At the small airport just outside Benghazi, Musa Faraj waited with dozens of others early Sunday, peering over the iron gates of the arrival hall. When he and the rest of the mostly male crowd spotted a planeful of passengers — many of them freed last week from Tripoli prisons — they let out a harmony of cries and chants.

Faraj’s joy came from seeing his son, Abdul Rauf. He was slim now, 40 pounds lighter than when the father had last seen him. But he was home.

“Sometimes I lost hope,” Faraj said. “I thought he was dead.”

The 25-year-old rebel fighter had disappeared on the front lines of the battle on the eastern coast in March — after peaceful protests against Moammar Gaddafi turned into a war — joining the thousands of people missing in Libya.

Many have been held for decades. Rebel leaders based here estimate that during the six-month-long conflict, nearly 60,000 more Libyans had disappeared. Even as they continue their search for Gaddafi, the rebels have opened his prisons in Tripoli, freeing thousands.

But only about 10,000 prisoners have been accounted for, rebel leaders say, leaving families and friends to fear that thousands are in underground prisons or, perhaps, in mass graves.

“Where in the world are they?” said Shamsiddin Ben-Ali, a spokesman for the Transitional National Council. “It’s a human crisis.”

A family’s wait ends

The Abu Salim facility in Tripoli, where Abdul Rauf was held for 48 days, was notorious within Gaddafi’s opaque prison system for its brutality, the place where many of his political opponents vanished.

In 1996, after inmates at Abu Salim revolted over their living conditions, 1,200 of them were massacred. And it was the arrest in February of a lawyer representing the families of those killed in 1996 that helped spark the uprising, which started in Benghazi and spread across the country.

After reuniting with his family members Sunday, Abdul Rauf told them that he was beaten and jabbed with electric prods every morning, from dawn until 10 o’clock, when he got a small piece of bread, some cheese, and, sometimes, a hard-boiled egg to share among six people. The first seven days, Abdul Rauf said, he was not allowed to use the bathroom and was given a bottle to use as a latrine.

He shared a small cell with 70 people, all sleeping on the floor, and he told men who had been locked up for years what was happening outside the prison’s iron gates and towering walls.

“There’s a revolution in the streets against Gaddafi. The people rose up,” he said he told them. The broken men finally had a glimmer of hope. They hugged him and wept, he said.

At the airport Sunday morning, just after midnight, male relatives crowded around Abdul Rauf, kissing and hugging him. He said that he had been transferred to the Tajura prison, also in Tripoli, and that guards secretly working against Gaddafi unlocked cell and prison doors the day rebels converged on the capital last week.

Neighbors stood at their gates waving as the young man rode past them with his father and uncle. Friends fired celebratory shots into the air. In the doorway of their home, his mother, Mariam Layas, and his sisters, Iman and Inas, waited in anticipation. When he entered the house, they showered him with kisses, hugs and tears while other female relatives cupped their hands over their mouths to trill with joy.

They placed his 5-day-old nephew in his arms and told him about the marriage of his aunt.

Layas rushed him to the couch and looked at him, touching his face and then patting his flat stomach. She pulled down his socks and lifted his shirt sleeves to look for bruises. She peppered him with questions and never waited for the answer, finding comfort, like the rest of his family, in just seeing him, after months of not knowing where he was.

“Who are you?” she joked, asking where his belly had gone. “Did they hit you? How are you? Oh, thank God. Thank God.”

No solace for many

But for so many other Libyans, there is still no solace.

In Tripoli, Fatya Milad, a mother of two, searched for her uncle, Iqbal Mahmood Essonei. He was an officer in Gaddafi’s army, and one day he never came home. That was two decades ago.

“Maybe they tortured him, maybe they killed him,” she said in Tripoli’s old city.

Similar stories came tumbling out across the capital, about uncles, brothers and fathers who had gone missing.

At the Libyan Red Crescent office in Benghazi, Omar Budabous surveyed the tables, littered with hundreds of files about the missing. People entered in a steady stream, asking for news of loved ones.

“It’s a mess in Tripoli right now,” he told them. “We are trying to find out.”

His office tracks the missing and tries to reunite them with their families in Benghazi. He was coordinating with the rebel leadership to start a compensation program for freed prisoners. But no one has been paid, he said, and an organized reunification program is not in place.

“The prisoners don’t know where to go. They just run from the gate of the prison and try to get home,” he said.

Some have figured out how to get home aboard private boats, on trips organized by rich businessmen, or with the help of rebel leaders, who, as in Abdul Rauf’s case, had organized bus trips and a free flight.

Omar al-Wahil, 67, hobbled into Budabous’s office Sunday as he has dozens of times before. He recited his son’s case number, 382, and asked whether there was any news of Saad. The young policeman disappeared in early March.

“I just want to know if he’s dead or alive,” Wahil told Budabous, his voice rising in frustrated sadness.

His wife sits at home crying and watching television, searching for news of their son. She wonders whether he’s among the burned bodies that have turned up in Tripoli in the past week, whether he’s in a mass grave.

“Not knowing is like having him die 10 times a day,” Wahil said. “It’s okay if he’s a martyr. We just need to know.”

Correspondent Simon Denyer in Tripoli contributed to this report.