches with a framed photograph of her and Fathi’s brother Ismail.
“This uprising would not have happened without us,” she says. “We will never let Gadafy forget Abu Salim.”