Mohamed Ibrahim al-Gadamsi remembers the final days and hours of his detention in Tripoli's notorious Abu Slim prison as a period of intense fear and anxiety. Explosions rocked the prison complex; the electricity flickered out; food dwindled; and the guards began to panic. The workers who delivered the prisoners' meals whispered news to the men behind the metal doors almost all of them political prisoners. On Saturday night, they reported that the Libyan rebels had taken the nearby town of Zawiya and were fast approaching the capital. "The next day we heard they had gotten to Jazoor 27 kilometers from Tripoli. It's where the Khamis Brigade is. And we heard that [Col. Muammar Gaddafi's son] Seif al-Islam had been captured," says al-Gadamsi, a 31-year-old oil technician who had been nabbed by the regime's security forces a month before, after they caught on to his work as an underground rebel organizer.
There were ten other men in Mohamed's concrete cell. And although they believed the rumors that the rebels were coming they were terrified of what that meant. "We were scared that [Gaddafi's men] might take revenge on us," he explains. "You know the massacre of 1996?" he asked, referring to a brutal massacre of prisoners by regime security. "One guy in the cell said that we were in the same part of the prison where that massacre had taken place." And as the explosions and gunfire grew closer, the men prepared themselves for the possibility that death was imminent.
But on Wednesday afternoon, a huge explosion shook the hundreds of cell blocks. The workers who brought meals and secrets had disappeared the night before. And shouting filled the prison halls as the prisoners began to panic. "We weren't sure what it was," says al-Gadamsi. "But after about 15 or 20 minutes, we heard the other sides of the prison shouting 'Allahu Akbar, the rebels are coming.' And we heard the Kalashnikovs breaking down the doors."
Hall by hall, the rebel forces shot and hacked through the locks of cells, freeing thousands. Many of the liberated wore the typical blue prison uniforms of Abu Slim; others were clad in the garish pink pants and shirts assigned to those on death row; and still others had been captured so recently that they wore their civilian clothes. As the rebels moved through the vast complex they urged prisoners to stay calm and save their energy. They handed the freed men tools and weapons so they could help free the rest. And they led them out through the gate that they had blasted open, through a dangerous neighborhood, and into nearby mosques and safe houses were volunteers were waiting with food and cell phones.
Abu Slim may be the most evocative symbol of Gaddafi's brutal legacy for the generations of Libyans who opposed him. It was the dark abyss that religious and political men disappeared into, often never to be heard from again. In 1996, regime forces massacred some 1,200 prisoners here only to successfully cover up the deaths for years. Indeed, it wasn't until 2004 that Gaddafi publically acknowledged that killings had taken place here. And it took several years for grief stricken relatives many living in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi to learn through the probing investigations of a few lawyers and rights groups that the loved ones they had sent clothes and money to for nearly a decade were long gone.
And so in the days that followed Abu Slim's liberation, Libyans began to slowly venture inside the complex, searching for answers to old questions in the place that had come to so succinctly symbolize a nation's terror under dictatorship. As rebels, former prisoners, and relatives of prisoners picked through row after row of cells, files, and a disarray of prisoner belongings on Friday, many said they found themselves overwhelmed by a conflicting mixture of grief, anger, and hope. "It's so emotional coming here. This is my first time inside, and honestly I don't want to be here," said Akram Mohamed Ramadan, a British-Libyan radio broadcaster whose father had been imprisoned here in the 1980s. In one cell, he stared down at a stack of notes that prisoners had scribbled to one another on the backs of cardboard meal covers. Some contained peculiar lists of numbered words that didn't make sense. "This is code," he said, holding up one sheet. "My dad told me about this. Like one day they would use this code, and the next day that code. So for example, if they wanted medicine, they would say 'Nafusa'" referring to the western mountains.
The prisoners who spent year after year in these cells used whatever means they could to pass the time. They used the cardboard squares of meal covers as writing ledgers for diaries, English and math lessons. They covered their walls in pictures ripped out of magazines or newspapers or drawn by the prisoners themselves. And they constructed notebooks out of old juice boxes; barbell weights out of sand-filled water bottles; and clothes hangers out of bits of plastic and shreds of their uniforms. In one cell, prisoners had fashioned a cloth ladder stretching up above the sink to a small, high window. Thick iron bars covered the window but the ladder had never been meant for escape, says Saad Ahmed Shoumi, one of the death row inmates who had lived there: "It was just to see the light."
Other visitors say they're now searching the prison complex for underground cells, and hidden prisoners who have yet to be freed. There are still some iron doors that have been welded shut, which the rebels have been unable to open. And some of those who are believed to have disappeared into Abu Slim months ago are still missing, rights groups say. On Friday, some rebels spoke of the need bring in bulldozers to search for the mass graves that they fear are hidden just beneath the concrete surface of the prison yards. "We are coming to see if there are people underground because there are no police around who were guarding this place, and no floor plan for the prison," said one resident of the Abu Slim neighborhood. He didn't give his name for fear that Gaddafi's regime could still seek retribution against its critics.
And indeed, even in its emptiness, Abu Slim's story is far from over. Investigations by the rebels' National Transitional Council, rights organizations, curious locals will take time. There are hundreds of thousands of document, IDs, and prisoner pictures strewn across the complex. Pools of dried blood coating the prison hospital's floors will need to be analyzed. And already, some of the visitors are leaving with stacks of documents to satisfy their own curiosity and desire for mementos, depleting the record of what happened here.
But the opening of Libya's largest prison is a major milestone and one to be celebrated, rebels say. "We hope we won't need Abu Slim in the future," says the local resident. "But as you know, there is no place in the world without prisons." Rather, he envisions a different sort of future for Libyan justice, once Gaddafi has been arrested and Libyans can feel free to choose their own government. "Prisons should be for normal criminals," he says. "Not political prisoners or media or people who have opinions."