Saleh Amr Quosmy was 31 years old when he was imprisoned. His three daughters were ten years old, three years old and forty days old. He was released from prison thirty years later to find them all married with children of their own. He is now the proud grandfather of twenty grandchildren.
“I was arrested following what they called Gaddafi’s cultural or popular revolution of 1973. Political parties, intellectuals and thinkers were all targeted. Gaddafi gave a speech on 15 April, which that year fell on the same day as the anniversary of the birth of Prophet Mohamed. He always chose such dates of religious significance in order to distemper us Libyans.”
All party members, including the communists, members of the Tahrir party and the Muslim Brotherhood, were told to prepare themselves. A grand procession of Gaddafi’s revolutionary guard took place the next day and they sung songs calling political party members traitors and agents of the West. “The arrests started on the 17th. I was arrested on the 30th for being a member of the Tahrir party. We were all politically active from before the 1969 coup, so our names were all known.”
They had been expecting the arrests, and knew that the orders came from above and were simply being followed without legislative procedures. “When they came to search my office and the house they didn’t have a warrant. Nor did they have one for my arrest. But that is the way of dictatorships. The officers themselves were confused, but they simply followed orders that they received through the telephone.”
When he arrived at the Black Horse prison, Quosmy was at first happy to see so many other intellectuals and politically active people. It somehow suggested to him that they would not be tortured. He was wrong.
“The interrogations were hard. More so for my group because we fought back and called them the traitors that they were trying to paint us to be. We would be on the ground in the courtyard and guards would surround us, each with different instruments – plastic bricks, sticks, belts – and hit us continuously. They demanded we change our thoughts, but we were young and enthusiastic.”
Three months of brutal interrogations passed in the military wing of the Black Horse prison before Quosmy and his colleagues were transferred to the wing of the civilian police. “Life was better there and my family would visit me every week. The worst of the civilian police cannot compare to the brutality of the military police. Then on 3 May 1980, we were returned to the military wing and its torment.” Family visits stopped, the newspapers, books, radio and tv they had enjoyed at the civilian police wing were gone.
“On 30 September 1994, we were transferred to Abu Salim prison where all the detainees related to the National Front for the Salvation of Libya were imprisoned. During ‘Asbah al Sobh’, some of our colleagues were released. I wasn’t.” ‘Asbah al Sobh’ translates to ‘a new dawn’ and refers to a period in 1998 when Gaddafi decided to release many prisoners and engage in dialogue with oppositionists. Quosmy was not a beneficiary of ‘Asbah al Sobh’ and remained in Abu Salim until his release.
“Abu Salim was worse than the Black Horse. The Black Horse prison was built in the 1930s. It had large windows and open spaces and we could hear the world outside, a mother calling out to her son, the smell of home cooking. Abu Salim was the opposite. The rooms were designed like metal boxes with tiny windows, very hot in summer, very cold in winter.”
In 1996, some prisoners rioted against their conditions. The next day, 1,270 prisoners were killed. Quosmy was present during the massacre. “It was very hard psychologically to hear the sirens, the gunfire, the spraying, the tractors. We felt that they would be coming for us next. We knew little of what had actually transpired until years later.”
Quosmy, and all those imprisoned in 1973 knew it was coming, after hearing Gaddafi’s speech. Quosmy was one of the last to be arrested, two weeks later, because his address had recently changed. “I could have escaped. But I had a family and I didn’t believe it would last long. There were even some opportunities to escape from prison. But we had faith that we would be released one day. Whenever people would visit, we would learn more about what was happening on the outside. I had faith that a revolution would come or Gaddafi would die.”
One of his former cellmates recalls how Quosmy was known by the nickname Jesus, “for his patience knew no bounds.”