In Libya’s civil war, where conflicting accusations collide and dusty farmlands have become a battleground, there was little doubt about the conflict’s human toll, no matter its nature or numbers.
The scene was gruesome and chaotic in the seaside town of Zlitan on Tuesday as sweaty cameramen and government officials crowded into the tiny, sweltering hospital morgue, clutching scarves and paper masks to protect against the sickening smell.
The sights, as medical workers unzipped some of the body bags lying haphazardly on the floor, were even worse: jumbled body parts coated with blood and dust; a foot stacked the wrong way against someone’s corpse; the heartbreaking sight of a limp child still in diapers.
Such is the reality of the Libya conflict more than four months after Western nations began their airstrikes to help a ragtag rebel force defeat troops loyal to longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The allegations from Gaddafi’s government on Tuesday that the latest Nato strikes had killed scores of civilians could further strain a campaign that has waning support and no clear end in sight.
Officials in Tripoli, hoping to show the world that Nato bombings have strayed from military targets, rushed foreign reporters on to a bus to witness the aftermath of airstrikes they said had killed 85 civilians — 33 children, 32 women, 20 men — late the night before.
“Only God knows why these people were targeted,” said Faraj Mohamed, another resident of the village of Majar, where the isolated farmhouses were struck about 10km south of the Mediterranean coast.
For residents like Mohamed, mindful of Italy’s colonial experiment in Libya and decades of Western interest in its oil riches, the deaths were further proof that no good could come of foreign involvement here.
When reporters arrived, they saw that massive blasts had collapsed the concrete farmhouses, surrounded by high walls in the middle of stubbly, dry fields. Inside, the rubble was littered with blankets, mattresses and children’s schoolbooks. There was no evidence of weaponry.
Footage later provided by government officials showed men combing through one of the bomb sites, apparently the night before, picking hands and feet and other body parts out of the rubble. The battered corpse of an infant was placed on a blanket along with the remains of another child.
Confusion, conflicting reports
But onlookers milling around the scene of the strikes the next day had confused and sometimes conflicting narratives. There were neighbours who couldn’t remember the names of dead; people who became confused about the death toll; accounts of the series of strikes that were difficult to piece together.
Perhaps people didn’t understand the questions posed through interpreters or in foreigners’ Arabic; perhaps grieving relatives and neighbours were in shock.
Nor did reporters see more than about 30 corpses throughout the day, though they were told the rest of the bodies were brought to Tripoli or were still trapped in the rubble.
Nato, which accuses Gaddafi forces of housing military assets alongside civilians, said soldiers may have been killed in the strike it said hit a military staging ground south of Zlitan, where nearby rebels are hoping to break a long impasse against Gaddafi.
While Nato said there was no proof civilians had been killed, it is virtually impossible for the alliance to verify who is killed in such strikes.
The confusion on Tuesday was just one example of the murkiness that has characterised a conflict that Nato powers have kept at arms’ length and which the Gaddafi government has sought to depict as a Western crusade against Islam.
Rebels claim regularly to seize towns that Tripoli says are firmly in its control. The government accuses Nato of choking off food and power supplies; Nato says Gaddafi is denying his people basic rights. It is often difficult for reporters to verify claims on either side.
The credibility of the rebels’ leadership meanwhile has been hit by the mysterious assassination of its military chief.
The scene at the crowded, claustrophobic hospital morgue on Tuesday afternoon was another reminder of the toll the current conflict has taken as Libya drifts back into greater isolation and the body count rises on both sides.
In a nearby hospital room, Majar resident Ali Muftah Hamid Gafez stood by the bed of his wife, Fattiya, whose left leg had apparently been severed the night before.
“I was sitting with my friends in the house, when we suddenly heard the bomb. Then I blacked out,” she whimpered, appearing frightened of the crowd of reporters assembled at the foot of her bed.
She pulled the covers up over her head, and waited for the foreigners to leave. – Reuters