In Libya, underground jail a daunting reminder of Moammar Gaddafi's grip

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 3:52 PM

IN BENGHAZI, LIBYA Peering into a subterranean jail, Adil Gnaybor shuddered with fear. Rusted prison bars once covered with earth were now exposed, dug up by rebels who had discovered the secret labyrinth of cells. The space was too small for Gnaybor's 5-foot frame, and a white tube provided the only source of air.

"If I go inside there, perhaps I will die," Gnaybor said, staring into the hole.

Thousands of Libyans have been arriving here at a complex of palatial homes, known as the Katiba El Fadil bu Omar, where Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi stayed during visits to this port city. It is here that Gaddafi also had an underground prison.

The compound is perhaps the most vivid symbol in eastern Libya of triumph over the Gaddafi regime. His houses have been torched and looted. Graffiti denouncing his regime is spray-painted on nearly every wall. One declared, "Libya will be free."

But amid the faded opulence, Libyans expressed fear that their revolution was losing ground on two fronts and could be reversed.

For many visitors, the underground jails were not only a chilling reminder of the brutality of Gaddafi's government. They also foreshadowed the terror Gaddafi is capable of inflicting in the future if his forces retake the city, Libya's second largest.

"I feel nervous. Look what happened in Zawiyah and in Ras Lanuf," said Gnaybor, 50, referring to two cities - the first in the west, the second in the east - that Gaddafi's forces have retaken over the past two days. "Everywhere we are losing a lot of people."

Al-Badri, a 62-year-old who came with his three daughters, said: "I expect anything from Gaddafi. He could bomb Benghazi, even use chemical weapons." He declined to give his full name, for fear that he would be targeted if Gaddafi returned.

"What is America waiting for?" he continued. "Until Gaddafi manages to kill all the Libyan people?"

Worries in Benghazi

Of all the cities that have revolted against Gaddafi, it is Benghazi that most Libyans expect will bear the full brunt of his wrath if he retains his grip on power. Libya's three-week-old populist revolution was born here, and it managed to reach the threshold of Gaddafi's nexus of power in western Libya with its brief takeover of Zawiyah, 30 miles from the capital, Tripoli.

Benghazi is also the headquarters of the Libyan National Council, a 31-member body that seeks to replace Gaddafi's regime.

In 1996, an estimated 1,200 prisoners who had protested Gaddafi's rule were killed at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison. Many were from Benghazi. Such memories of savagery helped trigger the uprising.

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