Remembering a Neglected Atrocity: One Year After the Abu Salim Hospital Massacre

August 21, 2012

Planet Earth

One year ago, the roughly week-long NATO-backed conquest of Tripoli was raging. The days starting on August 20 saw victory against a government accused of horrific abuses across Libya during the war, as well as numerous scenes of the same kind of barbarity in the capitol as their order crumbled there.


The two largest among these warranted further study, and have now both received part of that due, thanks to the Citizen’s Investigation Into War Crimes in Libya (CIWCL). In June we released our first major report A Question Mark Over Yarmouk: Re-Thinking the Khamis Brigade Shed Massacre (152 pages – PDF download page). This exposed the largest and “most clear-cut” mass execution of the war, allegedly by government forces against 157 civilian prisoners. The best evidence, however, consistently points to this being a massively covered-up crime of the rebel militias.


Today, the CIWCL announces the publication of its second report, marking one year since another apparent rebel atrocity of those same days. A Violation of Medical Neutrality: the Neglected Massacre at Abu Salim Trauma Hospital (55 pages - PDF download page) explores that grim episode, approximately, one year ago today. (PDF download page) This outlines the mass-killing of a reported 164 people who weren’t protected by “medical neutrality,” with the crime’s neglect by champions of human rights as the prevailing sub-theme.


The report paints a bleak picture of the rebel assault on Libya’s capitol, enhanced by the effective cutting of electricity, water, and food, and direct attacks on the medical system. Executed doctors and nurses, attacked ambulances, and a rocketed hospital were generally blamed on “retreating Gaddafi loyalists.” The unexplained closures of three major hospitals, just as the rebel assault started, caused massive overload and hundreds of unnecessary deaths at Tripoli Central Hospital, the only one in the central theater left functioning.

At the derelict trauma hospital, many dozens didn’t just die but were forgotten, and putrefied for days until the media arrived on August 25. Situated in the loyalist Abu Salim neighborhood, near Gaddafi’s compound, and dedicated to treating the kind of extreme injuries the invasion would cause, it was bound to be crucial. But as soon as the assault started, its staff disappeared from the blood-spattered halls, and dozens of patients were executed on-site and dumped from nearby killings. As with other likely rebel attacks, the victims were primarily Black men and clearly Gaddafi loyalists (alleged mercenaries). Not all victims were men: the respected Alex Thomson tallied at least two women, two children, and one borderline young woman among the dead. Some dozens of the reported total remain unseen by reporters.


Usually such acts were blamed on Gaddafi loyalists, but this time the journalists first reported back troubling things like “the bodies we saw were those of Gadhafi loyalists who were wounded in battle.” (Janis Mackey-Frayer) While taking medical treatment, they were overcome again and “executed on their hospital beds in what constitutes a massive war crime.” (Bruno Stevens) One man has an ID card apparently identifying him as a member of the feared Khamis Brigade, with the telltale 32 somehow blacked out. He was clearly shot through the head, like the man next to him, with bullet marks on the wall to match. Another man was apparently beheaded with a sword in his bed. Most of the victims have the details hidden under blue paper sheets. 

But all of that was sidelined by the official, or consensus, decision that all these deaths occurred from passive neglect, after Gaddafi loyalist snipers somehow made the staff abandon the place. That was reportedly on August 21, the same approximate date most of the patients seem to have been killed rather suddenly. As variously reported, snipers kept help away, though ambulances kept dropping off (dumping) the injured. The one doctor and two nurses remaining couldn’t keep up, and the patients died over the days. The smell was from that and from no air conditioning. It was shocking and disgusting, maybe even sad, and it made great news. But it was never treated as or investigated as a crime scene.


The staff that spoke to the media gave no reason to investigate. With a second doctor and three more nurses returned by the 25th, the reported seven medics said nothing about executions, just shortages and deaths they couldn’t prevent. That the token three sets of eyes allegedly remained the whole time is convenient; they’re able to report in their “credible voices” that there was no crime to see there. 21 alleged surviving patients also, apparently, saw no massacre during their stay, as they swear the massive new rebel violence, and NATO, had nothing to with their hospitalization (shot by loyalists, mugged by loyalists, car crash “weeks ago,” etc.).


All of them these public staff and patients at the trauma hospital are considered by the CIWCL as alleged witnesses, potentially trucked-in actors. This policy might sound unreasonable, but it became absolutely necessary for the mass of conflicting witnesses in the first report, where at least some of them had to be wrong about what they “saw.” But in both cases, the media and others have taken all of them as actual witnesses, creating a horribly confused record taken as truth.


One of the most chilling of the CIWCL’s clues is an early Red Cross (ICRC) visit to re-supply the hospital, made on the 22nd, just before a three-day span of silence and inaction. The ICRC team didn’t notice any signs of the previous day’s massacre, or have anything said by the one doctor and his 25 remaining patients. Nowhere in that scene were the 100 or more patients who would be seen five-days dead, four days later. The reason for that odd omission, and the cover-up it suggests, is now on record in this report.