Peter Bouckaert is emergencies director of Human Rights Watch.
The glass crunched under our boots as we walked through the abandoned compound of Moammar Gadhafi military intelligence headquarters in Tripoli. It was late August, and the city had just fallen. Pancaked buildings destroyed by NATO airstrikes littered the grounds, and we entered one of the remaining undamaged buildings. For months now, we had followed the rebel offensive in Libya, monitoring the conduct of both the rebels and the Gadhafi loyalists. Along the way, we were also working to ensure that the intelligence archives of the Libyan state were quickly secured and not looted or burned, as we knew they contained important answers about what had happened in the secretive country over the past 42 years of Gadhafi rule.
Just a few days before, we had struck gold. While looking through one of the office buildings of Gadhafi's spy chief, Musa Kusa, who had defected during the war, we came upon a treasure trove of faxes from the CIA and the British MI6 discussing the capture and rendition of Libyan Islamists back to Libya in 2004, where they were certain to be tortured under interrogation. After years of documenting the war on terror's campaign of rendition by interviewing the Islamists who had been victim of the policy, we now had the CIA and MI6 in their own words.
Our project to secure the archives of the Libyan state was a race against time: Libyans were finally able to vent their fury against the police state that Gadhafi had built, and all too often, that fury involved burning down and tearing apart any symbols associated with the regime — particularly the buildings of the loathed security agencies.
We arrived in the eastern city of Benghazi in late February, just days after the Libyan revolution had begun there. Control of eastern Libya had been wrenched from the security services after days of massacres by Gadhafi's forces, and we found state buildings all over the city still smoldering, burned to the ground by angry mobs. It was as if somehow, the now-free Libyan people, then still under threat of a military offensive by Gadhafi loyalists to retake eastern Libya, believed that they could somehow hold off Gadhafi's return by burning down the symbols of his feared police state.
Our Human Rights Watch teams didn't seek to haul off the files we were seeking to preserve — those belong to the Libyan people. In any case, the files of a state which had just about all of its citizens under surveillance were just too massive to haul away. We quickly photographed what we thought relevant, and then worked with Libyan lawyers and rebel representatives to impress upon them the importance of securing the archives, as they surely held answers to some of the mysteries from Gadhafi's 42-year rule. There were so many unsolved mysteries. No one knew what had happened to the bodies of the more than 1,200 prisoners who had been mowed down at the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996, after they protested their detention conditions, for one. Somewhere in the files, there must be answers.
While our search focused mostly on intelligence documents, we soon began noticing that the archives contained rooms literally filled with photographs and films documenting Gadhafi's rule. The photographs were of little interest to our Libyan guides, who had been saturated with Gadhafi's omnipresent image and exploits during his long rule. Unlike with the intelligence documents, which revealed secrets that they had not been privy to, our Libyan friends could not understand why we foreigners found images of Gadhafi, well, being Gadhafi, so fascinating. On a number of occasions, we had to stop of Libyan counterparts from reflexively tearing up any image of Gadhafi that we came across — another popular cleansing ritual in the new Libya.
One day in March in Benghazi, Idriss, one of our dearest Libyan contacts came to our hotel with a plastic bag filled with photographs. He shrugged his shoulders as he handed me the bag, explaining that it contained a bunch of black and white prints he had rescued from an intelligence archive as it was being set on fire. I knew he was telling the truth as soon as I opened the bag — the sharp smell of smoke hit me. As I looked through the pile, I immediately saw how important it was to preserve what Idriss had just handed us: one of the first prints I thumbed through was of a jubilant young Gadhafi greeting his hero, the nationalist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser on the tarmac at Benghazi. Seeing my enthusiasm, Idriss just shrugged and said he had piles more at his house, "but they were all of Gadhafi." More interesting, he suggested, would be to come to his house for a homemade lunch, a respite from the daily chicken and soggy fries at the hotel. I eagerly agreed.
The next morning, we headed over to Idriss's house, accompanied by our photographer friend, Tim Hetherington, and started a fascinating journey into the personality cult built by Gadhafi. Sadly, we lost Tim along the way: he and his fellow photographer Chris Hondros were hit by a mortar shell in Misrata on April 20, and died from their wounds. In a way, every time we find more images of Gadhafi to photograph, more archives to secure, we think of Tim and his quest to teach us what images can tell us.