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Libya's Ex-Prisoners Finding Their Way Home

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In Libya, thousands of rebel fighters and political prisoners freed from Moammar Gadhafi's notorious prisons are making their way home. But tens of thousands more are still missing.

Anxious relatives and friends in the eastern city of Benghazi have flooded the airport and docks night after night in hopes of finding their loved ones arriving by plane or by boat.

Shouts of joy erupted from a sea of assembled relatives early Sunday morning as passengers trickled out of the Benghazi airport terminal. They jostled for a peek at the arrivals from Tripoli, which included former prisoners freed from Abu Salim prison in the capital last week.

The prison was made infamous 15 years ago when some 1,200 inmates were killed during a prison uprising, according to human-rights groups. Gadhafi sent his political opponents there — and more recently, captured rebel fighters.

Many Libyans say it's a prison few people returned from.

Joyful Yet Bittersweet Reunions

Even with rebels firmly in charge of Abu Salim, many of the prisoners' relatives are scared their loved ones did not make it out. But for a handful who have gone to the Benghazi airport, the trip pays off with bittersweet reunions.

One elderly woman broke down as she saw her son, Nasser al-Malki, who had a broken leg and was rolled out in a wheelchair. She kissed his face and his feet as relatives held her steady.

"I was captured by Gadhafi forces on April 7," said Maliki, a 54-year-old rebel army colonel. He added that rebel fighters freed him and scores of others from a prison hospital just more than a week ago.

Malki says residents in a pro-rebel neighborhood in Tripoli gave each of them more than a thousand dollars each to buy clothes and the means to get home.

A few feet away there was another joyful reunion. Male relatives hugged Abdul Rauf Faraj, a 25-year-old accounting graduate who was picked up by Gadhafi forces in March while delivering ammunition to rebel fighters.

He spent 48 days at Abu Salim before being transferred by a sympathetic official to another prison in the nearby town of Tajura. Faraj says he and nearly 400 other prisoners escaped from there on Aug. 21 after prison guards who secretly sided with the rebels unlocked all of the cells and gates.

Faraj and his family piled into several cars and headed to the family compound. The relatives honked their horns and fired guns into the air in celebration on the way to the house where his tearful mother and sisters were waiting.

They buried the young man in hugs and kisses. A newborn nephew he had never met was placed in his arms. Faraj looked overwhelmed, but smiled weakly. He was pale and had lost 30 pounds during his months in prison.

"I feel strange being home," he said.

He says when he first went through Abu Salim's gates, he feared he would be tortured and imprisoned for years, if not killed. Those fears were heightened by the injuries Faraj says he saw on some of the other prisoners, who were rumored to have been dragged behind cars and burned with bug spray the prison guards ignited.

His father, Musa Faraj, shared those fears, after learning from another prisoner that his youngest child had been sent to the notorious prison.

"The reputation of Abu Salim prison is very well known to all Libyans, especially that massacre in 1996," the elder Faraj said. "So the people, they said: 'Abu Salim — that's the end.' "

For Many, The Waiting Continues

But last week, a Libyan TV station broadcast a list of freed prisoners and where they could be contacted. Musa Faraj says his heart leapt when his son's name appeared on the screen.

"His name was No. 14 on that list," he said. "And my son Abdullah, the older one, managed to get him on the phone so his mother talked to him, [he talked] to his sister and I talked to him."

But many more people in Benghazi are still looking for family members who they believe were taken to Abu Salim. The Libyan Red Crescent office there is trying to locate some 830 missing Abu Salim prisoners from Benghazi and its suburbs alone.

On Monday, Mona Mohammed Ali came to the office looking for word of her brother, Osama. She says he disappeared in the western town of Zawiya six months ago.

An elderly man named Omar Al Wahali was searching for his 25-year-old son. He says he comes to the office because there is no other place to look.

Not knowing what happened to his son, Saad, he adds, "is like dying 10 times a day."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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