More than 30 people were killed last August when NATO jets bombed the small Libyan town of Majer. NATO says it was a "legitimate" target. Villagers tell a very different story, of innocent victims, and pain made worse by NATO's
MAJER – Nine months have passed but the rubble has yet to be removed. Bombed by NATO last August, the house of the Gafez family in Majer, a town about 150 kilometers east of Tripoli, still looks like a shriveled soufflé. Fourteen people died in the explosion. Twenty others died a few minutes later when bombs struck the farm of the neighbors, the Jaroods. Men, women and children, struck dead in the middle of a Ramadan evening.
What about clearing away the debris? Rebuilding? Haj Ali, the patriarch of the Gafez family never considered it. There are questions of money and of health, but also of honor, says the friendly mustachioed man. That's because NATO doesn't want to hear about the martyrs of Majer. The military alliance continues to insist that the bombs dropped on Aug. 8 were aimed at "legitimate military targets."
International human rights organizations disagree. New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a well-documented report this week citing numerous errors NATO committed during its 2011 Libya campaign. According to the authors, the seven months of bombings that led to the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime caused the death of 72 civilians. The "relatively low" toll "shows that NATO acted with caution" all along the operation, the report states. This said, HRW laments that the military organization did not recognize its faults, did not open any probes, and did not pay any compensation to the victims of its firepower.
As an act of protest, the surviving members of the Gafez family have transformed the ruins of their house into a memorial museum. Visitors are greeted by a furious message painted on the front gate: "Is that human rights?" The words are in reference to the principle of "protecting the civilians' that French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé invoked when lobbying the U.N. Security Council to support the NATO bombing campaign.
In the ground floor living room, whose ceiling resisted the collapse of the two upper floors, a banner covered with pictures of children and young women wearing headscarves has been put up. "Many families escaping the fighting came to take shelter at our place," explains Amr, Haj Ali's son. "Our traditions require that in such cases, men leave the house to women and children. We settled in the neighboring field. That's what saved us."
The plastic sandals of the deceased women, still covered with the dust of the debris, have been grouped together in a corner. Next to them are a dented clock, a children's bicycle with a bent wheel, and a sewing machine. The haunting mess is there to honor the memory of the victims, but also to prove that they did not deserve to be targeted by NATO, that there was no reason they should have been mistaken for a "legitimate" target.
"Do you think that I would have welcomed all these folks at my place if Gaddafi's soldiers were around the town?" Haj Ali asks.
HRW researchers, who came to inspect the site four times – including on the day after the tragedy – are backing Ali's statement. Save for a camouflage shirt (a piece of clothing that many Libyan people like to wear), they could not find a single piece of evidence to back NATO's claim that the Majer farms served as a resting stop for the Libyan army.
In the next room, the mausoleum becomes a horror museum. The walls are plastered with pictures of dead, torn bodies. "This is my brother", says Adel Absaat, a young man in his 30s. He points to an image of a shapeless body, covered with blood. "He was at the mosque when a first explosion destroyed the Jarood family house. With about 10 of his friends, he ran to help the victims. This is when the second strike hit. All of them were killed."
The villagers have picked up bomb fragments in the debris and placed them on a wooden table. One of the fragments has been identified by HRW as a piece from the fin of a GBU-12, a projectile with a laser-guidance system that should have indicated to the pilot the presence of a great number of people on the ground, according to the report.
New government reluctant to criticize NATO
The day after the bloodshed, May 9, Libyan authorities drove dozen of journalists to the scene. Delighted by the prospect of embarrassing NATO, or even of forcing it to suspend its operation, the regime's spokesman, Mussa Ibrahim, went on a tirade, describing the crime as "beyond comprehension."
Ibrahim exaggerated the death toll, citing 85 casualties. Knowing that Gaddafi supporters had a history of fiddling official figures, the media reported the speech with caution. Torn between anger, grief and a reluctance to feed Gaddafi's arguments, the villagers kept silent. They had to wait until the conflict ended before they could begin to seek recognition for the tragedy they'd suffered.
Nevertheless, the National Transitional Council of Libya (NTC), the governing body of the Libyan revolution, is reluctant to take a stand on the case. Some of its members deem it inappropriate to blame NATO, an ally whose support was decisive in toppling Gaddafi. "They say Gaddafi forces carried out the bombings themselves to discredit the West," says Khaled Shakshik, an NTC official in Zlitan, a larger city next to Majer. "Even those who do acknowledge that NATO made mistakes are against the idea of calling the victims martyrs. They say the victims weren't all necessarily anti-Gaddafi."
Such petty calculations are exasperating Milad Tawil, an engineer whose brother died in the bloodbath. "We don't want compensation as much as we want moral support," he says. "We paid the highest price for freedom. This has to be acknowledged."
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Photo – courtesy of the Jfara family via HRW