New mass graves from al-Kani brothers’ reign of terror discovered in Tarhouna, Libya

·6-min read

When a mass grave was uncovered in Tarhouna, Libya, it wasn’t the first time residents there had experienced this trauma and it is not likely to be the last. The bodies uncovered there belonged to victims of the militia run by the murderous al-Kani brothers, who ruled the region for five years in a reign of terror. Our Observer still has no idea what happened to his seven cousins who disappeared in late 2019.

Tarhouna, 80 kilometres to the east of Tripoli, was taken by the Libyan National Army led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar on April 4, 2019. Haftar was a strongman in eastern Libya who dreamed of controlling the entire country. He used Tarhouna as a base to launch his offensive against the capital, Tripoli. Forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) took back Tarhouna on June 5, 2020.

But the town had been living under the al-Kani militia’s reign of terror since 2014. A family affair, the militia was run by Mohammed Khalifa al-Kani along with his brothers Abdelkhaleq, Mouammar and Abdulrahim. A fifth brother, Muhsen, was killed in September 2019. The al-Kani brothers and those who did their bidding kidnapped, tortured, killed and disappeared everyone who opposed them or was suspected of doing so.

This omnipotent militia “controlled all aspects of life,” according to Human Rights Watch. At least 338 residents of Tarhouna have been reported missing, according to the GNA-linked Public Authority for Search and Identification of Missing Persons.

The al-Kani militia allied itself with Marshal Haftar back in 2019. But when forces loyal to the GNA retook the city in June 2020, the militia’s rule was over and the brothers fled. It was only then that the authorities began the difficult work of excavating the mass grave sites the al-Kanis had left behind.

The president of the victims association of Tarhouna, Abdelhakim Abou Naama, said that 43 mass graves have been discovered to date and that more than 200 bodies have been exhumed. However, only 50 of them have so far been identified and returned to family members.

Mohamed Jaaca, age 31, lives in Sidi El Saïd, a village near Tarhouna. Seven of his cousins were disappeared by the militia.

"This militia would kill or kidnap at the drop of a hat”

We are still hoping to find my seven cousins alive. They were kidnapped from their home on November 19, 2019 around midnight. The militia stole their cars and their money. We heard that they were brought to a prison in the town of al-Qadia. We still don’t know why they were kidnapped. This militia would kidnap or kill at the drop of a hat.

One of my cousins who was kidnapped is called Rabi Ali Khalifa. We are really close.

This photo montage shows Mohamed Jaaca’s seven missing cousins. © Mohamed Jaaca

More bodies are being uncovered nearly every week. On Wednesday [March 24], the bodies of my close friend, Abdelkrim, and some of his family members were found in a mass grave. The al-Kani militia had accused them of having shared information with the Tripoli government about the position of Haftar’s forces in Tarhouna. My friend Abdelkrim, his father and his two brothers will be buried this Friday [March 26].

In general, the victims are identified by their families. The bodies are brought to the morgue at the university hospital in Tripoli. There is also a room where their personal effects, clothing and jewelry are displayed in the hopes that they might be identified this way.

The hospital is also using DNA testing to identify victims, but the practice isn’t widespread.

Medical workers carry out DNA analysis on a body that was exhumed in Tarhouna on March 15 at the university hospital in Tripoli. © Facebook

Research teams exhume a mass grave site on March 10 in Tarhouna. © Facebook

Most of the mass graves have been found thanks to information provided by locals or those lucky enough to have escaped the killings. Most of these graves were discovered in vacant lots in an area called Machrou Al Rabt, about ten kilometres from Tarhouna.

The bodies of women and children have also been found in these mass graves. In January, twelve members of the M’dich family were buried by their loved ones. Two of the victims were women.

In a report published in November 2020, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) said her office had “received credible information indicating that forces from Tarhouna... are alleged to have committed serious crimes including killings, abductions, [and] enforced disappearances…” reported Human Rights Watch.

The burial of 12 members of the M’dich family in January 2021. © Internet

The al-Kani militia took control of Tarhouna in 2014, sowing fear in the local community. The brothers liked to parade around town with their pet lions and tigers to terrify people.

But when Marshal Haftar took back the town in late 2019, the al-Kanis allied themselves with his forces. Newly powerful, the militia started carrying out even more murders and kidnapping, especially against prominent families who were viewed as sympathisers of the Tripoli government.

Abdulrahim was the most frightening. We nicknamed him "the iron fist.” He killed in cold blood, for no reason. He would kill someone if he didn’t like the way they looked at him. He got a serious eye injury in December 2019 and went abroad for treatment but returned to sow terror in the town until June 2020.

Abdulrahim al-Kani poses with his two tigers. © Facebook

In June 2020, Tripoli’s public prosecutor released an arrest warrant for the al-Kani brothers and about 20 of their closest associates.

For years, Libya has been marred by conflict and torn between two rival governments, the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli and recognised by the United Nations and the government led by Khalifa Haftar in the east. However, on March 15, a new unity government, led by interim Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah took office. This government is meant to replace the two rival governments and bring the country together.

In this new government, some residents of Tarhouna say they see an opportunity to shine a light on the crimes committed by the al-Kani brothers. Mohamed continues:

"We asked the new government to carry out a serious investigation to locate the al-Kanis and bring them to justice. We want them to talk, to tell us where the victims are buried and where the missing are. We want a transitional justice process. A trial, that the truth be known and that the victims and their families are given reparations."