Burned cars sit on the side of the road from Sirte to Misrata. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

SIRTE, Libya — From a distance, we could see the black shapes, no more than a wavy blur in the desert heat.
We were on a lonely highway, driving from the Libyan city of Misurata to the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte. It was a journey through the topography of war and ambition.

We dodged a crater from a mortar, then drove over countless bullet casings. From our windows, we saw the graffiti that rival militias scrawled on walls and billboards.

The black shapes were becoming more focused, until they were sharp as the sun’s rays. A mangled truck here, a charred car there. They were the detritus of an Islamic State suicide bombing that killed dozens of pro-government fighters. We silently stepped out and surveyed the brutality. Our guide told us that men were so obliterated by the power of the blast that their body parts melted in the heat.

For the next four days, as we traveled to and from Sirte, the site became a totem of sorts. It was a reminder, as we entered, of the dangers that lurk. And it brought out a heave of relief after we exited, a marker that the conflict was behind us, at least for now.


A pro-government fighter stands near a metal frame that was used by Islamic State religious police in Sirte to crucify offenders. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

An Islamic State suicide bombing killed more than 30 pro-government fighters from Misrata in this spot. Wreckage and signs of fighting are visible along the road . (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

A pro-government supporter holds a cloth found in the back yard of a former Islamic State prison where a mass grave was found. Body parts were wrapped in the cloth and then buried. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

In Sirte, in the parts that were liberated, we found the instruments the militants used to exert authority. In one business area, rows of shops were emblazoned with black stamps that read “Office of General Services” in English and Arabic. They were guides for the militants’ tax collectors to pick up money owed or, many would argue, extorted.

In one compound, the pro-government fighters had brought a large, black scaffolding that had been used for executions. Victims were tied up and then shot dead. Their bodies were left for three days in a traffic circle.

At a makeshift Islamic State prison, in a large house with walls scrawled with graffiti proclaiming the glory of their militancy, we found the remnants of lives destroyed. Clothes and blankets strewn on dark floors; rooms the size of walk-in closets used as cells. Floors covered with pages of textbooks, photos of women, letters and documents of an Indian professor who taught at Sirte University.

What happened to him? Where are the women in the photos?

In one corner of the prison compound, pro-government fighters found nine bodies in a grave. All that marks the spot now are the brown pants from a salwar kameez, a loose-fitting traditional tunic favored by many Islamic State fighters, which were draped over a wall above the gravesite.
Who had worn them? How many of the men in the grave did he kill?

Not far from the prison was an Islamic State bomb factory. Inside, formulas were scrawled on whiteboards, arithmetic to kill countless people. The militants are known to booby-trap doors and windows, even bags of bread. On one table was a toy sports car.
In this sick war, the kids, too, are targets.


The Islamic State built this prison in the area of Sirte that was under their control for more that a year. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

A pro-government fighter shows images of the digging of a mass grave found in the back of an Islamic State prison. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

A pro-government fighter shows injuries from the battle against the Islamic State. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

A car bomb is seen in the Dollar area of Sirte. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Missiles lay outside a bomb making Islamic State facility in Sirte. Explosives are used to produce booby traps. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Tariq Zarga shows signs of having been handcuffed. He and two of his brothers were arrested and put in prison for supporting pro-government militias. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Various documents and personal items are left on the floor of a prison the Islamic State built in Sirte. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

A vehicle used by pro-government forces in the front line of Sirte. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

A Pro-government fighter show injuries sustained from fighting against the Islamic States. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Burned cars sit on the side of the road from Sirte to Misrata. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Mustafa Zarga was arrested and put in prison for supporting the pro-government militias. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)