TRIPOLI, LIBYA — In the 14 years that Islamic activist Saad al-Eshouli spent in a small cell in one of the most notorious prisons of Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya, the outside world had become a distant memory.
So when rebels opened the gates of the Abu Salim prison Wednesday and he joined the other 2,500 detainees pouring out, he was amazed by novelties such as mobile phones and satellite dishes.
The prison had been the black hole of Gaddafi’s reign — many went in, but few came out. The Libyan autocrat used the facility to make his political opponents disappear. In 1996, when prisoners revolted over living conditions, some 1,200 inmates were massacred.
It was the arrest in February of a lawyer representing the families of those killed that sparked the uprising that toppled Gaddafi this week.
Within the prison, Eshouli’s life revolved around conversations with his eight cellmates, who shared a shower, small kitchen and toilet in a 100-square-foot room. He was not allowed to receive visitors, and he had no contact with his twin brother, Mehdi, who was arrested with him in 1997 but was released five years later.
As time passed, the guards and interrogators forgot why Eshouli, 40, was imprisoned. He started thinking that Abu Salim, one of the many concrete detention facilities that dotted Libya, was his final destination.
“This room is where I expected to die,” he said Friday, standing in front of cellblock 13, which was lined with mattresses and plastic bags containing inmates’ belongings.
Largely unaware of the storm that had broken Gaddafi’s four-decade-long grip on the country, Eshouli thought the rattling of gunfire and thuds of explosions this past week were God’s trumpets heralding the moment of his death.
“We expected another massacre,” he said while guiding rebels and journalists through the now-deserted prison. Instead, the guards suddenly ran off.
There are moments of happiness that are unexplainable, Eshouli said, and this was one of them. “There is no way to describe how great it felt to be free,” he said.
A day later, he was reunited with his twin brother, who had come from Benghazi to search for him.
The two men stood next to each other Friday. One was pale. The other’s skin was dark from years of exposure to the sun.
“I thought he was dead,” Mehdi said.
The brothers had arrived at the prison a year after the massacre. Ali Maktouq, another former inmate, pointed Friday to the site where he said the victims had been buried in a mass grave.
“First they killed those who they wanted to kill,” said Maktouq, 41. “Then they lined us up against a wall, cocking their weapons.”
Maktouq was spared, however, and he was freed sometime later.
He said the guards made the survivors clean the blood from their cells. After earning his freedom, he remained in the neighborhood and visited the prison every day to show solidarity with his former cellmates.
Now that the rebels control the vast majority of Tripoli, Maktouq said, he wants them to convert the prison into a park, or a university, or anything that builds society instead of crushing it.
Already on Friday, he was learning to stand in the prison without feeling fear. For the first time, he said, the prison’s walls symbolized freedom.
“I can’t believe I am here, in this place, speaking my mind,” Maktouq said. “I am no longer afraid.”