By KARIN LAUB
TRIPOLI, Libya — In the days since the five brothers vanished at a checkpoint manned by Gadhafi loyalists, a small army of friends and relatives have fanned out across Tripoli.
They have searched hospitals and morgues. They have traveled to nearby farming areas in case the men were taken out of the city. They have talked to rebels and to supporters of Moammar Gadhafi, the ousted ruler.
They have found no sign of the men, aged 21 to 31.
“It’s hard ... five children,” their father Abdel Salam Abu Naama said quietly, laying out their passport photos on a cushion in his living room, as friends and relatives gathered around him.
Across Libya, thousands of people are believed to have disappeared in the chaos of the six-month civil war. One rebel official put the number at 50,000. However, the figure could not be confirmed independently. In the battle for Tripoli alone, hundreds of people killed in late August had to be buried in unmarked graves.
Now, with rebel forces tightening their control over the North African nation and only a few regime strongholds still putting up a fight, the painstaking process of finding the missing has begun.
Relatives are putting up fliers in hospital lobbies, with pictures of their loved ones and brief descriptions of where they were last seen. Volunteers are compiling missing persons reports, and sorting through belongings of the dead to find clues into their identities.
Retreating Gadhafi forces killed scores of detainees as the rebels advanced, according to witnesses and human rights groups. In one case, they left dozens of bodies charred beyond recognition and piled near a military base. The bodies of others killed during the fighting, from pro-Gadhafi African fighters to a doctor in hospital scrubs, were hastily collected and piled in morgues or dumped by the roadside.
Many may never be identified.
Of 297 bodies brought to Tripoli Central Hospital since Aug. 20, some 170 had to be buried without names, said the director, Gassem Baruni. At the Tripoli Medical Center, a majority of the nearly 200 bodies collected in the second half of August were unidentified, morgue attendants said.
In hopes of someday identifying the corpses, officials take photos of them before burial, collect hair for DNA analysis and catalog personal items, Baruni said. Ten bodies were later identified through photographs, linked to numbered graves, said Mohammed Ali, a morgue volunteer at the Tripoli Medical Center.
But for now, most relatives remain in a desperate limbo, not knowing whether to mourn or hope.
In the lobby of the Central Hospital, photos of missing men cover one wall, with brief descriptions of final sightings and phone contacts for relatives. Haloma Cherif, an 18-year-old hospital volunteer, said she had collected about 500 missing persons reports, all of them men, and more are pouring in every day.
“Seeing the parents coming and reporting it, it is a hard feeling,” said Cherif. The most difficult thing, she said, is sending family members to the morgue. “I feel really terrible.”
The Abu Naama family’s ordeal began on Aug. 22 as fighting raged in Tripoli after the rebels swept into the capital, forcing Gadhafi into hiding. Dozens of relatives and neighbors were keeping him and his wife company Thursday in their house, the 10th day since the men disappeared.
Wasfiya Abu Naama, 46, sat on a mattress in a Bedouin-style tent pitched for women visitors in the yard of the family house in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighborhood, long a bastion of support for Gadhafi.
Her husband, 64, was surrounded by white-robed men in the living room, all sitting on the floor, resting on low cushions.
He pulled his sons’ passport photos from his breast pocket and carefully arranged them according to age: Mohammed, 31, a mechanical engineer; Ali, 29, also a mechanical engineer; Abu Bakr, 26, an aviation engineer; Ahmed, 23, another mechanical engineer; and Faisal, 21, a geography student.
His sons had kept a low profile during the fighting but were grabbed by pro-Gadhafi soldiers at a checkpoint on the road to the Tripoli airport.
Just after dawn, Ahmed left the house without telling anyone, apparently to visit a friend in another neighborhood, his mother said. he was just two miles (three kilometers) from the house when he was detained.
“There was no reason at all that they picked him up,” she said. “He was just on the street and they took him.”
A little later, she received a call from Ahmed, who said he had been in an accident and his brothers should come get him. Abu Naama believes the Gadhafi soldiers forced him to make the call to lure in his brothers as well. So Ali, Faisal and Abu Bakr went to find Ahmed.
When she didn’t hear from them, Mohammed — who was still in the house with her — called Ahmed’s number. A soldier answered and told Mohammed to come to the checkpoint.
Mohammed, his mother and a neighbor drove to the airport road, where they were stopped at gunpoint. The soldiers pulled Mohammed from the car and began beating him. “I said: ’What did my son do?”’
A woman in military uniform cursed Abu Naama and her sons, calling them “rats,” a term Gadhafi often uses to describe the rebels.
Eventually, Abu Naama and the neighbor were ordered to go, leaving Mohammed behind. She didn’t see the other four at the checkpoint.
Abu Naama has heard nothing from her sons since then. “I have great hope in God that they will return my boys,” she said. “God willing, they are just in jail and will come back to me.”
But hope has been fading since a relative told the family earlier this week that he saw three of the men inside Gadhafi’s residential and government complex, Bab al-Aziziya, on Aug. 23. Thousands of rebels had stormed the compound that day, exchanging heavy fire with retreating government troops.
The relative, a soldier in the Libyan army, says he watched as Mohammed, Faisal and Abu Bakr were shot near the gate of the compound. He saw them drop to the ground, said al-Hadi al-Ghazaili, who is married to one of the missing men’s sisters.
Still, dozens of people are still searching for the men, passing around their photos anywhere they can think.
The family, al-Ghazaili says, needs to know what happened: “We hope to find them, alive or dead.”