BBC | Matthew Price | August 11, 2011
The Libyan government has taken correspondents to Zlitan, to see the aftermath of a Nato strike that it says killed 85 civilians. Nato says it hit a military staging base. The BBC’s Matthew Price went along to weigh the competing claims.
A photocopied version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea lay in the rubble. Next to it were school books, their pages fluttering in the light breeze.
A policeman picked through the remains of the house. He slid the door of a refrigerator lying on its back to one side. Inside was a melon, and some bags of beans.
Nearby a sofa and a bed lay broken and covered in dust. There were other signs of normal life: a teddy bear, a football.
Just around the broken, mangled corner of the building, Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi was speaking.
“You all saw that 85 Libyan civilians, from several families, were massacred in this location,” he said, standing outside the remains of what was once perhaps a living room.
“Thirty-three of them were children of a very young age,” he continued. “This is ‘Western democracy’.”
For Libya’s government, what happened south of Zlitan in the village of Majar is proof that Nato, contrary to its mandate, is not protecting civilians. Officials believe the alliance is engaged in regime change, at whatever cost.
Almost 48 hours after the first strike hit the cluster of buildings in the countryside to the south of Zlitan, Nato said it had completed its assessment of what happened.
It confirmed it had hit the area, targeting four buildings and nine vehicles at the site between 23.33 on Monday and 02.34 on Tuesday.
The times for the strikes correspond with those given by people in the area.
Nato went on: “We monitored this military compound very carefully before striking.”
“Our assessment, based on the level of destruction of the buildings, confirms the likelihood of military and mercenary casualties. The allegation of civilian casualties made by the Gaddafi regime was not corroborated by available factual information at the site.”
Try telling that however to 15 year-old Salwa Jawoo. Her name was on some of the school books at the scene – I found her in Zliten hospital.
Her face was scarred – she had a broken shoulder.
She said she was sitting outside her home when the first missile struck. It was the second one that injured her.
“There was no military camp. We were just living there. Why did they attack us?” she asked.
“My mother died, and my two sisters,” she added, with a sigh. A tear ran down her cheek as she spoke. Her grief was genuine.
So, too, was the sorrow of Ali Mufta Hamed Gavez. His wife – also in the hospital – had her leg amputated after being wounded.
Next door in the mortuary the stench was overwhelming – body bags laid strewn across the floor.
There were about 30. The officials who took international journalists there unzipped perhaps half of them. Inside most were the bodies of young men.
The was little left of some. A foot lay on top of a mess of bloody body parts in one bag. In another, the intestines of the man spilled out.
Shrapnel wounds had lacerated the skin. Many were blackened and covered in dust.
Among the bodies of the men, were also those of two children, and two women.
One child, a two-year-old, bore no visible scars. Its skin was clean.
Since the strike, and during the three days of mourning announced for the victims, Libya’s state television has broadcast footage – clearly from the same place – that shows the body of a young child being pulled out of the rubble.
We will likely never know precisely how many died at Majar or who they were.
The front line is not far away. From the site plumes of white smoke can be seen rising from where the fighting is taking place. It would make sense that soldiers would need somewhere to rest in the area.
Most of the bodies in the mortuary were men of fighting age.
The government itself also indicated that the area is a strategic one – it said Nato’s only reason for hitting the site was to “open the southern gate” to the town of Zliten so the rebels could advance and then from there attack Tripoli.
Civilians were injured – and it seems killed. The government says 33 of them were children. But they showed international journalists the bodies of just two.
The Libyan leadership clearly believes this is an important moment.
State television’s reporting of a large-scale loss of life at the hands of Nato will harden the resolve of those who support Col Gaddafi.
There will also be a belief, that global coverage of the Libyan government figures, might perhaps heighten the unease among some Nato member states about where the campaign is going, and how effective it is proving to be.