Return to Stories

Libya's Lost

The photographs of these Libyan men adorn the walls of the courthouse and justice rooms on Benghazi's breezy seafront. They were shot in March and April 2011.

Over the course of the uprising and revolution in Libya, from its early days in February to the eventual capture and death of Colonel Gaddafi in the city of Sirte on 20 October 2011, the people of Benghazi posted pictures of their missing sons, fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers and friends on the walls in the hope that someone might recognise a face.

The faces read like a recent history of Libya. A face that had not returned from a secret war with Chad in the 1970s; a face that hadn't been seen since the police came to the house to ask questions in 1996 and never returned.
Or perhaps the face not seen since the young man went to the frontline in March and April to fight with his friends to defend the family and the family's home from the advancing forces loyal to the loathed dictator.

The reasons why families of the missing put those pictures on the walls outside the courthouse may seem futile. The chances of someone recognising a family picture made 30 years prior were slim. It is an even slimmer chance that someone might know where this person was whether alive or dead. The sands and the heat of the Libyan desert are unforgiving to all those who have fought and died there.

It is estimated that up to 30,000 men are still 'missing' as a result of the 8 month long conflict in Libya. Some have simply disappeared while mass graves are still being found and prison records are still being scrutinized in the hope of at least ascertaining where the missing men were last seen.

An example of one family suffices to illustrate the scale of the situation: 5 brothers were abducted from a checkpoint manned by Gaddafi loyalists. They have not been seen since. Family and friends fanned out across the region. Farmyards, fields and beaches were combed over for fear that they had been taken out of the city. Their passport sized pictures were the only images the family had. Reports that they had been beaten and tortured or executed persist. Their pictures are now displayed on the walls of a local hospital.

The Benghazi courthouse is not the only place which has become a collective focal point for people missing loved ones. Hospitals, mosques, coffee shops, side streets and market stalls are all places where people have started to post images of family members, not sure whether to mourn or to hope.

For many people, the images they have posted in these public places are the only photograph they have, often still encased in an ornamental frame or with personal dedication scribbled on the image. For many, the courthouse, the mosque or market stall has become a substitute for a grave or tomb. These galleries of missing have become, for many, the only place where they can pay their respects.

powered by