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In Libyan Town Searching for Justice, a Struggle Even to Find Graves

TARHUNA, Libya — It is hard to find a starker illustration of the failures of Libya’s political leaders than Tarhuna, a town set between the Mediterranean coast and the desert where seven brothers from the Kani family and their militiamen detained, tortured and killed hundreds of residents in a five-year reign of terror.

Two years after their grip was broken, Tarhuna is still searching for bodies. The rolling groves that produce its famous olive oil now hide mass graves. Some families are missing half a dozen members or more. Others say they learned their relatives’ fate from ex-prisoners or other witnesses: an uncle thrown to the Kani brothers’ pet lions; a cousin buried alive.

Clothing still litters the ground outside a sunbaked makeshift prison where the brothers’ militia kept prisoners in oven-like cabinets that just fit a man crouching.

“We will move on when we have justice and they pay for their crimes,” said Kalthoum el-Hebshi, the retired head of a nursing school in Tarhuna. “Until then, there won’t be reconciliation,” she added. “When you say to me, ‘make peace,’ how can I make peace with someone with blood on his hands? How can I shake his hand?”

After more than a year of brittle stability, Libya is again tipping toward the chaos that shattered it after rebels overthrew Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, the dictator of more than 40 years, in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. The upheaval left this North African country split in half, east and west, carved up by two rival governments and dozens of rival militias that operate above the law.

Last year, a period of relative peace offered a snatch of hope. Elections scheduled for December were supposed to produce a government that could reunify Libya’s long-divided institutions, shepherd in a Constitution, disarm the militias and expel foreign fighters. But disagreements over candidate eligibility scuttled the vote, pitching a country on Europe’s doorstep into a new phase of uncertainty.

The shambles has also made justice elusive in Tarhuna, where leaders on both sides of Libya’s divide are implicated in the Kanis’ rise.

“Everyone on the scene only looks out for their own interests,” said Hamza el-Kanouni, 39, whose uncle was killed by the Kanis and whose cousin was held in a Kani prison for three months. “They don’t even see Libya.”

The brothers left behind graves that hold hundreds of bodies, according to a United Nations panel that recently identified several new burial sites in Tarhuna. Libyan investigators said they have found nearly 250 bodies so far, and identified about 60 percent.

But 470 families have reported missing relatives, so the toll is almost certainly much higher, according to Kamal Abubaker, a DNA specialist who oversees the search-and-identify effort.

Ms. el-Hebshi, the retired nursing school head, said her eldest son was kidnapped in 2011 for supporting the anti-Qaddafi rebels. Her brother disappeared in the uprising’s aftermath, and her second son was kidnapped by the Kanis.

No bodies were ever found, and she continues to hope against hope, she said, that they will turn up alive in some distant prison.

The Kanis’ murderous streak began amid the 2011 revolt, when they exploited the anarchy to settle scores against rivals and entrench themselves in Tarhuna, a town of about 70,000 people. They built their power and wealth through smuggling and extortion, residents said.

By 2016, they had allied with the internationally backed government in Tripoli, which paid them to run security. Three years later, a new civil war broke out as Khalifa Hifter, eastern Libya’s leader, mounted an assault on Tripoli.

The Kanis switched to Mr. Hifter’s camp. But all the while, whichever side they were on, the killings continued, residents said.

When the Tripoli government’s forces defeated Mr. Hifter with Turkish backing in 2020, they expelled the Kanis from Tarhuna.

Now the town wants justice.

But government in Libya is paralyzed. After funding cuts, the effort to uncover and identify Tarhuna’s dead is almost at a standstill. The country is not divided by religion or ideology. But a host of other obstacles impede progress: the intervention of foreign powers including Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt, who prize Libya for its strategic location and oil reserves; the need to reconcile east and west after the recent fighting; and political leaders who show little interest in resolving the crisis unless it benefits them.

“Right now, there’s no clear way forward other than continued stalemate and instability,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Everything is total opportunism. It’s only about carving up the positions and the funds.”

With United Nations-brokered negotiations in Cairo and Geneva earlier this year failing to make progress, Libya has two rival prime ministers: the western-based Abdul Hamid Dbeiba and the eastern-based Fathi Bashagha, handpicked by Mr. Hifter.

Mr. Hifter is widely reviled in western Libya for his Tripoli offensive, during which Libyans accused him of bombing residential neighborhoods and torturing and killing civilians. A U.S. federal judge handed down a default judgment against him on Friday after he repeatedly skipped depositions for a federal lawsuit in which Libyan plaintiffs accused him of war crimes.

But many Libyans reject both the eastern and western leaders.

“We don’t want anyone who came before,” said Anwar Sawon, a local leader from the city of Misurata who fought in the 2011 uprising. “We just want new faces. People who just want to serve the people.”

After a year in which many residents of Tripoli had become accustomed to safe, well-kept roads with working streetlights, basic services are on the fritz again.

Hundreds of people across the country recently protested about the deteriorating situation, torching part of the eastern-based Parliament’s headquarters out of disgust with power cuts that last as long as 18 hours and self-interested politicians.

“The people’s demands are very small, just the basics — no more power cuts, food being available,” said Halima Ahmed, 30, a law lecturer at the University of Sabha in Libya’s southern desert. “Our dream during the revolution was, we wanted to be like Dubai. Now we just want stability.”

After the Kanis’ fall in Tarhuna, some 16,000 people fled, including Kani supporters, militiamen and the five Kani brothers who survived the outbreak of fighting that surrounded the assault on Tripoli.

Now many of them want to return.

In the absence of help from national leaders, an informal group of tribal elders from across the country has stepped in to help resettle the exiles. It is part of their longtime work mediating disputes: tribal clashes over property lines that mushroom into kidnappings and murders; personal spats that set off a cycle of killings.

Elders from tribes with no connection to either party hear both sides, assign responsibility and broker an agreement, which can involve compensation, formal apologies and vows not to relapse.

Nothing is legally binding, but the settlements are usually honored out of respect for the mediators. Those who break their word, mediators say, are excluded from the unwritten pact that governs much of Libyan society: The next time they are involved in a dispute, no one will intercede.

The Tarhuna victims do not see the reconciliations as a substitute for a functioning justice system. Some of them said they had tried repeatedly to approach the police because they did not want to resort to revenge killings, but officials did nothing.

In a country where those with power, money and weapons answer to no one, however, the mediators are all they have.

“We don’t have the law in our hands. The only thing we can do is give our word of honor,” said Ali Agouri, 68, a tribal representative who has worked on reconciliation in Tarhuna. “There’s no state, but the people want justice.”

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