Gaddafi's notorious Abu Salim jail becomes car market in new Libya

Political prisoners were incarcerated within these walls for years, sometimes without trial - in one day alone 1,276 were killed

Kim Sengupta
Saturday 06 June 2015 23:07
Abu Salim prison yard as it is today
Abu Salim prison yard as it is today

Engines are revved up, bodyworks minutely examined, questions asked about mileage on the clocks, deals are struck, in some cases after prolonged haggling, and new owners drive away amid clouds of dust.

There are dodgy dealers, careful family men seeking the best value for their money, would-be boy racers looking wistfully at hot numbers – it is a scene from a used car market anywhere. The difference, however, is that this was once the prison yard of Abu Salim, a jail synonymous with fear and brutality in Libya’s vicious recent history.

Political prisoners were incarcerated within these walls for years, sometimes without trial. Many suffered violent deaths: in one terrible day alone in June 1996, 1,276 were killed in the infamous “Abu Salim massacre”, cited internationally ever since as an egregious example of the murderous nature of the regime. It was the arrest of a lawyer in February 2011, Fathi Terbil, who was representing families of victims, which lit the spark for the revolution that finally engulfed Muammar Gaddafi.

Nasser Eswabagh was a former prisoner who made it out alive

The car market is part of the new face of the country, tracts of official land being taken over for unregulated private enterprise in an economy in freefall, with oil production the country’s only source of foreign exchange of any note.

But life goes on, even in a fractured society, and for many at the car lot, especially the young, what happened at Abu Salim has blurred into all the other miseries that befell their country.

“Yes, my father and uncles used to talk about Abu Salim, but you can’t spend all your time thinking about things like that,” was the view of 19-year-old Motassem al-Nasri, a business management student, as he peered into a BMW 325 coupé his father was buying for him. “Things are not too good at the moment, but things will change. In the meantime, you just need to enjoy yourself the best you can.”

Watching from an entrance to the car park, Nasser Eswabagh was upset. A former prisoner in Abu Salim, he had come to pay his respects to fellow inmates who did not make it out alive. “Now we have this,” he said, waving his hand at the crowd and noise. “We used to see families arrive here to take back prisoners who could not walk because they had broken bones. There was blood on the ground. Now they are using this place as a souk; it is shameful.”

Mr Eswabagh , a 47-year-old engineer, cannot forget the beatings and electric shocks, the abuse and humiliation, being woken up in the middle of the night to cries of pain from fellow inmates.

“I have bad dreams, I suffer from depression. Those of us who were there, our lives will never be the same again,” he said, as he showed me the cell where he had been kept in solitary confinement for weeks: a space so cramped that he could touch both side walls with his hands.

“And this is where they used to hang us by the arms and beat us,” he said, in another room that had been partly destroyed when the rebels stormed the jail.

Mr Eswabagh had come to the notice of the secret police as a student for reading Islamic religious books. He was arrested, charged with and convicted of denigrating the state by questioning Colonel Gaddafi’s philosophy in 1995.

The cells of Abu Salim, a jail synonymous with fear and brutality in Libya’s vicious recent history

“Fifteen of us were kept in a cell meant for three, there was very little food and the attacks were constant – not just kicks and punches, but also electric shocks. Some men were raped with instruments,” he recalled.

During the massacre of 1996, Mr Eswabagh was locked in a cell, while others who had been involved in a disturbance in another wing were mowed down in one of the yards. “We heard the shooting and then screams, then more shooting and screams: we knew that people were dying. It was only afterwards that we realised just how many,” he said.

Five years later, Mr Eswabagh was released to a family he had not seen since he was sentenced. He tried to pick up his life: getting married, starting a family, finding a job and ensuring he did nothing to provoke the authorities.

Then came the revolution, raising the hopes of Mr Eswabagh and his fellow citizens that there was a bright and peaceful future ahead. But that hope, he feels, is fading; people have forgotten about the struggle which gave them the opportunity to change things. “We have so much inequality. There are people who are very rich and people who have no jobs. Even having a job doesn’t mean you get a salary: I haven’t been paid for three months by the state electricity company where I work. Things are very difficult.”

The difficulty that young Mr Nasri faced at the car market was choosing between a BMW and an Audi. “I like German things, I want to live there one day,” he said. Would he consider taking the migrant route, being smuggled across the Mediterranean into Europe, I asked. He looked shocked. “That’s for blacks and people like the Syrians. My father is an industrialist. He will get me there; things will get better here as well; we have oil, foreigners will want to do business with us again.” He was convinced.

Mr Eswabagh summed up: “Yes, we do have oil, a population of just six million, so this should be a rich country. But everyone should benefit from this, not just a few. People sacrificed a lot to try to achieve this.”

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments