A photograph of Mourad Allafi hangs in the family farmhouse in western Libya three years after he was found in a mass grave. His father wants his killers dead.
Mohamad Allafi believes the prison terms of six years to life handed down by a military court in February to 30 people convicted of murder are not enough.
And relatives of the hundreds of others who were tortured, killed and dumped in row upon row of mass graves in Tarhuna agree with him.
The families who lost relatives in the mass killings say that only the death penalty can ease the pain of those who have lost children murdered “in cold blood”.
Capital punishment is still legal in Libya, but the ultimate penalty is not often applied.
Many families in Libya are still reeling from the years of violence and injustice that followed the toppling and killing in 2011 of Moamer Kadhafi.
The dictator’s demise plunged the North African country into chaos.
Tarhuna, a town some 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of the capital Tripoli with a population of 40,000, stands out because of the atrocities committed there.
A feared militia called the Kaniyat, named after the six brothers who ran it, seized Tarhuna in 2015 and set about systematically silencing opponents and often their entire families.
Lions that the Al-Kani brothers kept during their reign of terror were rumoured to feed on the flesh of their victims.
Mohamad Allafi will never forget the day the Kaniyat abducted his 30-year-old son in 2019.
“I called him dozens of times that night, but in vain,” he said in a trembling voice.
– Searching for bodies –
Mourad had “stayed well away from politics and militias”, his father insists.
His only crime, in the Kaniyat’s eyes, was holding an ID card that showed he belonged to the Na’aji tribe which opposed the militia’s violent grip on the town.
Row upon row of graves in Tarhuna
For a time, the Al-Kani brothers sided with militias based in Tripoli.
But when eastern-based military strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an assault on the capital in 2019, the clan switched sides and offered him Tarhuna as a rear base.
When Haftar’s forces were routed a year later, the Al-Kanis disappeared.
Three of the brothers, including Mohamed their leader, were killed, and locals in Tarhuna believe the other three are now hiding out in Benghazi, Egypt or Jordan.
With the Al-Kanis gone from Tarhuna, residents started looking for mass graves. They chipped away at the hard ochre earth with spades, desperate to find signs of the many disappeared.
The body of Mourad Allafi was one of 350 to be discovered.
Libya’s authority for the disappeared has so far identified 226 sets of remains, and is still searching for more in three main sites.
A second trial of dozens of others suspected of involvement in the Tarhuna killings is expected to conclude in the coming weeks, the justice ministry said.
But many of the townspeople are sceptical that this will bring them closure.
– Three demands –
“The military prosecutor’s office tried people for the crimes in Tarhuna and delivered unjust and insufficient verdicts,” said Mossab Abou Kleich of an association of victims’ families, referring to February’s verdict.
“They should have been sentenced to death,” he said.
“No family is satisfied with just prison sentences for those proven to be directly responsible for murdering hundreds of civilians,” Abou Kleich added.
He called for punishment “commensurate with the crime that was committed”.
Mossab Abou Kleich: “They should have been sentenced to death”
Abou Kleich said the families’ three main demands are “finding the missing, pursuing and prosecuting the criminals, and reparations”.
He says the government should prioritise compensating the families whose property was destroyed, which will help ease tribal tensions in Tarhuna and bring an end to this bloody chapter in the town’s history.
Whatever the outcome of the court proceedings, the tragedy of Tarhuna will continue to affect people’s lives.
“Since Mourad’s killing, my wife and I have been sick. I have diabetes and hypertension, and my wife is bedridden from the unbearable pain,” said Allafi, his younger son Abdelhakim by his side.
Four years later, Mahmoud al-Marghani still can’t explain to his nieces and nephews — aged seven, 10 and 14 — why their father Khaled disappeared in June 2019.
The 59-year-old was abducted by three unidentified men from his home and forced into a large 4X4. He is still missing.
“He went on a trip,” Marghani tells them when they ask about their father.
He cannot bring himself to tell them that one of the “criminals admitted torturing and killing him”.