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.
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.