Mohammed Busidra meets old ghosts as he revisits the Libyan prison where he spent 21 years
The moment he enters the sprawling, high-walled compound in a rundown Tripoli neighbourhood, Mohammed Busidra starts whispering urgent prayers. This is Abu Salim, Libya’s most notorious prison for suspected political dissidents during Muammar Gadafy’s 42 years in power. Busidra, who spent over 21 years in jail without charge, was one of its best-known inmates. It is his first visit to Abu Salim, which has lain abandoned since it was broken open by anti-Gadafy fighters last August, since he was released from prison in 2009.
“The memories are flooding back,” he says, as we pass by grim, grey prison blocks. “Most of all, I remember my friends who came here and were never seen again. So many were lost within these walls.” Busidra, who studied biochemistry in Wales as a young man, was in his early 30s when he was arrested and brought to Abu Salim. At the time of his incarceration he was not involved in any opposition group, but he was active with the Tableeghi Jamaat, an apolitical transnational movement that calls on Muslims to be more observant. “As far as the regime was concerned, being a good Muslim was enough to make you suspicious,” he says.
He and his wife Salma had two children, Asiya and Tariq, then aged three and four. The regime forced Salma to divorce her imprisoned husband against her will, a move designed simply to further humiliate the young mother, who was then in her early 20s.
Busidra would not see his son and daughter again until they had reached their late teens and the family was granted a brief visit. “Tariq said to me: ‘Father, hit me before we leave you,’” recalls Busidra, as we approach the section where he was held for much of his time at Abu Salim, 10 years of which he spent in isolation. “I asked him why and he told me he wanted to take away something from me, even if it was pain.” Down a dank stairway, its walls now blackened and covered with anti-Gadafy graffiti, Busidra pauses as if to steel himself: “Here is where the torture began.” The steps lead to a series of small basement rooms: some have a tiny window, others allow no natural light at all.
“They would blindfold me and throw me down these stairs,” Busidra remembers. “But that was nothing compared to what they did to us in these cells.” Here Busidra was subjected to mock hangings in which prison guards would release him once he lost consciousness.
On other occasions he was suspended from the ceiling by his hands for hours or kept in a freezing cell after being stripped of his clothes. He was beaten on the feet and other parts of the body. Once, Busidra’s ears were so badly damaged they would not stop bleeding and he lost his hearing in one ear for several months.
“I weighed about 48kg at the time so I was physically weak and with every torture I would fall unconscious,” he says. “They wanted me to incriminate others but I would prefer to die than to give names. I considered my habit of quickly becoming unconscious a help from Allah. Others were subjected to even worse torture. I spent one week in a cell that measured less than a square metre, but others spent months there.
“Some were stripped and put in a room with dogs that had been trained to rape. Unspeakable things happened in this place that no human being should ever experience.”
Busidra walks along a corridor of the main prison block before stopping at a door hanging open, its broken lock now beginning to rust. “I spent years here,” he says, gazing inside the empty space of what was once a group cell.
“The average number of people in this room was around 20, which was already too much, but sometimes, as punishment, they would put 45 people in here. We had to take turns sleeping and disease was common due to overcrowding.”
The name Abu Salim looms large in the imagination of many Libyans because of what transpired within its walls over two June days in 1996. It began with a protest by some prisoners demanding better conditions.
Two guards were taken hostage, one of whom later died. The guards’ keys were used to open cells and those languishing inside ran out into adjoining courtyards only to be shot at by guards on the roof. Six were killed and 14 injured.
“I told my fellow prisoners to prepare for death as Gadafy will kill us all now,” Busidra recalls. Abdullah Senussi, Gadafy’s brother-in-law and intelligence chief, came to the prison. The inmates chose five among them, including Busidra, to negotiate.
“After around 12 hours of discussions they gave us assurances regarding our demands but later they called us negotiators out again. I thought they were going to kill us.”
Instead, Busidra and others were taken to another part of the prison compound where the following day they heard the first crackle of gunfire at about 11am. It didn’t stop until early afternoon. Regime forces shot dead some 1,200 inmates who had been herded into several courtyards.
Today the courtyards where what became known as the Abu Salim massacre took place are deserted and eerie. “I remember the sound of the bullets and the screaming,” Busidra says quietly as he leans against the wall of one yard. “It went on for hours. It is a sound I will never forget. I consider those who died my brothers.” For years, Libyan officials denied that the killings at Abu Salim had ever taken place. The men’s families were kept in the dark – they continued to bring food and clothes to the prison, not knowing their loved ones were dead.
The first public acknowledgement was by Gadafy in 2004, but there has never been an official account of what happened that day.
It was protests by women whose male relatives had perished in the massacre that prepared the ground for wider demonstrations against the regime in February last year, which in turn evolved into the fully-fledged uprising that dislodged Gadafy.
In Abu Salim, Busidra tried to continue his dawa, or missionary work, with fellow prisoners. He would deliver sermons by lying on his stomach and shouting through the sliver of space between his cell door and the floor. He believes his reputation as a preacher and confidant for many of the inmates is the reason he was later put in an isolation cell.
“My faith sustained me throughout,” he says. “I knew my only crime – in the regime’s eyes – was calling people to Islam. I accepted what Allah had ordained for me.”
Busidra was reunited with Salma and his children when he was freed almost three years ago. The family lives together in Benghazi, where, over a recent lunch, Busidra and his wife became tearful as they talked of the decades stolen from them. Like many Libyans, Busidra cheered when he heard news of Abdullah Senussi’s arrest this weekend in Mauritania. “For me, this man is a symbol of agony, torture, and inhumanity,” he says.
“Whatever punishment he gets will not be enough, given everything he has done.”
As we leave the ghostly silence of Abu Salim behind, I ask Busidra what he thinks should become of the prison whose name once haunted so many Libyans within and without its walls. “We should turn it into a museum so that Libya and the world will never forget what happened here,” he says.
“Remembering what Gadafy did will help prevent any chance of us enduring dictatorship again.”