Youssef Ali Bin Harez was at the military academy in 1986 when he and a number of his fellow students were told that they would be sent to the south on a three-month mission. “They only said the south, so we didn’t know where exactly, and they said we’d be replaced by another group within a maximum of three months.”
They were flown from a military airbase in Bayda to Wadi el Doom in Chad. “We only knew where we where because people already at the base there told us when we arrived. Eight days later they transferred us 150km further south to Fada. There we found military men, people who had been in the army for 20 years, not people like us, students and civilians. They sat with us for a week, and then left us.”
The tools, weapons and provisions they were left with were poor. “They would sell provisions, tuna and cheese, to the soldiers. We should have been getting those for free. They wanted us to dig trenches without spades and use tanks that didn’t shoot.”
Just under three months into their stay, on 2 January 1987, the Chadian army attacked Fada and Bin Harez became their prisoners within a matter of hours. “Within a few days I was among 57 Libyan prisoners in a prison in the town of Fada. A French plane eventually took us to a prison in the capital.” The prison was near the presidential palace and the section in which Bin Harez found himself had five cells and a communal space.
“They didn’t want us mixing with the other prisoners at first. We banged on the doors and introduced ourselves. Prisoners in the next room said they were Libyans and had been in the prison since 1983. I couldn’t believe it. We had no idea when we were in Benghazi that there were Libyan prisoners in Chad. We had heard that Libyans who were seriously injured, those who had lost limbs for example, would never be taken back to Libya but rather dumped in the sea, and those caught by the Chadians would be killed with a nail to the head. So we expected to survive and return to Libya or die. But we had no idea there were prisoners. Perhaps those were all rumours to discourage us from surrendering.”
Life in prison was difficult. Ten prisoners in one cell would be chained together in a series from night until morning. “Imagine living like that. It was tragic. Imagine not going to the bathroom for 45 days. The Chadians were simple and didn’t use aggressive interrogation techniques on us, but thy liked to humiliate us. They burned my hair.”
These circumstances, says Bin Harez, encouraged him to join the opposition movement known as the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL). “I had two choices, and both were difficult. By September, nine months after I was captured, Libyans from inside Libyan territory were being captured and imprisoned in Chad. So I chose to live with dignity and was encouraged when they spoke of forming an army to overthrow the Libyan regime.”
The NFSL’s plan didn’t materialise and Bin Harez, along with many other members of the opposition group, ended up in the United States. “I had put a big X on Libya and had no intention of going back. Once in the US, I was in communication with my family. My parents were ill and told me they were not in favour of my staying in the States. I decided to go to Libya despite the warnings of my colleagues in South Dakota. I expected to be arrested as soon as I landed in Tripoli, but called the office of the Libyan government in New York in any case because I had made my decision. They told me that the Leader had forgiven us and I would be fine. They arranged for my flight out, booked me into a hotel for the night and accompanied me to the airport, all out fear that I might change my mind.”
He travelled with another Libyan and was greeted at Tripoli airport by four men from the internal security forces. “They told us that his was our country and welcomed us back home and repeated that the Leader had pardoned us and that we need not fear anything.
Bin Harez was taken to a hanger with beds in a military encampment in Abu Salim and questioned by every intelligence, security and police force over the next eight days before they sent him home to Benghazi. “Within six weeks they began repeatedly calling me in for questioning – the internal security force, the national guards and intelligence services. One day I was out of town for work. When I returned I found my apartment had been turned upside down. The door had not been broken and nothing had been stolen, not even our gold or television. My drawers full of papers had been emptied out onto the floor.”
Most of those, like Bin Harez, who had at one point been part of the opposition were treated poorly in Libya, a country with a mostly civil service workforce. “Most of us didn’t have jobs. I applied to work at three different companies, but people I knew there told me that my name had come back with a red line under it. I knew I had been blacklisted. When I would go to the office for prisoners and martyrs, I would be treated like an enemy and called a stray dog. When I needed a paper to establish that I was a former captive because I had hired a lawyer to represent me in gaining my rights from the Libyan government, they refused to give me one. Even in 2010 when a group of us had prepared our papers and hired a lawyer, we found out that he was unable to gain a hearing for us.”
All former captives were invited to a meeting in 2005. “They told us again that we, the ones who had joined the opposition, had been pardoned by the Leader. They told us that until now they had been monitoring us and found nothing against us and now we were considered part of Libyan society. Despite that, they continued to call me in to various questioning sessions at different agencies. It became an almost weekly routine. I became so tired of it all that I once told them at the internal intelligence agency that they should simply execute all those that returned from Chad just to offer some relief.”