In Libya, the captors have become the captive

The New York Times reports: One night last September, a prisoner named Naji Najjar was brought, blindfolded and handcuffed, to an abandoned military base on the outskirts of Tripoli. A group of young men in camouflage pushed him into a dimly lit interrogation room and forced him to his knees. The commander of the militia, a big man with disheveled hair and sleepy eyes, stood behind Najjar. “What do you want?” the commander said, clutching a length of industrial pipe.

“What do you mean?” the prisoner said.

“What do you want?” the commander repeated. He paused. “Don’t you remember?”

Of course Najjar remembered. Until a few weeks earlier, he was a notorious guard at one of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s prisons. Then Tripoli fell, and the same men he’d beaten for so long tracked him down at his sister’s house and dragged him to their base. Now they were mimicking his own sadistic ritual. Every day, Najjar greeted the prisoners with the words What do you want? forcing them to beg for the pipe — known in the prison by its industrial term, PPR — or be beaten twice as badly. The militia commander now standing behind him, Jalal Ragai, had been one of his favorite victims.

“What do you want?” Jalal said for the last time. He held the very same pipe that had so often been used on him.

“PPR!” Najjar howled, and his former victim brought the rod down on his back.

I heard this story in early April from Naji Najjar himself. He was still being held captive by the militia, living with 11 other men who had killed and tortured for Qaddafi, in a large room with a single barred window and mattresses piled on the floor. The rebels had attached a white metal plate onto the door and a couple of big bolts, to make it look more like a prison. Najjar’s old PPR pipe and falga, a wooden stick used to raise prisoners’ legs in order to beat them on the soles of the feet, rested on a table upstairs. They had gotten some use in the first months of his confinement, when former victims and their relatives came to the base to deliver revenge beatings. One rebel laughed as he told me about a woman whose brother had his finger cut off in prison: when she found the man who did it, she beat him with a broom until it broke. Now, though, the instruments of torture were mostly museum pieces. After six months in captivity, Najjar — Naji to everyone here — had come to seem more clown than villain, and the militiamen had appointed him their cook. Slouching in an armchair among a group of rebels who smoked and chatted casually, Najjar recounted his strange journey from guard to prisoner. “One of the visitors once broke the PPR on me,” he told me.

“Naji, that wasn’t a PPR; it was plastic,” one rebel shot back. “You could beat a pig with a PPR all day, and it wouldn’t break.” Besides, he said, the visitor in question had a ruptured disc from one of Naji’s own beatings, so it was only fair. The men then got into a friendly argument about Naji’s favorite tactics for beating and whether he had used a pipe or a hose when he gashed Jalal’s forehead back in July.

The militia’s deputy commander strolled into the room and gave Najjar’s palm a friendly slap. “Hey, Sheik Naji,” he said. “You got a letter.” The commander opened it and began to read. “It’s from your brother,” he said, and his face lit up with a derisive smile. “It says: ‘Naji is being held by an illegal entity, being tortured on a daily basis, starved and forced to sign false statements.’ Oh, and look at this — the letter is copied to the army and the Higher Security Committee!” This last detail elicited a burst of laughter from the men in the room. Even Naji seemed to find it funny. “We always tell the relatives the same thing,” one man added, for my benefit: “There is no legal entity for us to hand the prisoners over to.”

Libya has no army. It has no government. These things exist on paper, but in practice, Libya has yet to recover from the long maelstrom of Qaddafi’s rule. The country’s oil is being pumped again, but there are still no lawmakers, no provincial governors, no unions and almost no police. Streetlights in Tripoli blink red and green and are universally ignored. Residents cart their garbage to Qaddafi’s ruined stronghold, Bab al-Aziziya, and dump it on piles that have grown mountainous, their stench overpowering. Even such basic issues as property ownership are in a state of profound confusion. Qaddafi nationalized much of the private property in Libya starting in 1978, and now the old owners, some of them returning after decades abroad, are clamoring for the apartments and villas and factories that belonged to their grandparents. I met Libyans brandishing faded documents in Turkish and Italian, threatening to take up arms if their ancestral tracts of land were not returned.

What Libya does have is militias, more than 60 of them, manned by rebels who had little or no military or police training when the revolution broke out less than 15 months ago. They prefer to be called katibas, or brigades, and their members are universally known as thuwar, or revolutionaries. Each brigade exercises unfettered authority over its turf, with “revolutionary legitimacy” as its only warrant. Inside their barracks — usually repurposed schools, police stations or security centers — a vast experiment in role reversal is being carried out: the guards have become the prisoners and the prisoners have become the guards. There are no rules, and each katiba is left to deal in its own way with the captives, who range from common criminals to Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the deposed leader’s son and onetime heir apparent. Some have simply replicated the worst tortures that were carried out under the old regime. More have exercised restraint. Almost all of them have offered victims a chance to confront their former torturers face to face, to test their instincts, to balance the desire for revenge against the will to make Libya into something more than a madman’s playground. [Continue reading…]

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