As the world tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Foreign Editor David Pratt tells the stories of five lives indelibly etched by the hatred, intolerance, violence and repression that this milestone document has sought to prevent

Twelve years in the ‘Hotel’: Ahmed Albousifi’s story

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Ahmed Albousifi, who was tortured as a prisoner in Abu Salim prison. Tripoli, Libya. Photograph: David Pratt 

I REMEMBER him as a gentle, quietly spoken man, a father close to his family, who was fond of writing and poetry. He wrote something himself once, a short, factual account that he titled, rather deceptively, The Hotel.

The story tells of one morning when Ahmed Albousifi woke up full of the joys of life. It was January 1989 and Ahmed remembers the smell of fresh coffee and cold winter air full of the fragrance of flowers from his garden.

He listened to jazz music in his car on the way to work at a Libyan airport handling company where he was as an IT manager, but not before taking a deliberate detour along Tripoli’s corniche so he could catch a glimpse of the wide open expanse of the sea.

In all, Ahmed told me, that morning reminded him of why people “insist on life in spite of all its sorrows and troubles”.

What Ahmed didn’t know then was that for a long time to come he would never set eyes on his family again.

He would also never know why, that morning, two armed secret policemen came to his office, insisting they only wanted to talk to him for 10 minutes. Ten short minutes that would turn into 12 years of living hell inside The Hotel, otherwise known as Abu Salim prison – Libya’s most dreaded jail under the dictatorship of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Abu Salim is to Libya what Abu Ghraib was to Iraq. Secret files discovered at the headquarters of the Libyan security services after the Gaddafi regime was overthrown in 2011 revealed that it was to this brutal place that British and US intelligence agents of MI6 and the CIA respectively helped render terrorist suspects from overseas before they were subsequently tortured by Gaddafi’s regime.

But Ahmed Albousifi was no terrorist. He had no interest in politics, let alone any affiliation with any of the Islamist or other groups that opposed Gaddafi and troubled the West at that time. Nevertheless, he was to receive the worst punishment Abu Salim could mete out.

“Maybe I was turned in for money; Gaddafi’s informers and followers were paid 10 dinars for every name they brought. It was a way of life for some people,” Ahmed recalled as we sat in a cafe in Tripoli in the wake of the revolution in Libya back in 2011.

Whatever the reason, blindfolded and handcuffed, he was driven to Abu Salim, only to find that even the prison administrator was perplexed by his presence.

“I have only your name, no other information about your arrest,” he admitted.

But such things matter little once brought through the gates of this hellhole.

As with all new arrivals, there was the prospect of the “wake-up party”, as jailers called the beating that prisoners were subjected to from the moment they were dragged out of initial interrogation until thrown into a cell. That cell, the first Ahmed was to inhabit for the whole of the next year, sat in almost total darkness.

“From sunrise till sunset it was impossible to see the fingers held up in front of your face,” he recalled, before describing the other horrors this place held.

“It was right next to the torturing room, and I spent about four months perhaps only sleeping an hour or two a day because of the screams that came from there.”

Inside his cell was a small vent that he says was no more than 12cm by 50cm through which he could see. On the other side of this they hung up and tortured a man for 14 days.

“His arms were tied behind him and he was kept on his tip-toes the entire time to keep the pressure on his limbs, every three days they would pour cold water on him and beat him with electric cables,” Ahmed recalled. “For six months afterwards the man couldn’t move his arms without excruciating pain, because of what they had done to him.”

Ahmed Albousifi spent almost 12 years inside the hell that was Abu Salim. His time in The Hotel has marked him irreparably. Does he have nightmares? I asked him that day when we talked. Pausing, he took a deep breath before answering.

“Ten years after my release there is never a week passes without nightmares,” he confessed.

“In here, I’m still living inside Abu Salim,” he says, gently tapping the side of his head. “I always will be.”

‘It is a human rights necessity’: Dr Mahmood Ibraheem’s story

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Dr Mahmood Ibraheem, whose job is to record the remains of victims found in mass graves and bomb sites. Photograph: David Pratt

“WE have a busy day ahead,” Dr Mahmood Ibraheem tells me, as the rest of the crew loiter around smoking a final cigarette or finishing their glasses of heavily sweetened tea. A small, portly man with an unkempt beard, Dr Ibraheem is wearing a bright yellow baseball cap with the word “Desperados” emblazoned in scarlet across the front.

His unusual headgear seems right for a man clearly larger than life. Today, just like every day, he will examine the corpses and body parts the team uncover, checking if the victims are male, female, old, young, civilian or jihadist fighters from the ranks of the Islamic State (IS), or Daesh, as the terror group are commonly referred to here using the Arabic acronym.

Doctors, let alone forensic pathologists, are almost non-existent in the Syrian city of Raqqa these days, and Dr Ibraheem, a GP has found himself thrust into an unfamiliar and unforgiving role.

“There is a serious shortage of all kinds of doctors and medical specialists,” he tells me as we prepare to leave the fire station.

“I have to do this job now, there’s no one else and we must at least record some of the details of those remains we find even if we can’t identify the victims,” Dr Ibraheem insists.

“It is a human rights necessity as well as a medical one,” he adds after a short pause.

A short time later when I accompany him and the team in some backstreets and alleyways flanked by canyons of ruins, I begin to realise the scale and hazards he and the 40 or so other members of the Civil Defence Unit face.

All around us stand what were once inhabited multi-storey apartment blocks that have been prised apart by the terrifying force of powerful explosions.

It’s estimated that more than 11,000 buildings in Raqqa were destroyed or severely damaged between February and October 2017 during US-led airstrikes.

“We have already found about 70 corpses in this one spot,” Dr Ibraheem shouts in my ear over the clamour of earth-moving equipment shovelling rubble into mounds which the firemen then scour by hand, wearing only thin surgical gloves, in search of body parts or corpses.

Despite this the men work methodically. At times they appear to float as ghostly apparitions in the fog of white dust that hangs in the air clinging to their overalls and filling their noses and lungs.

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An emergency crew in the Syrian city of Raqqa unearth remains of victim from mass grave. Photograph: David Pratt

Less than a mile from the devastated apartment blocks where the first team is working, another small group of firemen are busy uncovering a mass grave in one of Raqqa’s city centre parks.

Clouds of flies hover over the ditch and body bags. The smell is stomach churning.

“Look, it’s a young woman, she can’t be more than 25 years old,” says Mahmoud Jassm, the young leader of the team who like many of the men is also a volunteer with the unit. He bends forward to peer at the victim that is wrapped in a heavy blanket.

“Sometimes at the end of a day, I feel no good,” he confesses, shaking his head, giving the impression of a man on the edge of despair. The physical and psychological stress that he and his colleagues face is unimaginable.

As the team’s long, exhausting shift drew to an end there was one more duty to perform that day. Accompanying Dr Ibraheem in a pick-up truck we followed members of the team to a makeshift cemetery on the outskirts of Raqqa.

Here in an area the size of a football field, the remains of the dead that have been recovered from the city’s mass graves and ruins are interred.

Long trenches hewn out by bulldozers lie in parallel lines. Before burial the team gather in a group to say prayers over the body bags that lie before them on the ground.

As they shift the bags into position one accidentally opens momentarily and I catch a glimpse of what remains of an infant still dressed in a striped top, wisps of hair on the boy or girl’s head moving gently in the breeze.

“It makes no difference to us if they are Daesh or civilians, they are all human beings and deserve to be seen as such by us and by God,” one of the team tells me after the prayer, and they begin to place the remains gently into the mass grave. This time though it will be their final resting place.

‘If you had known me, and you had really known yourself, you would not have killed me’: Rutikanga and Christine Emmanuel’s story

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Rutikanga Emmanuel and his wife, with their child, in their village of Nyarwumba in Rwanda. Photograph: David Pratt

THE wooden mallet smashed into the front of his skull. Rutikanga Emmanuel recalls slumping to the ground, corpses all around him.

Somewhere among the dead, just feet away, were friends, neighbours, his brother-in-law and his mother.

In one day 800 or so people were hacked and bludgeoned by axes, hammers, machetes and mace clubs with long nails sticking from their orb-shaped heads.

In the local Kinyarwanda language, the word for this flesh-ripping club meant “No amount of money will save you”.

Nothing did save those 800 people. The mallet-wielding killer, convinced that the gaping head wound he had inflicted on Rutikanga meant certain death, turned away when his work was done.

Only luck, and the fact that Rutikanga was able to hide beneath the piles of bodies, prevented the then 29-year-old farmer from becoming another victim of Rwanda’s genocide.

It is 20 years on from those dark days and we are sitting in Rutikanga’s modest stone and tin-roofed house in the village of Nyarwumba, where he lives with his wife and children.

“They wore sunglasses to disguise themselves, and said nothing,” he recalls of the Hutu militiamen killers who set about massacring those ethnic Tutsis who were among the 800 people caught fleeing that afternoon after a month on the run.

“The killers spared no-one, all around me people were dying, those waiting to die were traumatised and hysterical with fear,” Rutikanga remembers.

Inyenzi, or “cockroaches”, was what the killers had despisingly dubbed Tutsis, and that day they were hell bent on eradicating as many as they could find.

It would be a short time later that one Roman Catholic missionary would be quoted in Time magazine as saying that: “There are no devils left in Hell. They are all in Rwanda.”

For weeks up until that moment, Rutikanga had been constantly moving and hiding, hungry and separated from his wife Christine, who herself walked for four days before crossing the border into neighbouring Burundi and life in a refugee camp.

“I could not believe he had survived or would survive,” Christine says, casting her mind back to the day Rutikanga was carried into the camp and she caught first sight of his wounds. Even now as we talk, there is a large noticeable concave scar on his head where the bone shattered and the skull caved in.

Listening to this quiet, unassuming husband and wife tell their stories, children playing nearby, I begin to realise just how difficult it is trying to comprehend what happened in Rwanda those short years ago when more than 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were massacred in less than 100 days at the hands of predominately Hutu killers.

It is estimated that 10,000 people alone were killed in and around the Nyamata Church grounds near the capital Kigali from April 14-19, 1994.

“These are the bullet holes and this from grenade explosions,” said Leon Pierre Muberuka, my Rwandan guide, pointing to the perforations on the tin roof and pock-marked shrapnel scars on the walls as we near the red-brick church building.

Above the doorway is a banner in Kinyarwanda that reads: “If you had known me, and you had really known yourself, you would not have killed me.”

Leon himself is a genocide survivor. At the height of the killing he escaped into the forest and managed to evade capture, despite being hunted by gangs of Hutus using dogs.

Inside Nyamata Church today, the altar cloth still bears the bloodstains of the victims who met their end in a place they thought would provide sanctuary.

A selection of weapons, including a machete, chisels and bullet casings, all used in the executions, lie on a table.

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Skulls of genocide victims at Nyamata Church in Rwanda. Photograph: David Pratt

In the church’s basement there now stands a permanent catacomb lined with racks of skulls, bones and coffins containing remains of the some 43,000 people massacred in the surrounding area.

Perhaps most eerie of all are the heaps of victims’ clothes laid out in benches across the church pews, their reddish tint a mixture of blood and the dust of the Rwandan soil that has accumulated over the past few decades. All testimony to the tragic lives of others, gone but not forgotten.

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A memorial at Nyamata Church comprising the clothes of those who were massacred there and some of the weapons used by the killers. Kigali, Rwanda. Photograph: David Pratt