TO see the horses grazing serenely at a farm on the outskirts of Tripoli last week, you would never have guessed the terrible confession being made in a makeshift interrogation room in one of its buildings.
There, a former soldier in Muammar Gaddafi’s army was describing how he and his unit had raped seven women before rebel militias overwhelmed them.
The soldier, a 40-year-old resident of Tripoli who had served in Gaddafi’s army for 19 years, stood nervously in his new but ill-fitting olive green uniform while members of the victorious Misratah militia questioned him.
He admitted he had raped the women while on duty in Dafniya, west of Misratah, the port city that endured a prolonged siege by Gaddafi’s forces.
According to the soldier, he and his comrades stormed into farmhouses and repeatedly raped teenage girls and looted gold, traditionally given as a dowry in this conservative society.
“When I heard his story, I was shaking,” said Mohamed Ajaj, 41, a former prosecutor under the old regime who now advises the rebels. “I couldn’t write down his statement.”
The soldier was arrested after applying to join the rebel forces. The militia investigated and found a video on his mobile phone of two young women being raped.
The fate of this man and countless others like him appears uncertain, but at least he has not been treated harshly. Neither he nor any of the other 60 prisoners detained on the farm last week showed any obvious sign of having been beaten.
It was a far cry from the conditions the militia found when they arrived. Thirty prisoners were held there by Gaddafi loyalists, all showing signs of torture.
“Gaddafi’s men had dumped acid over one man, from his head and over his body,” said Ajaj. “His condition was terrible.”
Seven months after the start of the rebellion, the “prison” is at the heart of a growing controversy about how to move from the informal justice imposed by the militias to a formal legal system. None of the men they hold has appeared before a court. The country still depends on the militias for security and there are at least 40 in the capital alone.
Tripoli’s residents, although grateful to the fighters who brought them freedom, are growing weary of their presence as they race around in trucks with anti-aircraft guns on the back.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council running Libya, last week called on militias from outside Tripoli to leave, but he was later forced to back down.
In the Qasr bin Ghashir district, the Fursan brigade has taken over a former ministry of education building as its headquarters and jail. It keeps 25 prisoners in three clean, air-conditioned rooms. One, named Masoud, is described as the jail’s “disaster”. At the age of 18, he apparently committed cold-blooded murder while manning a checkpoint on the airport road.
Masoud was high on drugs when they tracked him down, but he confessed after sobering up. He admitted that on the day Tripoli fell to the rebels, he and a fellow volunteer had arrested and killed two men because they had found a rebel flag on them. Their bodies have since been found.
He also said that in the dying days of the regime, soldiers had delivered a 21-year-old girl to the brigade and ordered them to execute her.
“He told us they raped her before killing her,” said Colonel Saleh Belhaj, 42, the commander at the Fursan brigade headquarters.
Her body remains missing.
The militia leaders believe they are filling a security vacuum, but the more entrenched they become, say critics, the greater the danger they will abuse their power.
The militias supply security for key government buildings and entire districts. It is a seemingly chaotic patchwork, but each brigade knows its responsibilities.
The Misratah brigades, for example, guard the Prime Minister’s office, the television studios and the embassies, including the embattled Algerian delegation, which is threatened with attack because its government gave refuge to Gaddafi’s wife, Safia, and his children Aisha, Mohammed and Hannibal.
The Tripoli brigade guards the hotels and airport.
There remains plenty of goodwill for the policy of reconciliation for all except those seen as having “blood on their hands”.