In February 2011, anti-government protests began in Libya, inspired by successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Months later, the protests turned into a civil war as forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi clashed with armed opposition groups.
Brazilian photographer Mauricio Lima visited Gaddafi’s hometown in October 2011, where he witnessed some of the most memorable events in the Libyan conflict. It recounts the last days of the Battle of Sirte and the day the former leader was killed.
In October 2011, Sirte, birthplace of the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was the last stronghold of his loyalists after seven months of civil war between the Libyan army and anti-Gaddafi forces. It’s a conflict that still gives me chills every time I stop to look at my old photos, or when I remember those unimaginable sunny days and the cruelties human beings are capable of inflicting on each other. others in the worst times.
When I arrived in Sirte – where I spent around 20 days on a mission spanning the last days of the war – the monochromatic seaside town was almost completely surrounded by anti-Gaddafi forces, dominated by “ katibas ” ( squads) of men only – adults. and the young – with a few stray dogs to distract them in the midst of the chaos.
The young fighters had a feeling of joy about them – just for the opportunity to be a part of the fight. Some, obviously inexperienced, seemed to be there to have fun, regardless of the high risk of being killed. They wore their AK-47s as casually as their cellphones and cigarettes, many wearing only sweatpants, tank tops and sandals. They strolled, relaxed, near the front line, next to tanks confiscated from Gaddafi’s soldiers or disfigured vans with heavy artillery loaded in the rear.
The five daily prayers were important to some. Normally, these are times when everything stops, where the only sounds you hear are those of people standing, kneeling, and prostrate – their breath and the friction of their body moving against the air. But in Sirte, those sacred moments were punctuated by the sound of relentless gunfire mixed with a thirst for revenge as the fighters advanced in their battle to control more territory.
The last battles
The final assault on Sirte began at the main road, called Coastal Road, about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the city center, led by two different groups from Misrata and Benghazi, made up of civilians – experienced fighters and novices. – and mercenaries, who were the apparent leaders of some of the katibas.
Under a stunning blue sky, I walked alongside the anti-Gaddafi squads as they advanced towards Sirte. We passed looted compounds, a destroyed concert hall, and a crowded hospital where patients – likely residents and falling government worshipers – were lined up along hallways with no guarantee of assistance.
Outside, the silence of the empty streets was only occasionally broken by the sound of ambulances transporting rebel fighters to a makeshift hospital set up by anti-Gaddafi fighters just outside Sirte. There was also the constant, albeit hidden, presence of pro-Gaddafi snipers who were the main threat dominating the daily routine.
A few days later, after several intense battles and the rebels halfway to the city center, I was on the roof of a residential building near to teenage fighters taking selfies and photographing themselves while shooting their rifles. and machine guns. Young and inexperienced, they were better with their cameras than with their guns. But neither could help them when bullets and rockets from the pro-Gaddafi side landed. Right next to me, one of the teenagers and a middle-aged man were shot in the chest and leg. They were evacuated immediately, apparently lifeless.
Later, the fighters from Misrata reached a street called Dubai Road, where a fierce battle took place for a few days. There the rebels grabbed a frightened man in an olive jacket, who they claimed was a Gaddafi loyalist. Instinctively, the moment a fighter raised a knife to the man’s throat, I picked up my camera. But suddenly, behind me, a group started screaming with enthusiasm. Even though I didn’t speak the language, I knew they definitely wanted me to stop. Sometimes in tense situations you don’t need language to figure out whether or not you are accepted. So I pulled back, watching the man being put into a van by his captors and chased away, leaving only a thick cloud of dust in the air behind him. The remaining fighters, who were initially irritated by my presence, burst into laughter. I don’t know what happened to their captive, but I doubt he’s here to read those words today.
The Battle of Dubai Road was a key point for the fighters of Misrata advancing towards central Sirte from the south. Gaddafi loyalists offered fierce resistance. But the rebels, apparently outnumbered and using the surprise tactic of advancing when the bullets came in, managed to advance. A katiba in Benghazi began to oust pro-Gaddafi fighters block by block from the east, until they reached a residential area through the broken door of a destroyed school. This was followed by an intense shootout at an intersection of residential complexes that lasted all afternoon. In an attempt to kill two snipers who were shooting at them from lower across the street, Benghazi fighters nearly hit each other with their AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
Meanwhile, not far from the corner, rebel fighters laid their weapons on a wall and rested on the sidewalk amid the ammunition debris around them. They almost looked like they were enjoying a carefree weekend at the beach as they waited their turn to join the fight.
Approaching the end
By then, the end was near. Nearby, in a two-story complex with large balconies facing the ocean, I sensed something unusual and soon discovered what it was: corpses already wrapped in white sheets, ready. to be buried. I remember counting 10 to 15 bodies in two separate rooms on the top floor of the building. All are men. Only their faces are visible. Some with multiple bruises. Around them there were dry traces of blood on the ground.
The only noise I heard was the buzzing of flies around the bodies. I didn’t know who they were; maybe combatants, maybe civilians, it was difficult to be sure. But most likely Gaddafi supporters, as fallen rebel fighters were quickly evacuated from the front line. A few days later, it was learned that 340 unidentified bodies had been buried in a mass grave by two residents of Sirte; perhaps these men were among them.
Inside the compound were a few abandoned radios, chargers, and a green lighter, left beside messy blankets, pillows, and broken beds – possibly used by the men in their unsuccessful attempt to survive. There was a strange silence, accompanied by the strong smell of rotting bodies in the hot temperatures. So I left.
It was October 19, the day before the discovery of Gaddafi elsewhere in Sirte, captured and killed.
When news of his death reached our position, about three or four blocks from where it happened on October 20, the euphoric fighter next to me let it be known that Gaddafi had been hit by an airstrike as he tried to escape Sirte early that morning. He was reportedly injured in the attack, managed to hide himself and a few bodyguards along a road, but was caught in a pipe under construction and killed by rebel fighters.
Anti-Gaddafi fighters took his body in the back of a van to a nearby makeshift hospital. From there, he traveled by ambulance to Misrata, the nearest town to Sirte where the basics (like water, electricity, and the internet) were still functioning in one way or another. The fighters wanted to celebrate the end of the government by parading Gaddafi’s corpse through the streets and finally putting it on display in a refrigerated container that the public could visit.
I went to Misrata to document it. The surreal moment brought thousands of Libyans to the city, all lining up for countless hours to see in person, and for the last time, their former leader, without his traditional brown turban and robes.
The powerful man who had ruled their country for over 42 years was suddenly gone, wearing nothing but pants, his body – bruised by shoes, knives and other wounds – sprawled out on a thin mattress inside ‘a refrigerator in a vegetable market, on display as a trophy for those who killed him.
Inside the space, smiling compatriots gathered, pushing each other to try and get the best angle for their proud souvenir selfies with this man they strongly disagreed with. They finally felt – albeit temporarily – really euphoric: it was the last time Gaddafi appeared in public, and he would never have power over them again.