Whoever buried the five men, discovered on Wednesday in graves a little way outside the Libyan coastal city of Misrata, had a sense of order.
The bodies were buried neatly in a row of shallow sandy scrapes, each wrapped in a green military blanket, the last one of them interred on the stretcher on which he was, in all likelihood, killed.
Someone – no one knows who – had marked the place, leaving a sign next to the grave site saying: “Five dead.”
All of them were men, wearing civilian clothes.
Dr Faros Ahmed Dibrik gently uncovered one of the faces. From the state of decomposition, the man, like the others, had been dead for several months, probably killed during the bitter siege of Misrata by pro-Gaddafi forces.
A blindfold had been tied around the man’s eyes. Dibrik carefully pushed it back and brushed away the sandy earth.
The man’s forehead bore a bullet hole, just above his nose, penetrating the rag tied round his eyes. The damage at the back of the skull suggested he had been shot at close range. His hands and feet had been tied with thick green twine.
Dibrik and a colleague measured the body. They examined the teeth and talked into a microphone, recording the injuries.
Dibrik then moved to another body. Its hands too had been tied. The man on the stretcher, identifiable only by a serial number scrawled on a piece of paper and placed on his body, had also had his eyes covered before being shot. He had been a small man. When Dibrik rolled over the body his hands had also been tied behind his back.
Forty or so onlookers, some in the uniform of Libya’s revolutionary forces, stood watching by the graves in silence. Dibrik searched in the pocket of the tracksuit bottoms worn by one of the men, looking for ID. There was none.
“Nike,” he said. “Civilian clothes.”
A man standing nearby explained that many of the fighters from Misrata’s siege wore combat trousers, as many fighters do today, mixed with T-shirts or other civilian clothing.
Another made a calculation. “If these men were killed in April then this area of the front was under the control of Gaddafi forces. The only people who came here were shepherds.”
It is impossible to tell. What is clear is that they were executed and their bodies dumped. Whatever the circumstances of their death, these graves are evidence of a war crime, committed, it seems likely from the military stretcher and from the army blankets, by soldiers.
It seems likely too that these men’s names would appear on the list of the 1,000 or so still recorded by the town’s revolutionary forces as missing from the time of siege.
Where the bodies of those still missing have been hidden is only now slowly being revealed, in sandy remote plots like this, far from any houses.
It is evidence of what happened in Libya, beyond the eyes of reporters and human rights investigators, during the long months of war when atrocities were committed on both sides, and often with impunity.
It is not the first grave and nor will it be the last to be found near this city.
Even as the five bodies were exhumed, officials from the new government were searching for another grave which they had been told by a captured pro-Gaddafi fighter contained the bodies of 25 civilians captured during the town’s siege.
For those still looking for their family members, the battle for Misrata will only be over when the last grave is found.
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