A Libyan militia brutalized this town for years. No one stopped them. No one held them to account.
As early as 2017, Harouda notified the attorney general’s office, the prime minister’s office, the Interior Ministry, tribal leaders, the United Nations and regional human rights groups, he said.
“I told them about the farm and the Kaniyat’s killings and disappearances,” said Harouda, a slim man with piercing brown eyes who fled the Kaniyat several years ago and now lives in Tripoli. “But nothing happened.”
Hanan Salah, a Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch, said much of the responsibility for the Kaniyat’s crimes lies with the GNA, which “seems to have turned a blind eye to the cruelty and to these very serious violations going on.”
But responsibility may not stop there, she said. “The question that can be asked is whether the U.N. Security Council should have reacted sooner,” she said. “Did the U.N. sufficiently, publicly inform them about the situation in Tarhuna?”
A former U.N. investigator in Libya said that GNA figures “absolutely knew” about the Kaniyat’s abuses.
The investigator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concern over losing U.N. employment, said the GNA did not keep records of the Kaniyat’s crimes because they made the government “look bad.”
Another former U.N. investigator in Libya said that relations between the GNA and the population of Tarhuna often were tense, with many residents still sympathetic to Gaddafi, and the government wanted to avoid provoking hostilities in the town.
“That helps explain the passive attitude of authorities in Tripoli,” said this former investigator, who also spoke anonymously to protect his U.N. job.
According to a former senior GNA official, the GNA bears responsibility for the Kaniyat crimes that happened on its watch. But the militia, he said, never was fully under the GNA’s control.
And the international community failed to give the government adequate support to confront the Kaniyat, he said.
This former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his relationships with prominent political figures, acknowledged that the GNA had little political will to hold the Kaniyat accountable and had taken “a path of least resistance” because of the militia’s importance to the GNA’s security and also because of the strategic value of Tarhuna.
“There was a mutual benefit,” he said. It was “the enemy of my enemy is my friend kind of approach. It was an alliance of convenience.”
A GNA Justice Ministry spokesman, Akram Karawan, said ministry officials “were not responsible for holding to account criminals.” That was the job, he said, of the attorney general’s office and the Interior Ministry, both of which did not respond to requests for comments.
Despite emerging reports of atrocities, senior GNA figures and U.N. officials continued to visit Tarhuna. Such contacts convinced many residents that the Kaniyat had political support from the government and the United Nations, Kosher said. “They all knew what happened here. But they chose not to see it,” he added.
But a spokesman for the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) took issue with that characterization. “Any U.N. dialogue with armed groups does not mean the U.N. is legitimatizing these groups or individuals; rather, the U.N. engages in dialogue to prevent abuses,” said Jean Alam, the spokesman.
In response to emailed questions, Alam said the United Nations “has closely followed the situation in Tarhuna since 2017 and documented crimes and human rights violations allegedly committed” by the Kaniyat.”
Both UNSMIL and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) produced several reports on human rights violations in Tarhuna and “consistently raised concerns” about them “at the Security Council and with relevant Libyan authorities at the highest level.”
“The U.N. repeatedly called on the GNA to respect principles of international human rights and humanitarian law,” Alam said.
In April 2019, the Kaniyat switched loyalties to the warlord Hifter, aligning their domain with his government in eastern Libya and putting their fighters under his command as his newly designated 9th Brigade. Hifter’s senior commanders based themselves in Tarhuna.
The killings and disappearances in Tarhuna dramatically escalated. Kosher estimated that the militia killed more than 1,000 civilians over the past decade, with roughly two-thirds during the 14 months under Hifter’s command.
A spokesman for Hifter’s forces did not respond to a request for comment. Two of the Kani brothers — Mohsen and Abdul Adheem — were killed in a drone strike in September 2019.
The remaining brothers, including the two leaders Mohammed and Abdul-Rahim, are believed by pro-government forces to be hiding in the eastern city of Ajdabiya.
They could not be reached for comment.
International efforts to hold the Kanis accountable so far have failed. At the U.N. Security Council, the United States and Germany wanted to impose an asset freeze and travel ban on the Kaniyat and Mohammed al-Kani.
Russia, however, said it could not approve the sanctions until it had seen more evidence that the militia had killed civilians.
Last summer, it finally became safe for many in Tarhuna to seek the truth about their missing relatives.
GNA forces had pushed Hifter’s fighters and the Kaniyat out of Tarhuna. The victors, along with hundreds of townspeople, destroyed the vestiges of the militia.
The Kanis’ family house and villas were shelled, mortared and torched. So was a commercial mall they’d erected. In one detention center, a large mural of Mohsen al-Kani was defaced and peppered with bullet holes. The lions, residents said, were killed.
Survivors recounted their ordeal. In a now-torched secret prison inside an Agriculture Ministry compound, detainees had been forced to crouch, knees to chin, inside kitchen cupboards the size of a large safe underneath a large oven, said two survivors.
One torture tactic: turn up the oven.
Abdul Haleen Muhammed, 28, a blacksmith and one of only three survivors of the prison, said he had been forced to cram his 6-foot-2 frame into a cupboard and spend 47 days there because he had refused to join the Kaniyat.
“They also used horsewhips and pulled out fingernails,” he recalled. “I was beaten and electrocuted. I don’t even know why I was released. Everyone who came here was killed.”
Thousands of locals emerged from their homes and scoured the Kaniyat’s military bases, detention centers and secret prisons, looking for their missing relatives.
The Falus family joined the search, hoping that Moad had imagined his brothers’ deaths. “Even simply asking around about my brother and nephews was dangerous to do as long as the Kanis controlled our town,” said Moad’s uncle Mabrouk, a compact man with a thick salt-and-pepper beard.
But they came up empty.
“At that moment, we realized that Moad was telling the truth,” Mabrouk said. “We lost hope that day.”
Families have been heading to a Tripoli hospital in hopes of identifying the remains of loved ones.
The bodies recovered from the mass graves are held in black bags and stacked inside a refrigerated shipping container outside the hospital.
So far, only 59 of the 120 bodies have been identified, mostly through teeth, birthmarks, surgical scars and clothing, said Hamroni of the Justice Ministry’s forensics department.
In February, Mabrouk and another Falus relative went to Tripoli to see the pictures. A worker told them a grave had been unearthed containing the remains of a man and three boys — and showed them the photos, Mabrouk recounted.
His pulse raced. He took photos back to his sister, the boys’ mother. She recognized Muhammed from his underwear, her husband from a gold tooth and her other two sons by the patterns of their teeth.
On Friday, March 5, they received the remains and brought them back to Tarhuna in an ambulance.
The next day, they buried the four next to each other in a cemetery in the heart of the town.
“We felt relief,” Mabrouk said. “We know how their story ended.
“Now, we want the government to bring us justice.”
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.