Posts Tagged ‘Ziad Labib’

The Horrors of Abu Saleem

In Libya on August 17, 2012 at 23:59

December 2011:  I was standing in the heat of the midday sun, waiting for Ziad to come and pick me up.  I had taken shelter by a small wall, in the grounds of the Corinthia Hotel – one of the few 5 star hotels in Tripoli – most notably known for the amount of NTC members and foreign dignitaries staying there.  It was one of the few places people went to get a decent internet connection and a “proper” cappuccino.  As I was filming, I marvelled at the sheer amount of traffic driving past.  Gaddafi had never invested in any kind of public transport system and so Libyans drove everywhere.  This resulted in horrendous traffic jams, and I watched as one lone police officer on duty tried to bring some semblance of order  (he was one of the very few brave enough to come back on to the streets of Tripoli).  I had barely seen any police officers on the streets since my arrival, and it was explained to me that as members of the security apparatus, many police were seen as complicit in the crimes of Gaddafi, hence many stayed at home for fear of being attacked.

Police in Tripoli

I listened to the cacophony of horns honking & laughed quietly to myself as I watched a tow truck inch its way down the road, even its door was graffitied with “Feb 17” – this was a sight I saw over and over again in Tripoli – no surface was immune to its tag.  Everywhere was emblazoned with the fateful date of Feb 17 – the date of the beginning of the uprising.  Around the streets on billboards, walls and gates, you could see insulting caricatures of Gaddafi himself derogatorily known as – “Shaf Shoufa” Libyan slang for “messy hair” due to his unruly bushy hair.  “Gaddafi game over” my taxi driver would gleefully repeat to me in his broken English.  I had also noticed that during Gaddafi’s time, Libyan shop owners had painted their shutters green – Jamahiriya “Gaddafi” green – but now miraculously all over Tripoli shutters had been repainted red, black & green in the colours of the independent flag of Libya – from the days of King Idris, who had ruled Libya prior to Gaddafi.

“Feb 17”

Tripoli graffiti

Graffiti in the souk

I was waiting for Ziad, a young IT consultant from Tripoli who had been imprisoned by Gaddafi’s forces in what is considered to be the most sinister prison in Libya: Abu Saleem. It is the site of the horrific 1996 massacre of around 1,200 prisoners who were executed in cold blood.  It has long been a prison used for detaining, torturing and beating political prisoners.  During the Revolution, Gaddafi filled the prison to the brim with political dissidents, underground activists and freedom fighters caught during the uprising.  Ziad was one of them.  After having peacefully protested, and trying to combat the propaganda war online, Ziad finally went to the frontlines and started training in the Nafusa Mountains.  He was to be a member of one of the many sleeper cells which was to operate in Tripoli. On his way back to Tripoli, Ziad was captured near the Tunisian border.  On being taken to Abu Saleem prison, Ziad said he was met by the “welcoming party” where all new arrivals were beaten.  As we were driving to the prison, Ziad asked me what I had thought of Libya before.  He said “everyone used to think of Libya as terrorists – IRA, Lockerbie, guns and that mad man Gaddafi.  I used to be ashamed to say I was Libyan.  Whenever people used to ask me where I was from I would say ‘North Africa.’ ” He said.  “But now since the revolution, I can hold my head up high and say I am Libyan,” he smiled sweetly at me.

Abu Salim prison

This was only Ziad’s second visit back to the prison since being freed.  We drove into the foreboding gates.  A bulldozer was at work smoothing over the ground.  The prison itself inside was a wreck.  It had been looted and debris and rubbish lay strewn all over the site.  Graffiti – particularly from the Misrata brigade which had first arrived to liberate the prisoners was everywhere.  I was struck by two words spray-painted on one of the outside walls: “Viva Libya Viva Liberty” – I couldn’t imagine what fate would have befallen whoever had written those walls, should Gaddafi still be in power.

When we arrived, we were met by one of the members from the Misrata brigade who was still guarding the prison.  He had been amongst the first to liberate the prisoners.  Ziad said in thanks, “I owe this guy my life.”  We were met outside by a local older man from Abu Saleem, who had told us as soon as the militia came to free everyone (the guards had already run away), they all ran to the prison to come and help.  I took his photo and instinctively he flashed me the “V” for Victory sign.  A reflex that was to repeat itself over and over in the many photos I took.

Say “V”

It was a beautiful day, a brilliant blue sky with a radiant, sparkling sun.  Seeing the prison in this light, it was hard to imagine its sinister purpose, what darker and unimaginable horror lay beneath its surface.  But we descended down a flight of stairs and it soon became apparent.  We were in the dungeons of Abu Saleem – where Ziad said people were taken to be tortured.  In the dark, dust and dirt I could just make out old bed frames, shattered TVs and what seemed like a belt strap perhaps used for whipping.  I shuddered to think what would have gone on here, it was too horrific to imagine.  Some political prisoners were incarcerated here for years – some for over a decade for simply expressing dissatisfaction with Gaddafi’s rule.

Abu Salim prison

Abu Salim “underground”

Abu Salim dungeon

Upstairs, Ziad found his cell in one of the wings of the prison.  He showed me the hole that they had smashed through – this was replicated throughout each cell wall – so that they could talk to other prisoners and share food and supplies.  I noticed the scraps of fabric that had been tied together as rope that had been strung up around the high windows.  Ziad told me this was so that prisoners could climb up the ropes and talk to other prisoners in other wings.  This was especially important to talk to new prisoners and to gain information about how the civil war was going.  Was Gaddafi winning or were they?  Ziad remarked, “one day a new prisoner came in and he told us about Major General Fatah Younis’ death.  That was a really sad day for all of us.”  Younis was a defected General in Gaddafi’s army but had changed allegiances and was commanding the rebels when he was assassinated in Benghazi under mysterious circumstances.

Prison window

Walls of Abu Salim

It was while we were in one cell that we found the most beautiful and inspiring art that had been drawn on the walls as a symbol of defiance.  The words read “The Future will be us” – and in the words of Omar Muktar – the famous resistance rebel who led the resistance movement against Italian occupation – “We win or we die.”   Such fitting words for the rebel resistance that was now the Libyan civil war.   But what was most touching was the final inscription – surely a retort to Gaddafi and a reference to him wanting to be the “King of Kings” – “If you want to be a King, first you should be a man.”  This artwork was signed by Mohammed Gurmin, and amazingly I managed to find him and interview him on the very last day I was in Tripoli – it was one of those last minute fly-by-the-seat of our pants interviews as I was due to fly out in less than an hour before the interview!  Mohammed told me about his time in Abu Salim and very kindly offered to drive us all to the airport.  We nervously laughed as his crazy Libyan driving – high speed whilst texting, prompted a quip from my travel companion – “Slow down – we just got through a civil war Mohammed – we don’t want to die in a car crash!”  His own story will be featured in a later film.

I could see the some other art work was signed by a Misratan named “Mohammad bin Lamin” and I resolved myself to find this man (if he was still alive) and film his story.  It wasn’t till a second visit to Libya that I discovered he was alive and well and was in fact arrested with his brother in Misrata by Gaddafi’s forces at the very beginning of the uprising on February 15.  He spent the whole of the Revolution jailed in Abu Salem.  I hope to meet him one day and film his story.  Whilst sat in a hotel room in Tripoli during another visit I saw his remarkable story filmed for Al Jazeera English.  Using art as a spiritual answer to daily repression, Mohammad is a symbol of enduring resistance to the rule of Gaddafi.


Mohammed Gurmin’s drawings

Mohammad bin Lamin

Later, upstairs on the rooftops over-looking the Prison, Ziad showed me the intelligence files which were written about him.  Someone had found them in another intelligence office on the other side of Tripoli, tracked him down and given it to him.  Ziad’s photo was stapled to the front, in his red “execution suit” staring back at us.  He read some of the statements and laughed, they were all forced confessions he had made.  The irony of sitting on top of the prison which had denied him liberty for three long months seemed almost too much to bear.  Ziad looked to the Misratan guard who had accompanied us on our “tour” of the prison.  He asked him “what do you want most for Libya?”  “Only to be free” he replied with a beautiful smile across his face.  The short film I made of Ziad at Abu Salim can also be seen on The Guardian website here.


Ziad Labib at Abu Salim prison

Abu Salim courtyard

Abu Salim prison

Filming on the roof

Misratan brigade member

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