“Nobody knows where [former Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi is buried,” said Abubaker Ali, a 29-year-old volunteer with the forces massed at the Sufageen forward base in the Libyan desert.
Squinting toward the horizon where a pall of black smoke rose from the town of Bani Walid, hidden behind a line of barren hills, he said: “He’s buried in the desert. But nine-tenths of Libya is desert.”
Qaddafi was captured and killed by rebels a year ago on Saturday and buried somewhere under the rust-colored sand. The location of the grave is a closely guarded secret, but in the same stretch of sand the same rebel forces — now wearing government uniforms — prepare a final push into the last of his strongholds. Bani Walid, 144km from Tripoli, was supposed to have fallen a year ago. Instead Qaddafi’s former henchmen and officials have turned the town into a bastion.
The Libyan leader’s bloody death is one of the images seared in Libya’s collective memory. Trapped in Sirte, his birthplace, on the coast, he tried to escape in a convoy that was bombed by NATO on Oct. 20 last year.
Rebel forces found him hiding in a roadside culvert and mobile phone footage of the time shows him being dragged away, kicked and punched, with blood running from a head wound.
Shortly afterward, he was shot dead by an unknown gunman. His body was laid out on public display in Misrata, the hardest-hit of the rebel cities, before being transported south for burial.
The year since his death has been one of chaos and violence. In January, pro-Qaddafi loyalists in Bani Walid rebelled, chasing government forces out of the town. Last month, they kidnapped and killed one of the Misrata militiamen credited with Qaddafi’s capture.
The former transitional authorities were unable to stitch together a country riven by mistrust and anger after 40 years of ruthless dictatorship. Savage battles continue to erupt across much of Libya, some score-settling and some the work of jihadists, who last month claimed the life of US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.
Elections in July for the first truly democratic parliament in Libya’s history were a success, but the result has so far been a failure: a parliament so riven with ideological, tribal and regional rivalries that, three months on, it cannot agree on a new government.
Ali was anxious to get back to his studies — a PhD in civil engineering at a university in El Paso, Texas — but said Bani Walid represented unfinished business.
“People are tired,” he said with a shake of the head. “They really want an end of all this.”
The mood was the same in the impromptu camps set up in a wide elongated ring around Bani Walid. Abdul Fatah worked as an intensive care nurse during last year’s revolution and has left his medical studies to serve in a tented field hospital here.
“They want to finish it on 20 October because it’s the same time they caught Qaddafi,” he said.
Tanks and heavy artillery were being moved up along the few highways around this base, ready for the resumption of battle after a truce to encourage civilians to flee. According to Fatah, Libya’s problems rest foremost with the politicians and their failure to put national interests before their own.
“The people in power don’t think about Libya, they think about themselves, that is the problem,” he said. “The first thing the [Libyan] National Congress did was to appoint themselves high salaries.”