Body bags reveal fate of soldiers who refused to fire on their own people

A brutal picture of the start of Libya's uprising is beginning to emerge. Kim Sengupta and Catrina Stewart report from Benghazi

The bodies were in dark green shrouds lying on the concrete floor of the morgue, 10 prisoners shot and then set on fire as the security forces of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi unleashed a last round of vengeful violence before being forced to flee.

The dead men are said to have been soldiers who had refused to open fire on those marching against the regime. They had been disarmed and beaten up by their comrades before being incarcerated in an underground cell in al-Katiba, the main military encampment in Benghazi.

The account of the last days of the inmates came from a Libyan army officer who subsequently surrendered to the rebels and changed sides. He was able to provide names of some of those killed, all local men, but bereaved relations had not been able to identify the charred remains.

Mohammed el-Targi, in charge of processing fatalities at al-Jala hospital, said: "Normally there are some parts of bodies in cases of burnings which shows who the person was, but there was very little left in these cases. We had wives, parents, children of these poor men come here and they were all crying. One mother said that although she could not identify her own boy, all of those killed are her sons now."

Yesterday, after days of cold rain and stormy winds, Libya's second city woke up to bright sunshine and warmth. Shops and businesses opened after the impromptu holiday which accompanied the revolution as people began to go about their daily lives once more.

Despite this return to a sort of normality, dark secrets of the brutalities at the time of the uprising have started to emerge. The burnt bodies at the morgue were a pitiful sight. "They were shaheeds [martyrs]. They sacrificed themselves rather than harm their own people," said Fateh Elami, the duty manager at the hospital. "We should put up a memorial to them."

But the violence has not been one-way. There were also the bodies of three "mercenaries" from sub-Saharan Africa used by the regime against the demonstrators. Their bodies, with deep wounds to the head and torso, lay beside that of a Libyan soldier. These, too, said Mr Elami, will remain unclaimed.

The al-Jala was the busiest hospital during the first few days of intense strife in Libya's second city, and many of the wounded from those days are at the wards. Najla Farkash is one of the medical staff who worked almost around the clock in this period. One day, she was treating a long line of injured people when the next patient wheeled into her path prompted a gasp. It was her 27-year-old brother Amraja. He had been shot in the head.

"I had cried a little when some young boys were brought in for treatment badly hurt," Ms Farkash, a 29-year-old clinical assistant, said, shaking her head. "But when it is someone from your own family, it is very, very hard."

Amraja Farkash had been on his way to the funeral of two of his cousins, killed by the security forces in the first days of the protests the week before last, when he was shot. He is now paralysed down the left-hand side of the body and his working life as a driver is over.

"I supported the revolution but I was not even taking part in any marches when they shot me, I was going to bury my cousins. Why should they do this?" he asked. "I do not know who shot me, it may have been a mercenary, it may have been a Libyan. But I know it was my own government that did this. If I could go and fight now, I would. I feel very angry."

Fawzia Radiki, in an adjoining ward, wanted to show what had been done to her husband, Ibrahim, after he was seized by the police while taking part in a rally outside the Khadija. He had his arm and several ribs broken during a beating with metal-tipped staves and was shot in the back as he ran away. As he lay on the ground a policeman kicked him repeatedly in the face, breaking his jaw.

"What is the outside world doing about all this?" Mrs Radiki demanded. "They go on about rights, but they are allowing Gaddafi to do all this to people who cannot defend themselves."

Meanwhile, Mohammed Saad, sitting on the edge of his bed, recalled a time when he had a plush army job at al-Katiba, a time when he scarcely imagined he would be ordered to turn on his own family. Yesterday, Mr Saad, 23, winced as he removed his cardigan to expose the gunshot wound that nearly killed him. He was shot after refusing to fire his gun when protesters overran the military compound, the culmination of a defining battle in the fall of Benghazi to anti-regime forces. "The last thing I remember is an officer putting his gun to my chest, and shouting: 'Go and shoot! Go and shoot!'" Mr Saad recalled, describing how hours later he woke up in a Benghazi hospital.

Soldiers retreated to al-Katiba after the protests that broke out on 15 February turned violent when loyalist troops fired on the demonstrators, killing dozens. Heavily outgunned residents then staged a three-day battle for control of the barracks, the turning point coming when one protester packed his car with explosives and rammed it into the walls of the base.

The fall of the military base was a crucial victory for the revolutionary forces, sweeping away Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi's control in the east of the country, and bringing his 42-year rule to the brink of collapse. "You know what al-Katiba meant?" said Mohammed Hussein, a doctor. "It was a terrifying seat of power. It was a signal to everyone who drives by to say, 'Here we are'."

Mr Saad was one of a privileged few to obtain a posting at al-Katiba, which meant instant privileges and better wages. But he never thought his loyalty would be tested. When fighting first broke out between protesters and government forces, he and his colleagues were put on standby, ordered to shoot anyone who attempted to enter. It was only when his father finally reached him that he understood that the protesters were ordinary people from the city.

"My father called me to come home, and then said, 'Even if you [think you are going to] die, don't shoot.' He told me: 'I am one of the protesters,'" Mr Saad said. "I felt frozen. I had this image that if I fired, I would shoot my father."

Mr Saad was not the only one to feel conflicted. He claims that several of his older army colleagues were ordered to change into plain clothes and drive out in unmarked cars and shoot anybody they saw. About 20 of them refused, and were executed, he claimed.

More than a week since the fighting stopped, hundreds still flock to al-Katiba to glimpse the remnants of the regime. Few Libyans have ever seen inside the dreaded compound, yet now they wander freely through the burnt-out and ransacked buildings. In the dungeon where the soldiers were killed and burned, a large concrete box with thin shafts of daylight coming from half a dozen narrow windows now draws a steady stream of visitors. Mariam Fatrusi, who had arrived with her sister to have a look, had decided, however, that it was a mistake to have come. "It is an evil place, I can feel very bad things were done here," she said. "They should seal it up."

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