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Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Qawalish Tree Farm Massacre: The Victims, Exhumed

September 19
last edits October 4

This follows on the Qawalish Tree Farm Massacre, and specifically on my previous analysis of its 34 victims. It seems their remains were recently located - just outside al-Qawalish - buried under earth but exhumed and for the most part identified - perhaps accurately - as abducted rebel sympathizers.

34 Bodies Recovered and Identified
The International Red Cross said it has discovered 13 mass graves in different sites around Libya's capital Tripoli, and one in the western part of the country during the past few weeks and is handling the remains carefully, the international body said on Wednesday.

It added that 125 bodies were discovered around Tripoli and 34 have been recovered in al-Qala'a, in the Nefusa mountains in western Libya.
'This week we dispatched two forensic experts to the field to support our colleagues already involved in the management of human remains,' said Carole Pittet, an ICRC staff member in Tripoli.
As far as the Tripoli victims go, these graves weren't suddenly discovered until after the rebels took over. We can be fairly sure they are responsible for those, totaling another 125 victims I'll need to add soon to the Tripoli massacres masterlist. As for the find "in al-Qala'a," the Tripoli Post quotes a bit more from the ICRC:
[Pittet] went on to say: "The newly established National Council for the Missing quickly turned to us for technical support. There have been reports of improvised exhumations, which carry the risk that remains could be mishandled. Important information needed for proper identification of the dead could be lost."

It is particularly important to preserve any available proof of identity when no family member has come forward to claim or identify a set of remains, ICRC said in tis statement.

The ICRC has helped to ensure that the remains of 125 people found at 12 different sites in and around Tripoli have been handled properly. It has also provided support for the recovery of the remains of 34 people in Al Qala'a, in the Nafusa mountains.

The ICRC is not involved in collecting evidence that could be used in any legal proceedings, it said.
The big find on this development is from Human Rights Watch, September 14, who did an exhaustive bit of talking to possibly shifty people and called it an investigation. By what they say and show in photos from the site, someone had later filled over the mass grave with dirt, from which the bodies had to be exhumed by the Red Crescent. The report said in part:
Thirty-four bodies exhumed from a mass grave near the town of al-Qawalish in western Libya seem to be those of men detained by pro-Gaddafi forces in early June 2011, Human Rights Watch said today.

The evidence strongly suggests the detainees were executed at that time, before the pro-Gaddafi forces fled from the area, in the Nafusa mountains. The bodies of another three who seem to have been executed by the same perpetrators have also been discovered nearby. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch the victims had been detained from or near their homes or at a major checkpoint in the area, and included at least nine men aged over 60, including an 89-year-old man. The majority were from the nearby town of al-Qal’a.

“The mass grave at al-Qawalish contains further evidence strongly suggesting that Gaddafi loyalists carried out mass executions of detainees as they struggled to suppress the uprising,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “These victims included some very old men, some executed together with their sons.”

During a visit by Human Rights Watch to the region shortly after pro-Gaddafi forces had fled the area on July 6, the new authorities in towns near al-Qawalish furnished the names of 173 missing men, including 81 from al-Qal’a. Villagers and investigators from the ad hoc regional council for the Nafusa mountains said the fate of the missing was not established until rebels captured a Gaddafi loyalist whose mobile phone contained a video clip showing the bodies of men, bound and blindfolded, lying in a forest clearing. Relatives of many of the missing from al-Qal’a told Human Rights Watch they recognized some of the dead in the video, and recognized the location as a forest behind a Libyan Scouts base on the western edge of al-Qawalish.
On the location given - the sources and images I've looked at have Gaddafi forces at check points near Qawalish. Two of them have forested areas right behind, either of which could fit the video. One is a smaller patch of trees I haven't mentioned much, due south of town, behind a check-point. One is a couple miles east of town, and apparently a site the rebels loathed - the Almliab Scouting camp, with an extensive tree farm behind it. The third possible match nearby, actually named by some sources as the exact location, is west of town. But the Alumblyab tree farm is about two miles from the nearest check-point rebels have identified(which is on the western edge). Thus it has none of the implied access control (in June) of the other spots. So this point remains muddled - it's not being made clear where this happened. But a bunch of people were just there, and might be able to provide more details (I'll try and find out).

HRW shared some photographs of the bodies during exhumation. Their positioning matches the Tree Farm massacre victims to a T - number 8's index finger is a dead giveaway. Here at left is the span from victims 4-8, before and after burial. This helps me realize #5, a teenage boy it seems, like 4 and six flanking him, was wearing sandals. That wasn't clear before.

Note that the corpses are badly decomposed, dessicated, and collapsed. #7 in particular looks almost fully skeletonized. He's also had his arms kicked or tugged to a different position. Predation, perhaps.

Per what HRW heard, the Libyan Red Crescent, with NTC approval of course, had started the dig around August 20. "An investigative team from the Nafusa mountains regional council was also present," they reported. Between them and bereaved locals, who had put out calls for nearly 200 missing loved ones, "twenty-seven of the 34 bodies were subsequently identified."
The exhumed bodies were blindfolded with hands tied. The discovery of bullet casings at the site suggests the captors shot the men with automatic gunfire before burying them in a shallow common grave. Near the mass grave is a separate grave containing three more bodies that have not yet been exhumed, but have been tentatively identified based on footwear and other physical evidence.
The confirmed 85-year-old man is now a confirmed 83-year-old and an 89-year-old, per their list of 27 names. There are a lot of names given, and talk of family members identifying nearly all the dead, even with their faces rotted away and little left but clothes and bones on some. Our friend Algelawy2009 had already cited among the dead in the video he re-posted "my uncle and his name Emahmed Soliman and his son next to him." HRW sort of confirms this, again via locals tapped into the rebel network, with the names of victims Ali Emhammed Al-Baden, 34" and his father, "Mohammed Suleiman Al-Baden, 71" (see first link at top). If this is to line up, the son was not the kid with the hole in his head, as I thought, but likely the man with his pants down. The name jumble of a close relative is a little more mysterious.

The identities were verified by family members, on verbal authority with no proof required, one presumes. Even someone who knew the footwear of the loyalists he helped kill could just say his uncle was wearing that kind of sandal and HRW might call it confirmed and identified. We can't rule out that this was done here

More from the Witnesses
Some witnesses they spoke to had details of the camp and who was there. One man, a physics teacher, says he was briefly detained at the check-point and saw about half of the eventual victims, still alive, and was allowed to witness a certain boy badly beaten in the presence of his father, and himself, for some reason. Yet another was detained and beaten just for being from Qala'a, which Gaddafi people just hated (perhaps as much as the rebels hated Qawalish). He too "witnessed the beating of one detainee, Yusef Mohammed Ajal," as well getting to see "the Gaddafi forces took away the lifeless body" of the same man, "who remains missing."

Another HRW witness said he was transported from the check-point to Tripoli by intelligence officers who said, within his earshot, that they belonged to the “Main Operations Room of Abdullah Sanussi,” Libya’s intelligence director. Further, "one of the detainees and two persons who witnessed arrests said foreign African mercenaries were present, both at the Scouts base and during arrest raids. They said they knew they were foreigners because of their tribal scars and foreign accents and names."

Veeeery fruitful interviews, just brimming with detail. But there's an odd aspect of this camp I wasn't aware of before:
Although it remains unclear which forces were in command of the Scouts base, former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said the majority of the soldiers at the base belonged to the “Civil Guard” (Haras al-Sha’bi). Graffiti around the base identified their unit as the “Storm Forces.” The Civil Guard is a paramilitary group with a relationship to the revolutionary committees of the Gaddafi government.
So there's unspecified evidence rebels might have been in charge of, for example, who was buried there. And countering it is rebel-supporting locals and their graffiti to make clear it was the government forces. And that makes sense, back in early June, when these people were allegedly taken and killed. And we're to presume there's no way the massacre happened later, like in July, after the rebels took over and started dumping their loyalist victims outside of Qawalish.

Coffin Display
part of the giant image of the dead
displayed near the coffins
I've been alerted to available footage of a funeral - or public showing of the coffins - for the tree farm massacre victims. After being retrieved finally, they were trucked up to Qala'a, where it's said they're primarily from. The seceneray, stark and mountainous with a great view of other great views, looks right, and the number of coffins seems about right.

These videos were posted by Youtube user Qalaa17Febon September 11 and 13, more than a month after the discovery, but just as the Red Cross/Red Crescent were announcing the news.
(Raw footage of the coffins, version with other footage mixed in). 

There are six rows of coffins, six coffins per row except the last which has five. This makes 35 coffins total to 34 victims. That's slightly odd. There were the extra three, but it was said they weren't yet exhumed. All but eight, I believe, of the coffins have pictures attached, and there's exactly one one with rebel colors attached to that, in a band across the top (visible in image below). I put these facts side-by-side on the off-chance the one extra coffin and the one marked rebel are related. Not that an absence of colors detracts from the nature of the victims claimed - those suspect enough in loyalty to be arrested at check-points.

The bodies are wrapped, so even those in open caskets give no clues. But the photos sticking up on standard blue show a consistent mix of ages, including one smiling, fair-skinned boy, and a few old men. Faces cannot be matched with the dead one-by-one from the face-down corpses, but general patterns might be considered. For example, as far as I can tell, all the displayed photos (27) show Arab faces, and none show black faces. The 27 HRW cited as identified lines up. This spurs me to re-examine the racial makeup of the dead, as shown on video. On first count I had as many as 17 possibly black victims, or up to 50%.
Race is hard to be certain with in this case, but given the rebel penchant for killing black "Gaddafi mercenaries," it remains a crucial clue. Skin tone and hair type can be quite similar between Arabs and Blacks. Facial features say it best, but again, the victims were nearly all face-down. And even at the best resolution, the low lighting and distances wreak havoc on the video evidence. On closer look, and using my victim numbering, I make this call (which could of course still be wrong):

Definitely black: victims 14, 16, 17, 18, 22, 25, 26, 27 (8 total)
likely black: victims 7, 10, 13, 15, 19, 24 (6 total)

So that's possibly 14, at least 8, and more likely somewhere between the two - 10-12 is a likely range. That leaves at most 26 presumably Arab/light-skinned victims, to the 27 faces shown (aside from the extra coffin, apparently in the unidentified category). If there were any more than 8 black people there, we've got at least some body-or-identity-swapping going on here. But if the smaller number 8 is exactly right, I cannot rule this display out as the massacre's known remains, with an extra victim. But if so, all the black-skinned anti-government Qala'a villagers killed by Gaddafi's troops were exactly the ones left unidentified.

Where are their families to ID them? Or were they some of the "mercenaries" with tribal scars? Thrown in by whom? Who wouldn't claim the mercs as family? Are they calling the remaining 7/8 bodies unclaimed Arab revolutionaries, awaiting their exiled family's naming by sandal? Or will they admit the implications of this obvious disconnect?
Update, October 1:

An article I'd somehow missed the first time around add details. It was widely re-published too.
Libyans Find Mass Grave of Slain Detainees By Karin Laub, Associated Press, September 9.
The article also deals in some detail with 18 victims who died locked in a cargo container near Khoms, some distance away (that is, the incidents aren't related). They had reportedly been locked inside, then left there as Gaddafi soldiers transporting them either waited coldly for them to die, or were incinerated by a NATO bomb before they could re-open it, depending whether one believes the story of the convenient survivor. 

But the main issue is its treatment of the Qawalish tree farm massacre, which follows the usual lines while ading details, like a twist to the location: "As part of their deployment in the mountains, Gadhafi's troops were encamped in a center for boy scouts on the outskirts of Galaa, a village of about 7,000 people, in late spring and early summer." It's been established this is the outskirts of Qawalish, not Qala'a/Galaa. While I always thought "scouting camp" meant government scouting, not kid's stuff, it could be as she says. It alsohas a changed number of bodies, in conformity with those laid to rest, and confirming my count of them.
GALAA, Libya (AP) — In a grove of pine trees near this mountain village, residents have dug up the remains of 35 bound and blindfolded men who they say were shot at close range by Moammar Gadhafi's military.
The 34/35 discrepancy remains unexplained. Laub apparently spoke with many witnesses, including a local photographer named Kreir who recognized the area from the video and other locals who loast family. As the story goes, they soon gathered to help the Red Crescent recover the remains, starting on discovering the site August 20. It adds details to how they were identified, which make some sense, and explains the framed video stills shown at the funeral:
There were particularly painful discoveries. [Mohammed] Ajal, one of the volunteers, found his father and one of his brothers. Kamal Grada, 31, discovered a younger brother. Although the bodies were in advanced stages of decay, 28 were identified, using clothing, keys and cellphone memory cards, according to searchers and the rebels' justice minister, Mohammed al-Alagi.

After 10 days of digging, the bodies were laid to rest Wednesday in a special cemetery in Galaa, each grave marked by a gray cement block. Large photos marked the graves of those who were identified, while the other graves remained bare.

Kreir set up a memorial and photo exhibit in the cemetery, including frame grabs from the cellphone video and pictures from the dig. Grieving relatives and village residents paid their respects Thursday and clustered around the photo exhibit.
Useful images attached to that article:
Mass grave after exhumation, Sept.7 - has better clues on location-two roads visible to the south, I think.
Grave sites, Sept. 7 - with better views of the full-color photos staked at the heads of each grave.

Oct.4: And thanks to Felix, another video of the "funeral"procession up the hill. Many people are filming it, suggesting again, as mentioned in the comments but not yet in the article, that this is more of a display for the outside world than a funeral for loved ones. For the hundreds of people observing this ceremony for killed locals, there's no visible grief or wailing anywhere in the available videos.


  1. So now the case is solved by the rebels...

    You're point that none of the photo’s shows a black face is a good one. And the same applies for the mourners.

    For me, there is something odd about the mourning community. It's strangely calm, no crying women, no men shouting and swearing revenge. I think it's the most emotionless Arab mourning I’ve ever seen... Family cohesion in Qala'a seems to be in a bad state.

    But of corse this is just a feeling given by the videos, no proof for anything. I'm afraid there will never be a real solution of this case, at least not for many years.

  2. Well, I acknowledge it looks solved on the surface, and that perhaps it's so. But I'm not convinced - our bar is set low for their clownish disinfo antics. I always wondered if they'd get more sophisticated sometime or on some crime.

    How many people are willing to claim a brother or son or uncle they never had? You wouldn't think it'd be high, but there are a loooot of variables we don't know at work. I can see this one isn't going to be easy to convince others of any possibility it's wrong.

    I agree on the calmness of the crowd. I did catch two boys in rebel shirts, one with head bowed, acting bereaved ... just acting? No one elseseems to bother.

    The lack of ID for the black victims mixed in remains a mystery. And the location isn't settled - I just found one possible match, and it's in Alumblyab, not behind the scout camp. Will post back with that.

    And there's still the odd-seeming "Gaddafi soldiers." And FWIW, the camera filming that is not a mobile phone as cited, but a proper camera with big viewfinder. Will finally put that post up, sometime...

  3. Yes, I had gladly seen the coffins carried by their friends and relatives to be more convinced. I think there was a lot of more emotions at the alleged fake funerals of the old government.

    Something else is strange for me about the funeral videos: Just a very few viewers at YouTube, nearly no comments. No friends and relatives who are wishing the murders to hell there. Despite the identification the victims are still surrounded by much emotional coldness.

    Just some ideas I just had, definitely no need to hurry in this "cold case".

  4. From the Guardian,London, 2 October 2011
    "How David Cameron swept aside sceptics over Libya campaign"

    "Defence sources say Britain provided logistical support to the rebels in the capital, as well as in the Nafusa mountains, including a bombing campaign that cleared the way for the rebels to come down from mountains towards Tripoli."

  5. We know NATO did that. Britain's role isn't usually specified. France actually air-dropped weapons to these mountain punks (revealed June 29) until they were armed enough to take a weapons depot (on June 29) and then another and soon, to start on their own with the takeovers and killings in Qawalish and other towns...

  6. Who needs UN resolutions?? Thanks for mentioning that Guardian article (Revealed June 29) which concludes with the paragraph:

    The Ministry of Defence said British forces had not supplied any weapons, though the Foreign Office acknowledged the UN resolution could be interpreted in different ways. "Our position is clear," a spokesman said. "There is an arms embargo in Libya. At the same time, UN resolution 1973 allows all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populations from the threat of attack. We think that the UN resolution allows, in certain limited circumstances, defensive weapons to be provided. But the UK is not engaged in that. Other countries will interpret the resolution in their own way."

    No comment.

    Incidentally there is good YouTube footage of the strangely witnessed funeral procession up the hillside. Quite a few spectators are taking photos.

  7. There is an important point noted by Mohammad Miloud Benhammed, the vice president of the Mitiga missing persons group on this Russia Today video. Families of dead Libyan Army soldiers and other Gaddafi supporters will claim that their relatives were "civilians caught in the crossfire" – this when speaking to the only neutral party in Libya.

    With a little pushing and some help from a Massacre Masseuse any dead Gaddafista can be turned into a revolutionary martyr. Who would want to be related to a dead servant of a dead tyrant when a far better afterlife is on offer as an icon of the revolution.


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