Libya's Dead and Missing: The Cost of Reconquest

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Libyan rebels surround a destroyed Gaddafi tank near Ajdabiyah on March 26, 2011.

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Although few of their relatives want to think about the likelihood, there is little doubt that at least some of these young men, dead or injured, may have been swept up by Gaddafi's forces as they retreated. "Yesterday morning, a group of Gaddafi's people entered in about 10 civilian cars — mostly black cars — from the western gate, and gunfire broke out between them and the youth," says Muftah Ali, a paramedic from Ajdabiyah who has been at the hospital all day. "People come here, even from Benghazi, searching for their relatives. They're not dead and they're not injured," he says with a pause. "So they're kidnapped. There is a possibility they kidnapped her son."

If rebel control continues at its currently brisk pace, aided by a near constant onslaught of allied missiles to their enemies on the ground, the answers could come sooner rather than later. Or they might not. Rebel control is a loosely applied term, rarely meaning territory secured and more often referring to territory that the government has retreated from. And even by the latter definition, it's a fluid, reversible status that leaves many uneasy, and offers little comfort to the people looking for answers amid anarchy and ruin.

Perhaps more ominous still are the megatruckloads of unspent Grad missiles and tank shells left behind by Gaddafi's forces in their latest retreat, indicating that they were not about to run out of ammunition, as the rebels had optimistically claimed. Nor had they been cornered, their supply lines cut off. "The whole time, their trucks were going up and down the route between Ajdabiyah and Brega. No civilians, just military," says Salem Rashid al-Mughrabi who, under orders and threats from Gaddafi's troops, continued to operate a gas station at the halfway point between the two towns throughout Ajdabiyah's siege.

Brega's sprawling oil refinery is now eerily deserted. Graffiti on a wall outside that read "Nothing but God, Muammar and Libya" has had the Muammar crossed out, as the town has once again switched sides. But at a refinery's guard post, mattresses, blankets and a tube of toothpaste are strewn across the floor where locals say Gaddafi's troops were camped until as late as Saturday afternoon. A collection of military jackets and trousers are flung over an outside fence, lending credence to the oft repeated rebel claim that Gaddafi's forces shed their uniforms and melt into the population as they flee, and stoking fears of many who say they witnessed some of the battles play out between rebels and plainclothes men.

At the new front line, near the town of Bin Jawwad, about 12 miles (20 km) west of Brega, a scene of familiar chaos repeats itself on Sunday, as poorly armed rebels pulsing with adrenaline push up the desert road until they're greeted once more by heavy artillery fire. Casualties are rushed back up the road to the hospital in Ajdabiyah, where a generator keeps the halls lit and machines humming, amid a blackout that now stretches for miles. Friends and relatives wait in the lobby for answers, still in the dark.

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