A Libyan militia brutalized this town for years. No one stopped them. No one held them to account.
When the militiamen abducted Abdul Ali al-Falus and his four sons last year, their family had every reason to fear the worst.
By then, the Kaniyat militia had killed scores and perhaps hundreds of civilians in this pastoral town, many of them shot multiple times at close range, often blindfolded, handcuffed and with legs tied, according to officials and community leaders.
And no one had stopped the militiamen or held them to account.
Not Libya’s internationally recognized government, which was aligned with the Kaniyat until two years ago.
Not the renegade warlord Khalifa Hifter, who had then made common cause with the militia and used Tarhuna to launch an unsuccessful offensive against the capital, Tripoli.
Not the United Nations, which has been trying to prop up the government all these years.
Reports of the militia’s atrocities had emerged as early as 2017 and were known to the governing authorities, Libyan lawmakers, the United Nations and others, according to residents, human rights activists and two former U.N. investigators.
But only in recent months, with the unearthing of mass graves, are the full dimensions of the Kaniyat’s atrocities becoming apparent.
Nearly every week, workers in blue uniforms have been recovering more decomposed bodies from the reddish- brown soil of the eight-acre Harouda farm, mounting evidence of possible war crimes committed by the Kani brothers and the local militia they’d formed to subjugate Tarhuna.
So far, 120 bodies have been recovered, said Elias al-Hamroni, head of the mass graves committee in the Libyan Justice Ministry’s forensics department.
Cemeteries are filled with the newly buried, a year or more after they disappeared.
Kamal Abubaker, the head of the General Authority for Searching and Identifying Missing Persons, said this is the first time his agency has found mass graves with women and children.
“It’s also extraordinary so many people are missing from the same town. In our culture, you don’t torture close family or neighbors or people from the same community. What we saw in Tarhuna can only be called a massacre,” Abubaker said.
His excavation team said there could be as many as 17 other mass graves around the town. More than 350 families have reported to his office that relatives of theirs are missing.
“Unfortunately, successive governments in Libya did not interfere in the crimes of this militia,” said Mohamed al-Kosher, the mayor of Tarhuna. “If they wanted to, they could have taken out the Kaniyat. But every government turned a blind eye toward the crimes, and in return, the Kaniyat did what the government asked it to do.”
The bodies of Falus and three of his sons were found in February in one of the mass graves, their remains jumbled together, limbs splayed, according to photographs.
Two weeks later, family members gathered in a mourning tent, receiving condolences from visitors.
The relatives recounted how, in April of last year, Kaniyat militiamen wearing their trademark camouflage uniforms and insignia came to the family home, seizing Falus and his sons, ages 16, 15, 10 and 8.
The fighters separated the boys from their father and took them to the home of a militia leader. The boys were ordered to line up and face the garden. Then the fighters opened fire, killing all but the youngest.
“I saw my brothers falling down,” recalled Moad al-Falus, now 9, his eyes gloomy and his timid voice shaking from the memory. “And I started to cry.”
Then, Moad said, he ran. But the fighters grabbed him and took him to their leader, a bald man with a black patch over one eye and a disfigured hand.
The man told Moad he would be kept alive as a warning to others, the boy recalled.
The man placed a gun to Moad’s head and said: “Are you going to fight the Kaniyat when you grow up?”
“No,” replied the boy.
Led by seven brothers, the Kani family and their eponymously named militia ruled Tarhuna with a brutality that even by the standards of Libyan violence was extraordinary.
One brother even kept a pride of lions to terrorize residents, locals said.
Before the Libyan uprising 10 years ago against the dictator Moammar Gaddafi, the Kanis were largely unknown.
They were a poor family living in a small, two-story house in the center of Tarhuna, a hamlet of cream-colored houses and olive groves roughly an hour’s drive south of the capital, Tripoli.
At the time, Tarhuna was filled with Gaddafi loyalists, and they included members of the Kani clan, who had marginalized the brothers, leaving them bitter and jealous, said residents and Libyan analysts. When the revolution erupted, the brothers sensed an opening.
“The Kanis’ first knee-jerk reaction was to welcome the sudden anarchy as an opportunity,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya analyst and senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “The fog of war was going to make it possible for them to take revenge for old grudges from before 2011, using brute force.”
By the time Gaddafi was ousted and killed in October 2011, the brothers had settled old scores with their tribesmen, killing many of them.
This bolstered the Kanis’ revolutionary credentials, convincing anti-Gaddafi forces that the Kaniyat could be trusted to suppress the dictator’s loyalists and keep Tarhuna secure.
Left alone, the Kaniyat deepened their grip on the town, brutalizing the population to assert their dominance.
Within a few years, the militia numbered in the hundreds of fighters, said community activists and residents. They controlled police and military units inside Tarhuna.
The Kaniyat also enriched themselves by taxing human and fuel smugglers, collecting protection money from scores of small businesses and seizing ownership of other companies, according to the mayor, other community leaders and analysts.
Then, in 2016, the militia found a new source of income: the Government of National Accord, or GNA, installed in Tripoli by the United Nations and backed by Western powers.
The Kaniyat allied with this new authority and began receiving salaries and other funding. The Kaniyat were vital because they controlled a key gateway to Tripoli from the south.
They were called the 7th Brigade, a designation that gave them a veneer of official authority.
The murders, though, continued.
In April 2017, the Kaniyat militiamen surrounded the house of a family in the Mabrouk clan, family members recalled. The fighters had already executed one relative, Suleiman, for refusing to join the militia.
Now they wanted to reduce the odds of their crimes catching up to them, relatives believe, and the gunmen raided the dwelling.
“They shot all the men dead,” said Suleiman’s sister Umm Hanaa Abu-Kleish, whose two other brothers were among 13 killed that day. “They were afraid my other brothers would take revenge for Suleiman’s murder.”
In the murder of Falus and his sons, the motives may have been several, family members said. Falus owned a currency exchange shop and was influential in the community, potentially posing a threat to the militia.
He was also wealthy.
The Kaniyat fighters stole his Mercedes-Benz and an SUV. His shop was later robbed, said Abdul Rahman al-Mabrouk, 39, Falus’s brother-in-law.
Victims’ families often have been too fearful to report killings or disappearances, said community leaders, activists and victims’ relatives. But some families did file complaints with the general prosecutor’s office, said Kosher, the mayor.
“The full scale was not known, but many of the killings were reported,” Harchaoui said, referring specifically to the years when the Kaniyat were aligned with the GNA.
The family of Ahmed Harouda, an influential Tarhuna businessman, owns the farm where bodies are being uncovered. His neighbors, he said, had alerted him to seeing lights and hearing tractors at night and the sounds of digging.
Sudarsan Raghavan is The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief. He has reported from more than 65 nations and territories. He has been posted in Baghdad, Kabul, Johannesburg, Madrid and Nairobi. He has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the 2011 Arab revolutions, as well as reported from 17 African wars.