Moustafa Ahmed had been scraping through the soft soil since Tuesday. He was using a wooden plank to dig and the throng around him was scattering the soil behind a nearby eucalyptus tree. “We know they’re there,” he said. “The people heard their voices.”
The people of Benghazi came throughout the week to this godforsaken patch of earth in the back of the city’s ransacked military base, convinced they were closing in on a scene of unimaginable horror. Fleeing soldiers buried dozens of people in underground vaults in the hours before they fled the city on Sunday.
After a walk through two nearby dungeons that were used to house political dissidents and regime enemies, it’s not hard to see what fuels the bystanders’ paranoia. “Anyone who upset him either ended up dead on his own doorstep, or in one of these holes,” said Hussein Abbas, pointing to one of the two giant mounds atop the underground cells. “We have to get these people out.”
Word soon got around the military base, which has become the main attraction in town, of the frantic dig out back. Even more cars began arriving, people convinced that living proof of Colonel Gaddafi’s cruelty was only inches beneath their feet. Helpers poured in from everywhere, chipping away with concrete blocks and anything that could be used as a makeshift tool.
“The door is here, we know it’s here,” one man cried. They hit a water pipe. It slowed no one down. Fifteen minutes later they struck a piece of shaped concrete and pandemonium broke out. A swarm of several hundred men descended on the site in less than a minute. “Find a lock, it’s not far away, came a shout.”
The door was never found and probably never will be. With two giant dungeons nearby, small underground holes would probably have been redundant.
But such is the rage here against the regime and so vehement the distrust towards one of the region’s cruellest despots that all those who stood in the desolate, muddy earth were convinced they were helping exorcise something vile. The process seemed almost cathartic.
Throughout this giant base, known as Katiba, the damage is immense and the celebration is continuing. At least 5,000 soldiers and officers were based here until Sunday, when they were ousted by thousands of people who came at them with bulldozers, TNT and Molotov cocktails. Everything has been ransacked. The blackened barracks still smoulder. It seems to be the only place in town where the victory gunfire that still peppers Benghazi’s night sky seems appropriate.
“This camp was the darkest fear of all of Benghazi,” said one man, Nouri Kaskas. “Everybody had a relative somewhere who was in one of these holes.”
“It is an unbelievable feeling to be standing here,” said Assaad Mari, 25. “For 42 years nobody could get close to this place.”
In the capital there were widespread reports that the Mizgati air force base, which has been a cornerstone of Gaddafi’s four-decade grip on power, had met the same fate. Several senior officers took to opposition radio stations to announce that the base had fallen, a potential death knell to the dictator’s ailing regime.
Hours later, Gaddafi took to Tripoli’s Green Square to address a crowd of supporters. “I am not a king, I am not a president, but the people still love me,” he said.
“I give him two days,” said Fadhil Nour inside the Benghazi military base. “He can’t continue past that unless he wants to die. Is he crazy, or is he a criminal? He’s both. I can’t decide whether a mental hospital or prison would be better for him. But let’s send him to the mental hospital first. Our religion says that we should treat him better than he treated us.”
Some in Benghazi have asked the city’s new civic organisers to hand out weapons that they can take with them to assault the capital, 600 miles away. The requests have so far been denied. Weapons here are being handed out only to defend neighbourhoods — a precaution that seems unnecessary, with regime figures nowhere to be seen.
But distrust is still rampant here. “We have learned to believe nothing that we hear,” said 18-year-old Ibrahim.
“We know he did bad things to the people, we know he tried to deny us dignity for so long. That’s why the people are here digging. There will be bodies somewhere.”
More gunfire cracked through the night sky as the people slowly made their way home, their cars cascading through parade grounds that until Sunday were a safe refuge for a regime that was going nowhere..
“Look how fast they ran,” said Ibrahim.
“Now it’s up to us to show the world their dark secrets. We will find these people and we will bury them. Then we will make this base into a road again, just like it used to be.”