The Mrayed family of Tripoli may have overwhelming evidence of a war crime, but what can they do with it?
From right to left: Omran, Abdelhamid, Najat, Khadija, and Abrar Mrayed / Courtesy Ivan LaBianca
TRIPOLI, Libya -- On Monday, August 22, the second day of Tripoli's uprising, the Mrayed family left their home in Ainzara, not far from the pro-regime neighborhood of Abu Salim, for a relative's home in Gurgi, a rebel-controlled district. The drive is about five kilometers by the Tripoli Highway, the city's only major freeway.
They set out just after three in the afternoon in the family car, a Hyundai Santa Fe, and encountered no checkpoints or fighting before reaching the onramp, according to Abdelhamid Mrayed, the father, who was driving. Between their neighborhood and the highway, the only disturbances they saw were people waving anti-regime flags and shouting anti-regime slogans, said his wife, Najat. Their daughter Khadija, a 22-year-old medical student, and six-year-old son Ryad had passed through the neighborhood with the rebel flag painted on their cheeks. Their 13-year-old daughter Abrar held a rebel flag as they drove.
Abdelhamid's sister, Karema, also rode along, sitting in the back seat with her two sons, Zakaria, eight, and Omran, ten.
When they passed Al Khadra Hospital, in the pro-regime neighborhood of Saadi, Abdelhamid saw a loyalist flag flying from a building near the road, which worried him. Forty-eight hours into the uprising, most loyalist banners had disappeared from the city, pulled down by residents and rebel militias and replaced with the three-color rebel standard. Any loyalist banner still flying likely signaled the presence of nearby pro-regime soldiers defending it.
Within a few moments of seeing the flag, Abdelhamid spotted a group of young men with automatic weapons ahead, gathered in the road. He estimated eighteen were in the group but said he did not count.
"We tried to rub our faces" to erase the revolutionary symbol from the childrens' cheeks, recalled Khadija, the eldest daughter, who was in the back seat. Abrar, the 13-year-old, was sitting on the car's right side with Ryad on her lap. She hid her flag under the seat.
Tripoli Highway looks like a Los Angeles freeway. It has a large cement divider down the center, which blocked Abdelhamid from turing around, and an iron fence along each side. The highway had some traffic heading the other way but the traffic ahead, toward Gurji, had disappeared.
They slowed to the checkpoint. The adults all believed that the soldiers would not attack them. Tripoli, and particularly their neighborhood, had been quiet that day after two days of fighting. "We discussed it," said Abdelhamid, indicating his wife Najat, beside him on a cushion in the Gurji house, where the family is now staying. "We said the situation, true it's unstable, but there are people out, there is movement." They had seen television broadcasts on France24 and Al Jazeera, which had set up camera positions on the roof of a school in Gurgi, the family's destination. "So we got encouraged," said Najat. The family's plan was to break the Ramadan fast at Abdelhamid's father's house in Gurgi, stay the night, then return home to Ainzara the next day.
"The court, this must go to a court ... We do not believe in revenge"
The soldiers motioned for them to stop. "The people in the checkpoint told them to lower their windows, lower their windows," said Abdelhamid's 19-year-old niece Afnan, who made the journey to Gurji in a separate car. Afnan, who holds a U.S. passport and lived as a child in Tuscon, Arizona, acted as translator when I visited the family.
Abdelhamid Mrayed slowed the car, but didn't stop, rolling through what the family remembers as two rows of young men armed with Kalashnikov submachine guns. Najat described the men as young and of Arab descent, in jeans and shirts rather than uniforms, wearing scarves made of loyalist flags tied around their heads. That's when Khadija says she saw the body of a young man lying on the road near the soldiers.
The men at the checkpoint, shouting pro-Qaddafi slogans, ordered Abdelhamid to stop the car and roll down all four windows. One of the soldiers reached into the car, where Abrar sat with her brother on her lap.
The soldier, apparently to move her and get a better look at the boy, struck the 13-year-old Abrar on the head and arm with the barrel of his rifle. "These are the ones, shoot them, shoot them," he said.
Ryad, likely frightened, began crying. Though Abrar tried to comfort her brother, saying "don't worry, don't worry," she believed the soldier was about to shoot her.
The soldier fired, shooting the six-year-old boy through the side of his chest as Abrar held him. The boy slumped over and the soldier fired again into his back, sending the bullet to exit through the child's stomach.
Soldiers on each side opened fire into the car. Abdelhamid's sister Karema, in the back seat, was shot in the head and died instantly. Zakaria, her eight-year-old, was struck in the torso but continued breathing. In the front, a bullet hit Najat's left arm, shattering it. Abdelhamid suffered bullet fragments in his right arm and rear shoulder. Omran, Karema's other young son, was hit by bullet fragments in his head, where they remained until they could be removed a week later. The boy said he did not think he passed out but remembers being "confused" and still in the lap of his mother's body.
The firing looked mostly random, Abdelhamid recalled. "They were not professional soldiers," he said. Now an auto mechanic, he served in the Libyan army in the 1990s, where he received weapons training with the same weapon, the Kalashnikov submachine gun, allegedly used in the assault. "They did not aim. If they had been professional soldiers they should have easily killed all of us."