TARHUNA, Libya – It’s hard to find a starker illustration of the failures of Libya’s political leadership than Tarhuna, a town between the Mediterranean coast and the desert where seven brothers from the Kani family and their militiamen detained, tortured and killed hundreds of inhabitants. in a five-year reign of terror.
Two years after their hold was broken, Tarhuna is still searching for bodies. The hilly groves that produce its famous olive oil now hide mass graves. Some families are missing half a dozen or more members. Others say they learned the fate of their loved ones from former prisoners or other witnesses: an uncle thrown to the Kani brothers’ pet lions; a cousin buried alive.
Clothes still litter the ground outside a sun-drenched makeshift prison where the brothers’ militia kept prisoners in oven-like cupboards that were just right for a crouching man.
“We will move on when we have justice and they pay for their crimes,” said Kalthoum el-Hebshi, a retired director of a nursing school in Tarhuna. “Until then, there will be no reconciliation,” she added. “When you tell me ‘make peace’, how can I make peace with someone who has blood on their hands? How can I shake his hand?
After more than a year of fragile stability, Libya is tipping back into the chaos that shattered it after rebels toppled Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the dictator of more than 40 years, in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. The upheaval has left the North African country split in two, east and west, divided by two rival governments and dozens of rival militias that operate above the law.
Last year, a period of relative peace offered a glimmer of hope. Elections scheduled for December were meant to produce a government that could reunite long-divided Libyan institutions, frame a constitution, disarm militias and expel foreign fighters. But disagreements over the eligibility of candidates scuttled the vote, plunging a country on Europe’s doorstep into a new phase of uncertainty.
The mayhem has also made justice elusive in Tarhuna, where leaders on both sides of the Libyan divide are implicated in the rise of the Kanis.
“Everyone at the scene is only looking out for their own interests,” said Hamza el-Kanouni, 39, whose uncle was killed by the Kanis and whose cousin was held in a Kani prison for three months . “They don’t even see Libya.
The brothers left behind graves containing hundreds of bodies, according to a United Nations panel that recently identified several new burial sites in Tarhuna. Libyan investigators said they had found nearly 250 bodies so far and identified about 60 percent.
But 470 families have reported missing relatives, so the toll is almost certainly much higher, according to Kamal Abubaker, a DNA specialist overseeing the search and identification effort.
Ms el-Hebshi, director of the retired nursing school, said her eldest son was abducted in 2011 for supporting anti-Gaddafi rebels. Her brother disappeared following the uprising and her second son was kidnapped by the Kanis.
No bodies were ever found, and she continues to hope against all hope, she said, that they will end up alive in a distant prison.
The Kanis’ murderous streak began in the midst of the 2011 revolt, when they exploited lawlessness to settle scores with their rivals and entrench themselves in Tarhuna, a town of around 70,000 people. They built their power and wealth through smuggling and extortion, residents said.
In 2016, they had allied themselves with the Tripoli government supported by the international community, which paid them to provide security. Three years later, a new civil war erupted when Khalifa Hifter, the leader of eastern Libya, launched an assault on Tripoli.
The Kanis moved on to Mr. Hifter’s camp. But all the while, whichever side they were on, the killings continued, residents said.
When Tripoli government forces defeated Mr. Hifter with Turkish backing in 2020, they expelled the Kanis from Tarhuna.
Now the city wants justice.
But the Libyan government is paralyzed. After the budget cuts, efforts to discover and identify Tarhuna’s dead have nearly stalled. The country is not divided by religion or ideology. But a host of other obstacles stand in the way of progress: the intervention of foreign powers, including Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt, which value Libya for its strategic location and oil reserves; the need to reconcile east and west after recent fighting; and political leaders who show little interest in resolving the crisis unless it benefits them.
“At the moment, there is no clear path other than continued stalemate and instability,” said Wolfram Lacher, Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Everything is total opportunism. It is only a matter of allocating positions and funds.
While UN-brokered negotiations in Cairo and Geneva earlier this year have failed to make progress, Libya has two rival prime ministers: western-based Abdul Hamid Dbeiba and eastern-based Fathi Bashagha. is, handpicked by Mr. Hifter.
Mr. Hifter is widely reviled in western Libya for his offensive in Tripoli, during which Libyans accused him of bombing residential neighborhoods and torturing and killing civilians. A U.S. federal judge issued a default judgment against him on Friday after repeatedly skipping depositions for a federal trial in which Libyan plaintiffs accused him of war crimes.
But many Libyans reject both Eastern and Western leaders.
“We don’t want anyone who came before,” said Anwar Sawon, a local leader from Misurata town who fought in the 2011 uprising. “We just want new faces. People who just want to serve the people.
After a year in which many Tripoli residents have grown accustomed to safe, well-maintained roads with functioning streetlights, basic services are down again.
Hundreds of people across the country recently protested the deteriorating situation, setting fire to part of the eastern-based parliament building in disgust at the power cuts that lasted until 6 p.m. and interested politicians.
“People’s demands are very small, just the essentials – no more power cuts, food is available,” said Halima Ahmed, 30, a law professor at Sabha University in the southern desert. Libya. “Our dream during the revolution was, we wanted to be like Dubai. Now we just want stability.
After the fall of the Kani at Tarhuna, some 16,000 people fled, including Kani supporters, militiamen and the five Kani brothers who survived the outbreak of fighting that surrounded the assault on Tripoli.
Now many of them want to come back.
With no help from national leaders, an informal group of tribal elders from across the country stepped in to help resettle the exiles. It’s part of their long-standing work mediating disputes: tribal clashes over property lines that escalate into kidnappings and murders; personal feuds that sparked a cycle of murder.
Tribal elders unrelated to either party hear from both sides, assign responsibility, and negotiate a settlement, which may involve compensation, formal apologies, and vows not to relapse.
Nothing is legally binding, but settlements are generally honored out of respect for mediators. Those who break their word, mediators say, are excluded from the unwritten pact that governs much of Libyan society: the next time they are involved in a dispute, no one will intervene.
Tarhuna’s victims do not see reconciliations as a substitute for a functioning justice system. Some of them said they repeatedly tried to approach the police because they did not want to resort to revenge killings, but the authorities did nothing.
In a country where those with power, money and guns are answerable to no one, however, mediators are all they have.
“We don’t have the law in our hands. The only thing we can do is give our word of honor,” said Ali Agouri, 68, a tribal representative who has worked on reconciliation in Tarhuna. “There is no state, but the people want justice.