For four months, Nouri Massoud listened to the screams coming from the hangar across the street from his house at Khilit al-Ferjan in southeast Tripoli.
Mr. Massoud lives next to a barracks belonging to the notorious Khamis Brigade, named after the Qaddafi son who leads it.
“When the NATO bombing started, the barracks were no longer a safe place so the soldiers moved into houses in the neighborhood, and they set up a prison and interrogation center in that hangar,” says Massoud.
It was there that a gruesome discovery was made on Saturday, when the fighting had subsided enough for the area’s inhabitants to return.
An estimated 53 bodies, burnt beyond recognition, lay inside the hangar. They had apparently been massacred by Qaddafi loyalists shortly before they withdrew from the advancing rebel fighters.
The atrocity, documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, could become a key war crimes case – helping to shed light on the abuses of the Qaddafi regime, whether in Libya or before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Empty promises and hand grenades
The terrible events took place on Aug. 23, the day when rebel fighters were advancing on Bab al-Aziziya, Qaddafi’s headquarters in central Tripoli.
According to a survivor interviewed by Amnesty International, the soldiers at the hanger had promised the prisoners freedom, only to open fire as soon as they stepped out. Then, hand grenades were thrown inside the hangar.
One witness quoted by The London Times said Khamis Qaddafi himself visited the makeshift prison mere hours before the killings started.
Luis Moreno Ocampo, the ICC’s main prosecutor said yesterday that he was considering issuing an arrest warrant for Khamis. Rebels have claimed he was killed, although their reports were contradictory and previous assertions of his demise have proved to be premature.
But while outside organizations investigate such atrocities in the context of international justice, Tripoli residents like Massoud are dealing with the regime’s abuses in a much more personal way.
The neighbors always knew that bad things were happening in the hangar.
It wasn’t just the warning not to use the second floor of their homes. Another neighbor, Abdelmenem Faraj Labani, said he saw two prisoners escape from the hangar 20 days ago. “They were kids, 16 or 17-years old, and they were naked except for their boxer shorts. They hid in a house under construction but the soldiers found them and took them back.”
In an adjacent house lay another body, which likely belonged to an escaped prisoner who had hidden there and died from his wounds.
Massoud had taken to spending days at his home, and nights at his mother’s house where he had also put the rest of his family. “I didn’t want them to be so close to a very bad place,” he said.
When Massoud returned to his house on Wednesday morning, he found three badly wounded people hiding in a storage area under a stairwell in his house. He found four more people hiding in other parts of the house.
“I gave them water and first aid. Then I checked to see if the coast was clear – the soldiers were still in the barracks – and I helped them escape through the back door.”
Massoud doesn’t know if the people he helped escape eventually made it to safety.
Amnesty estimates that around 160 were detained in the hangar, and that at least 23 managed to escape.
More survivors may turn up. On Saturday, Massoud and his neighbors discovered two escapees who had been hiding in a house since Tuesday, still too afraid to come out.