Where Gaddafi's Corpse Lies: In the City That Hated Him Most

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Saad Shalash / Reuters

People stand in line to see the body of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Misratah on Oct. 21, 2011

The lifeless figure, bloodied and beaten, lay naked but for tan-colored trousers, with gouge marks across his chest and a bullet hole in one temple. This was the man who instilled terror in Libyans for nearly 42 years. At the back of a food market on Friday afternoon, Oct. 21, Muammar Gaddafi's body lay on a dusty, narrow foam mattress under a bare fluorescent light in a refrigerated room normally used for fruits and vegetables. The cocky omnipotence that strutted over Libya for two generations had become a pathetic, brutalized cadaver.

A small group of local residents filed in nervously. Blinking in the darkness before the light was switched on, they gasped as their eyes adjusted to the sight of Gaddafi's body, scarcely able to believe that they were peering at the dictator's dead face just inches away. It was, for them, concrete proof that their ruler was truly dust and to dust he was returning. An elderly man in a gray robe and white skullcap staggered out into the sun, lifted his arms to the sky and said, "Oh, thank you, God, thank you, God." An 11-year-old boy waiting to enter, having been brought to the site by his father, sneered as he chewed a wad of gum and said, "I came because I want to see frizzhead."

One day after Gaddafi was finally cornered in a sewage ditch in his birthplace of Sirt, fighters in Misratah — where Gaddafi's body was taken after he was killed — said they had moved him from a private house to the cold-storage room sometime after midnight. By then, about 12 hours had passed since he was shot — by accident, insist officials of the new Libyan government — and they perhaps feared that his body would begin to decompose badly while Libyan officials discussed where and how to bury him.

In an interview with TIME on Thursday evening, Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) had decided it was too "unwise" to move Gaddafi to Tripoli, about 150 miles (240 km) away, since that could ignite "anger and bitterness" in the capital and make his funeral and burial site uncontrollable. He said Gaddafi would instead be buried on Friday in Misratah, about a two-hour drive from where the Colonel was finally brought to ground.

But by sundown Friday, Gaddafi was still unburied. Jibril arrived midafternoon from Tripoli to see the body; he told reporters the autopsy indicating how Gaddafi died could take another day or so. On Thursday evening, Jibril told TIME that Gaddafi had been caught in cross fire during a firefight between rebel fighters and a group of Gaddafi loyalists after he was discovered hiding in a sewage ditch. Jibril claimed rebels had been trying to carry Gaddafi, who was already wounded in what is believed to have been a NATO air attack on his convoy, to a makeshift ambulance.

Yet footage shot on rebel cell phones showed a crowd manically hitting and kicking, and some accounts of Gaddafi's last moments reported that he pleaded with rebels not to shoot. Looking at Gaddafi up close — from a distance of a few inches — there seem to be signs he received a beating. There are deep red lines across the right of his chest, as though he had been struck or scratched several times. When I returned to the cold-storage room after a few minutes outside, a man in a blue medical coat exited, saying he was a dentist who had been trying to compare Gaddafi's dental records with those of the body inside. On Thursday, the NTC's Finance and Oil Minister, Ali Tarhouni, told TIME that officials were determined to provide indisputable proof that Gaddafi was dead, including DNA tests.

The city where Gaddafi's corpse now lies — hardly a resting place — is deeply ironic. Just a mile from the cold-storage room, Misratah's main artery, Tripoli Street, still displays the ravages of rockets and missiles, evidence of the city's long siege by the dictator's troops. But Misratah endured and survived. And, to the city's pride, Misratah's fighters then led the final assault on Sirt, including the capture and killing of Gaddafi.

Unlike in the suspect capital, feelings in Misratah for Gaddafi are clear and uncontaminated. The celebrations of Gaddafi's death on Friday are infused here with intense bitterness. Before Friday prayers in the open area in the city center, now named Freedom Square, a cleric delivered a sermon vilifying Gaddafi and smirking at his death. "You said you were staying in Libya and that you'd hunt us out like rats," he bellowed through the microphone while about 500 men sat on the ground under a blistering sun. "Instead they trapped you like a rat. Where are you now, Gaddafi?" The crowd shouted back, "In hell! God is great!"

On Friday, many in Misratah said they would like to see Gaddafi buried elsewhere — even though most seemed delighted at the chance to file past his corpse. "We don't want him buried anywhere in Libya," said Farouk Ben Hamida, 36, who was a cafeteria supervisor at the local steel factory before he took up arms and joined the revolution in February. "They should bury him at sea, like Osama bin Laden."

By sunset on Friday, Gaddafi's corpse had not moved. Word by then had filtered through Misratah that he was lying in the market's cold-storage room; hundreds of men and boys lined up to witness it, as if they needed to make sure that Gaddafi would indeed never return. Hours before, the fighters who brought him down had attempted to keep the location of his body secret. But within hours, Gaddafi had become this town's biggest-ever attraction.