In Libyan city in search of justice, even a struggle to find graves


TARHUNA, Libya — It’s hard to find a clearer illustration of the failures of Libya’s political leaders than Tarhuna, a city between the Mediterranean coast and the desert where seven brothers of the Kani family and their militiamen detained hundreds of residents, tortured and murdered in a five-year reign of terror.

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

Clothes still lie on the floor outside a sunlit makeshift prison where the brothers’ militia held prisoners in oven-like closets that just fit a crouching man.

“We will move forward when we have justice and they pay for their crimes,” said Kalthoum el-Hebshi, the retired head of a nursing school in Tarhuna. “Until then, there will be no reconciliation,” she added. “If you say to me, ‘make peace’, how can I make peace with someone with blood on their hands? How can I shake his hand?”

After more than a year of fragile stability, Libya is once again tilting towards the chaos it shattered after rebels overthrew Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, the dictator of more than 40 years, during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. The upheaval cut this North African country in two, east and west, divided by two rival governments and dozens of rival militias operating above the law.

Last year, a period of relative calm offered a glimmer of hope. Elections scheduled for December were supposed to produce a government that would reunite Libya’s long-divided institutions, create a constitution, disarm the militias and expel foreign fighters. But disagreements over the suitability of candidates caused the vote to sink, leaving a country on Europe’s doorstep into a new phase of uncertainty.

The mess has also made justice elusive in Tarhuna, where leaders on both sides of the Libyan divide have been implicated in the rise of the Kanis.

“Everyone on the ground only cares about their own interests,” said Hamza el-Kanouni, 39, whose uncle was murdered by the Kanis and whose nephew was held in a Kani prison for three months. “They don’t even see Libya.”

The brothers left graves containing hundreds of bodies, according to a United Nations panel that recently identified several new cemeteries in Tarhuna. Libyan researchers said they have found nearly 250 bodies so far and 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.

Ms. el-Hebshi, the principal of the retired nursing school, said her eldest son was kidnapped in 2011 for supporting anti-Gaddafi rebels. Her brother disappeared in the wake of the uprising and her second son was kidnapped by the Kanis.

No bodies have ever been found, and against hopes, she said, she continues to hope that they will turn up alive in a distant prison.

The Kanis’ murderous streak began during the 2011 uprising, when they exploited anarchy to settle scores with rivals and holed up in Tarhuna, a city of about 70,000. They built their power and wealth through smuggling and extortion, residents said.

In 2016, they had allied themselves with the internationally backed government in Tripoli, which paid them to lead security. Three years later, another civil war broke out when Khalifa Hifter, the leader of eastern Libya, attacked Tripoli.

The Kanis moved to Mr. Hifter’s camp. But all the while, whatever side they were on, the killings continued, residents said.

When Tripoli government forces defeated Mr Hifter with Turkish support in 2020, they expelled the Kanis from Tarhuna.

Now the city wants justice.

But the government in Libya is paralyzed. After the cutbacks, efforts to track down and identify Tarhuna’s dead are almost at a standstill. The country is not divided by religion or ideology. But many other obstacles hinder progress: the intervention of foreign powers, including Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt, who praise Libya for its strategic location and oil reserves; the need to reconcile east and west after the recent fighting; and political leaders who show little interest in solving the crisis unless it benefits them.

“At the moment there is no other clear way forward than an ongoing stalemate and instability,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Everything is pure opportunism. It’s just a matter of splitting the positions and the funds.”

With United Nations-mediated negotiations failing in Cairo and Geneva earlier this year, Libya has two rival prime ministers: the west-based Abdul Hamid Dbeiba and the east-based Fathi Bashagha, handpicked by Mr Hifter.

Hifter has been widely reviled in western Libya for his Tripoli offensive, in which Libyans accused him of bombing residential areas and torturing and killing civilians. A US federal judge handed down a judgment in absentia against him on Friday after he repeatedly skipped statements before a federal trial in which Libyan prosecutors charged him with war crimes.

But many Libyans reject both the Eastern and Western leaders.

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

After a year in which many Tripoli residents had become accustomed to safe, well-maintained roads with working streetlights, basic amenities are once again at risk.

Hundreds of people across the country have recently protested the deteriorating situation, setting fire to part of the Eastern Parliament headquarters in disgust with power cuts lasting up to 18 hours and selfish politicians.

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

After the fall of the Kani in Tarhuna, some 16,000 people fled, including Kani supporters, militiamen and the five Kani brothers who survived the outbreak of fighting surrounding the attack on Tripoli.

Now many of them want to return.

Lacking help from national leaders, an informal group of tribal elders from across the country intervened to help resettle the exiles. It’s part of their long-standing work as a mediator of disputes: tribal conflicts over property boundaries that evolve into kidnappings and murders; personal quarrels that set off a cycle of murders.

Elders of tribes unrelated to either side hear both sides, assign responsibility, and make an agreement, which may include compensation, formal apologies, and vows not to relapse.

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

Tarhuna’s victims do not see the reconciliations as a replacement for a functioning justice system. Some of them said they had repeatedly tried to approach the police because they did not want to retaliate, but the officials did nothing.

However, in a country where those with power, money and weapons are accountable to no one, the mediators are all they have.

“We don’t own the law. All we can do is give our word of honor,” said Ali Agouri, 68, a representative of the tribe that has worked for reconciliation in Tarhuna. “There is no state, but the people want justice.”

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