Libyan 'prison massacre grave' revives painful memories

image captionPeople have been collecting bones from the suspected site of the mass grave

The discovery of what is believed to be a mass grave for more than 1,200 prisoners killed at Tripoli's Abu Salim jail in 1996 has evoked painful memories for those who have waited years to learn the fate of loved ones, the BBC's Rana Jawad reports from Tripoli.

The site is a massive, arid plot of land scattered with dry shrubs that stretches out behind the outer concrete walls of Tripoli's Abu Salim prison - a place long associated with the horrors of incarceration.

Some recently uncovered bone fragments are strewn in several locations.

It is here that officials think some 1,270 prisoners were buried after what is known as the Abu Salim massacre, one of the darkest chapters of Col Gaddafi's rule.

Under the Gaddafi regime, Abu Salim was often home to political inmates, alleged Islamists and prisoners of conscience.

The families of the 1996 victims have long been waiting for answers.

'Important discovery'

None received the remains of those believed to have been killed on that day. Only a few were given death certificates in recent years, after more than a decade of denials.

The arrest of a lawyer investigating the killings was the trigger for the first protests of this year's uprising.

On 15 February this year - two nights ahead of schedule - the families of some of the victims of the killings took to the streets in the eastern city of Benghazi, angered by the arrest of Fathi Terbil.

Others soon joined the small rally, which transformed into a call for Benghazi "to rise up" against the regime.

Many locals often whispered about the possible burial site. They believed it was somewhere near the prison, and after the fall of Tripoli last month, some went searching.

Some of the bones appeared to be too large to belong to humans, prompting scepticism among journalists.

But Dr Ibrahim Mohamed Abushima, a member of the 17 February Brigade that announced the discovery of the site, says the fact that former prison guards pointed to a burial site makes him confident that this is where the victims are buried.

"It's very important because it indicates the crimes that the regime of Gaddafi has done against the Libyan people and [how] in one day and one night he killed 1,270 people only because they demand the right for better food, better health, observation and treatment," he says.

media captionInside the prison where the bodies are believed to be buried

"We have to take the assistance of committees coming from outside Libya to come and help us dig [up] the people, and make the necessary tests to testify that they are the people who are missing."

For Abdel-Ati Mohamed Zahmoul, a resident of Tripoli's Souk Al Joumha who was jailed here, the prison brings back a flood of painful memories.

After wiping away silent tears, he describes how security forces took him from his home in 1989, along with his brother Faouzi.

He says they were targeted on suspicion of Islamist extremism because they frequented a local mosque and grew beards.

'Heard screaming'

It was a common story at a time when Islamist-inspired underground opposition groups, particularly from eastern Libya, were attempting to assassinate or overthrow Col Gaddafi.

The crackdown against overt piousness was severe. Many of those jailed were believed to be law-abiding citizens who prayed a lot.

Abdel-Ati made it out alive in 2001, but his brother was not so lucky.

"My brother Fouazi Mohamed Zahmoul was murdered in 1996," he says.

image captionMr al-Salam said his son was killed at the Abu Salim prison in 1996

"I was there. I was in another cell block, one wall away. They separated 200 prisoners from the other inmates and then we found out that all the others were executed. Some of the prison guards told us… and we heard the screaming and the gunfire.

"Six or seven months later they took some of us to clean that other block, we didn't find anyone there and we knew they were all executed."

It is a similarly poignant occasion for an elderly man from Tripoli who gives his last name as al-Salam and says he lost his son at Abu Salim.

He slowly makes his way out of the site, clutching the arm of a younger man.

He embraces and thanks one of the National Transitional Council (NTC) soldiers from the 17 February Brigade. Pausing to thank two reporters, he is asked why his son was jailed.

"There was no reason," he says. "Like everyone else, we asked for many years."

For him, and for Abdel-Ati Mohamed Zahmoul, this discovery - if confirmed - may allow them put some bones, and a burning desire for closure, to rest.