For Libyan Family, a Deadly Encounter and Search for Justice

The Mrayed family of Tripoli may have overwhelming evidence of a war crime, but what can they do with it?

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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 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."

Abdelhamid believed his wife and the passengers in the back seat, had all been killed. He could only see his two daughters move, hunching down to avoid the gunfire. He sped off, driving toward Gurji.

"At that time my goal is to save myself and my two daughters," he remembered. The soldiers fired after the car, then got in their own car, which he thinks was a small sedan, and gave chase. He made for an overpass about a kilometer away, planning to drive off the bridge, hoping to survive the crash, rather than allowing the pursuing soldiers to catch them. Before he reached the overpass, however, he reached a rebel checkpoint marking the neighborhood of Fellah, where he stopped. Rebels manning the checkpoint carried the family from the car. Nearby residents, hearing what had happened, came from houses and aided the family.

Khadija began to attend to her brother, Ryad, who was still breathing. But her father told her to leave him and run to the soldiers, where he believed she would be safer. Two of the rebels at the checkpoint ushered the family to a nearby first aid station in Fellah and then drove them in their only vehicle, a refrigerated delivery truck, two kilometers away to Gurgi, where there was a clinic. Fifteen minutes later, a medic pronounced Ryad dead. Though the survivors had injuries, some serious, it was not possible to go to a hospital, as most medical facilities were still in loyalist hands.

Neighbors placed the bodies of Karema, her son Zakaria, and Ryad in the neighborhood mosque, where they were prepared for burial the following day. Two days later, rebel forces took control of Tripoli's hospitals, where doctors set Najat's arm and removed shrapnel from Omran's head and tended to Abdelhamid's back.

Abdelhamid Mrayed is uncertain what recourse, if any, his family has. "The court, this must go to a court," he insisted. "We do not believe in revenge." His wife and adult daughter nodded in agreement. But where is the court? Gurgi, like most of Tripoli, is run by two neighborhood councils, one for civil matters like garbage collection and one for military matters; the two sometimes cooperate and sometimes don't. They recently converted a local school into a jail, where people suspected of collusion with the regime are held -- on a presumption of guilt rather than of innocence. The lone lawyer willing to tell me he'd visited the prisoners said he can't identify what court would try them, nor under what laws.

There are courts outside Libya, but it is not clear whether they could take any action over what happened to the Mrayeds. An August 4, 2009, Resolution by the United Nations Security Council, number 1882, clarified international guidelines for protecting civilians in conflict. It states, "that children continue to account for a considerable number of casualties resulting from killing and maiming in armed conflicts including as a result of deliberate targeting." But warrants issued by the International Criminal Court, which handles human rights and war crimes cases for the Security Council, name three members of the former regime (Muammar Qaddafi, son Saif, and intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi), not the young men who were on the freeway on August 22.

Nor is there a viable police department available to investigate the crime. There are no fingerprints. There are witnesses, some of whom have also spoken with other foreign journalists. None outside the family, however, would go on the record, citing fear of reprisal. The identities of the attackers remain unknown, though four people who live beside the road in Saadi did confirm that the highway was in loyalist hands for large parts of that day, and that a body -- possibly the one Khadija remembers seeing -- was found there later.

Something happened to the Mrayeds. I and others have spoken to members of the Fellah neighborhood militia that rescued them, the medical staff in Gurji that attended to them, the members of the mosque that prepared the bodies, and to members of the extended family who attended the funeral. Their story is well-known in Gurgi. We couldn't find the Mrayeds' abandoned Hyundai Santa Fe, though we did visit the scene of the shooting, where local residents told us a bullet-riddled SUV had been taken from the side of the road where the Fellah militia had left it. Damaged cars are piled all over Tripoli, many dragged from elsewhere and used in roadbloacks.

As of when I last saw them a week ago, Najat still wore a cast on her arm, Abdelhamid had a hole in his upper shoulder, and Omran had visible head injuries. Photographer Ivan LaBianca met Omran in the hospital after his surgery and the family provided a copper bullet fragment, which doctors confirmed they had been taken from the boy's head.

Abrar escaped physical injury but does not sleep, according to older sister Khadija, who herself has not slept more than a few minutes at a time since the attack, she said. Omran rarely speaks, according to cousin Afnan, with whom he is staying. Abrar, in describing the attack that killed her younger brother as he sat in her arms, spoke with a calm and directness that was at times eerily clinical. Khadija sobs uncontrollably when telling the story.

If what appears to have happened to the Mrayed family really did, it would surely be a war crime, and almost certainly only one of many such cases that will emerge from Libya's war. But journalists, to our great frustration, lack subpoena power or the ability to compel on-the-record testimony. The Mrayed family must not only wait for a formal investigation by a viable legal authority, they must wait for Libya to build one. It could be years. Abdelhamid and Najat, still staying in Gurji, say they will wait.