Families of massacre victims hope to learn full story of Abu Slim

First physical evidence of a massacre at Libyan prison unearthed after Qaddafi regime snubbed requests for information for years: but discovery of mass grave summons up a longing for answers alongside sadness.

A man collects human remains from a mass grave in Tripoli on Sunday. Libya's interim authorities said the grave held the bodies of more than 1,270 people killed by Muammar Qaddafi's security forces in a massacre in 1996 at Abu Salim prison. Suhaib Salem / Reuters
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TRIPOLI //As the sun climbed over the Libyan capital yesterday, four women in black gowns stood over a hole in a field beside Abu Slim prison, scrutinising a heap of rusted cans, the sole of a shoe and what might have been a human femur.
"My husband had nothing to do with politics, but they took him anyway," said Fatima Hashmi, whose husband, the engineer Salem Nasef, was arrested in 1989.
"He never returned."
On Sunday, revolutionary authorities in Libya said that the field beside Abu Slim prison concealed the bodies of 1,270 prisoners gunned down together in 1996.
The alleged mass grave is the first physical evidence of a massacre that has haunted Libya and helped spark the revolt that toppled the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.
That revolt began last February in Benghazi when families of victims of the massacre demonstrated to demand the release of their lawyer from detention by authorities.
Yesterday, dozens of family members trickled into the field in Tripoli, screened by walls, to commune at last with their dead.
Mrs Hashmi last saw her husband, Mr Nasef, when he was arrested in 1989 by four plainclothes agents who turned up at their house.
"He thought maybe they were friends visiting from his hometown, Zliten, and went out to greet them," she said.
The agents ordered Mr Nasef into their car, and he complied without fear. "After all, I haven't done anything wrong," he told Mrs Hashmi.
Mrs Hashmi never saw her husband again.
Authorities snubbed her requests for information. Eventually she learnt through the prisoner grapevine that Mr Nasef was in Abu Slim, a feared prison used for political detainees.
Friends allowed to visit the prison passed letters between the couple. Mrs Hashmi received her husband's last letter in 1993.
One June morning three years later, guards at Abu Slim lined the prisoners up outside. A moment later, residents nearby heard the sound of gunfire, and more gunfire.
Rumours circulated of a massacre, Mrs Hashmi said. "But when we women came to ask, the guards just trained their guns on us."
Details emerged via reports by human rights groups, including a 2003 Human Rights Watch report based on a witness account.
As the prisoners had stood in the courtyards, security men with Kalashnikovs had opened fire on them from rooftops, then used pistols to finish off the wounded.
In 2009 judicial authorities said that an investigation into deaths at Abu Slim would be launched. Now victims' families hope that regime change will help reveal the full story.
Asma Nasef, a 23-year-old dentist, was a baby when her father was arrested. Yesterday she stood with her mother, Mrs Hashmi, contemplating the father she never knew.
"I have a sad feeling, a silence in my heart," she said. "There are no words to describe what I feel."
Multiple mass graves have been discovered since National Transitional Council (NTC) forces overran Tripoli last month, with some dug up haphazardly by locals.
Last week Human Rights Watch urged the NTC to secure grave sites for examination by forensic experts. The Abu Slim site remained open to the public yesterday, although full-scale excavation there had not yet begun.
Mrs Hashmi and her friend, Nadia Trabelsi, want to recover their husbands' remains for burial, but don't object to their use first as evidence to help find and convict their murderers. Neither woman has remarried.
"His soul is in heaven now, not here under the ground," said Mrs Trabelsi, standing yesterday with her daughter, Khansa Ali, 23, alongside Mrs Hashmi and Ms Nasef.
Mrs Trabelsi's husband, teacher Massaoud Ali, was arrested a day before Mr Nasef in similar circumstances: a surprise visit by police, then years of silence.
Like his friend, Mr Ali smuggled letters to his family. In the first, sent in 1993, he addressed his daughter in verse: "Be patient, oh Khansa, and do not forget him who tells you so."
"He was a good man, and he did nothing," said Mrs Trabelsi. Then the tears came, falling gently.
Mrs Hashmi, Ms Nasef and Ms Ali moved off towards the edge of the field. A knot of people there were peering at bones displayed beside
the remains of a striped prison uniform, pierced by three holes.
Mrs Trabelsi wandered alone into the middle of the field. The sand tugged at her feet, and her thoughts turned to what lay beneath it.
"It's so hard to think of them in such a place," she said. "What sin could any of them have committed to have deserved this?"