Tarhouna Mass Graves, a reminder of conflict but a symbol of progress

The people of Libya have been through turbulent times since the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule in 2011. The country is building its capacity and capability across the board following a range of conflicts over the course of the last decade. Unfortunately, legacies of those conflicts still remain, such as the mass graves discovered in Tarhouna, a town located 90km southwest of Tripoli.

The graves were discovered when the area was recaptured by government forces in June 2020. Tarhouna had previously been a stronghold for forces commanded by Khalifa Haftar during a 14-month campaign to capture the capital. Since the discovery of the graves, more than 120 bodies have been exhumed including men, women and children.

Rose Partners’ team headed up by Niamh Smith, who has a wealth of experience in disaster victim identification, played a mentoring and training role with the Ministry of Interior and the Libyan police, which have been carrying out forensic and criminal investigations. Niamh and her team were given extensive access to the graves and associated sites relevant to the criminal investigation.

‘They’ve been working consistently to carry out test digs on the site since last summer and have been recovering bodies regularly,’ Niamh said. ‘From Rose Partners’ perspective, we’ve been working on the criminal aspects in terms of who committed the atrocities, as well as the identification of the deceased.

‘We would attend the graves regularly, as well as having access to the sites as part of the mass graves responder courses we developed.’

The situation regarding the mass graves has drawn significant international attention, with the United Nations calling on the Government of National Accord to secure the sites, identify the victims, establish the causes of death and return the bodies to their next of kin.

It is therefore imperative that identification and investigation processes and facilities are of the highest standard, so as not to jeopardise any future convictions.

‘The Libyans are very keen themselves to be on a professional par with other countries,’ Niamh added. ‘They’re very aware there are certain standards they need to meet, but they’re constantly pushing and trying to improve.

‘The police genuinely want to do an excellent job for the people of Libya. It’s about increasing their knowledge and capability so they can run at a standard they’re happy with.

‘It would be a very satisfying end goal for them to be self-sufficient and in line with their international partners, being able to train their own people and, in some cases, have their advice sought by other nations.

‘The mass graves situation is an example of an area in which if, as unfortunate a circumstance as it would be, other countries could potentially turn to the Libyans for assistance in how to deal with this sort of event.

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