In the Libyan city, in search of justice, the struggle is even over the graves

TARKHUNA, Libya. It is hard to find a stronger illustration of the failures of Libyan political leaders than Tarhuna, a city nestled between the Mediterranean coast and the desert, where seven brothers from the Kani family and their militias rounded up, tortured and killed hundreds of residents. in a five-year reign of terror.

Two years after their grip was broken, Tarhuna is still searching for the bodies. The hilly groves that produce the famous olive oil now hide mass graves. Some families are missing half a dozen members or more. Others say that they learned about the fate of their relatives from former prisoners or other witnesses: the uncle was thrown to be devoured by the Kani brothers to be eaten by domestic lions; cousin buried alive.

Clothes still lie on the ground near the sun-baked makeshift prison, where brothers’ militias keep prisoners in oven-like cabinets that can only fit a crouched man.

“We will move on when justice is served to us and they pay for their crimes,” said Kalthum el-Hebshi, a former head of the Tarhuna Nursing School. “Until then, there will be no reconciliation,” she added. “When you say to me: “Make peace”, how can I make peace with someone who has blood on his hands? How can I shake his hand?”

After more than year of fragile stabilityLibya again leans towards the chaos that destroyed it after the rebels overthrown Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, dictator for over 40 years, during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. The coup left this North African country divided in half, east and west, divided by two rival governments and dozens of rival militias who operate above the law.

Last year, a period of relative peace gave hope. Elections scheduled for December were to lead to the formation of a government that could reunite Libya’s long-divided institutions, a shepherd in the Constitution, disarm the militias and expel foreign fighters. But controversy over candidate eligibility failed the voteplunging the country on the doorstep of Europe into a new phase of uncertainty.

The massacre has also made justice elusive in Tarhuna, where leaders on both sides of the Libyan divide are implicated in the rise of Kani.

“Everyone at the scene only cares about their own interests,” said Hamza el-Kanuni, 39, whose uncle was killed by Kani and whose cousin spent three months in Kani prison. “They don’t even see Libya.”

The brothers left behind graves with hundreds of bodies. recently discovered several new burial sites in Tarhuna. Libyan investigators said they have recovered about 250 bodies to date and have identified about 60 percent.

But 470 families have reported missing relatives, so the toll is almost certainly much higher, according to Kamal Abubaker, a DNA specialist who oversees the search and identification effort.

Mrs. El-Hebshi, a retired school principal for nursing, said her eldest son was kidnapped in 2011 for supporting anti-Gaddafi rebels. Her brother disappeared after the rebellion and her second son was kidnapped by Kani.

The bodies were never found, and she kept hoping against all odds, she said, that they would turn up alive in some distant prison.

Kani’s killing streak began during the 2011 uprising, when they took advantage of the anarchy to settle scores with rivals and gain a foothold in Tarhuna, a city of about 70,000 people. According to the locals, they built their power and wealth through smuggling and extortion.

By 2016, they had allied themselves with the internationally backed government in Tripoli, which paid them to provide security. Three years later, a new civil war broke out when Khalifa Haftar, the leader of eastern Libya, organized assault on Tripoli.

Kani switched to Mr. Camp Hiftar. But all the while, no matter which side they were on, the killings continued, residents say.

When the forces of the government of Tripoli defeated the city of Hifter, with the support of Turkey in 2020, expelled Kani from Tarhun.

Now the city wants justice.

But the government in Libya is paralyzed. With funding cuts, efforts to locate and identify Tarhuna’s dead have all but come to a halt. The country is not divided by religion or ideology. But progress is hindered by many other obstacles: interference foreign powers including Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt, which value Libya for its strategic location and oil reserves; the need for reconciliation between east and west after the recent hostilities; and political leaders who show little interest in resolving a crisis unless it benefits them.

“Right now there is no clear path forward, other than continued stalemate and instability,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Everything is sheer opportunism. It is only about the division of positions and funds.

Since the United Nations-brokered talks in Cairo and Geneva earlier this year failed to make progress, Libya has two rival prime ministers: Abdul Hamid Dbeiba from the west and Fathi Bashaga from the east, personally selected by Mr. Hifter.

mr. Hafter is widely reviled in western Libya for his offensive against Tripoli, during which the Libyans accused him of bombing residential areas and torturing and killing civilians. On Friday, a U.S. federal judge ruled against him in absentia after he repeatedly skipped testimony in a federal lawsuit in which Libyan plaintiffs accused him of war crimes.

But many Libyans reject both Eastern and Western leaders.

“We don’t want anyone who came before,” said Anwar Savon, a local leader from the city of Misrata who participated in the 2011 uprising. “We just need new faces. People who just want to serve people.”

After a year in which many Tripoli residents have become accustomed to safe, well-maintained roads with working street lights, essential services are down again.

Hundreds of people across the country recently protested about worsening the situation, setting fire to part of the parliament’s headquarters in the east out of disgust for blackouts that last as long as 18 hours, and self-serving politicians.

“People’s demands are very small, just the bare necessities – no more power outages, food is there,” said Halima Ahmed, 30, a law professor at Sabha University in Libya’s southern desert. “Our dream during the revolution was that we wanted to be like Dubai. Right now we just want stability.”

After the fall of Kani, some 16,000 people fled to Tarhuna, including Kani’s supporters, militias and five of Kani’s brothers, who survived the outbreak of fighting surrounding the assault on Tripoli.

Now many of them want to return.

In the absence of help from national leaders, an informal group of tribes from across the country intervened to help resettle the exiles. It’s part of their longstanding job of mediating disputes: tribal clashes over property lines that escalate into kidnappings and murders; personal quarrels that marked the beginning of a series of murders.

In other tribes not affiliated with either side, both sides are heard, held accountable, and an agreement is reached, which may include compensation, formal apologies, and vows not to repeat.

Nothing is legally binding, but settlements are usually honored out of respect for the middlemen. Those who break their word, the mediators say, are excluded from the unwritten pact that governs much of Libyan society: the next time they are involved in a dispute, no one will interfere.

Tarragon’s victims do not see reconciliation as a substitute for a functioning justice system. Some of them stated that they repeatedly tried to contact the police because they did not want to resort to revenge killings, but the officials did nothing.

However, in a country where those who have power, money and weapons obey no one, intermediaries are all they have.

“We don’t have the law in our hands. The only thing we can do is give our word of honor,” said Ali Aguri, 68, a tribal official who has worked for reconciliation in Tarhuna. “There is no state, but the people want justice.”