BANI WALID, Libya: Mohammad Saad and his family came home to a dead goat in their street, a rocket shell in the front yard and a burned-out house, victims of score-settling that has rocked the Libyan town of Bani Walid.
They were among hundreds of families who returned Wednesday to one of the final bastions of supporters of late Moammar Gadhafi, who fought on the losing side in last year’s war to unseat him.
The town had been besieged and then attacked as authorities sought to arrest those who captured and tortured Omran Shaaban, a 22-year-old former rebel credited with Gadhafi’s capture.
Shaaban spent weeks as a hostage before his release, and later died of his injuries, stoking tensions between his hometown of Misrata and Bani Walid, which galvanized the authorities to act.
“What does burning down homes have to do with searching for criminals of the former regime?” asked Saad, a father of five, after appraising the damage and concluding there was no alternative but to pitch a tent in the garden.
The military operation ended a week ago when hundreds of fighters with different degrees of loyalty to the chief of staff, including armed groups from Misrata, seized the town and declared it “liberated.”
“We heard on the radio that it was finally safe to return so we came to take a look,” said Rahana Abdel-Qadar, 85, inching along in a column of more than 300 vehicles headed toward a checkpoint manned by Interior Ministry forces.
The streets of the hilltop oasis overlooking olive and date groves were mostly empty in the morning, with only a handful of police and army cars patrolling a very small perimeter in the center, an AFP journalist said.
A residential block near the university was on fire, and thick soot coated the walls of several homes in Gweida, a neighborhood reputed to hold sympathizers of the former regime.
Many shop fronts were shattered and the vegetable market had burned down. Public buildings – including schools, banks and even a small museum – were also in tatters, with windows blasted open, walls peppered with gunfire and some sections gutted by fire.
Armed young men openly roamed the streets and barged into houses and apartments that already had their doors and windows broken open, apparently conducting house-to-house searches.
AFP counted at least three separate instances of theft by gunmen.
Ashur Shawis, a commander at the last checkpoint before entering the town from the west, acknowledged that “there is looting under way by people both inside and outside Bani Walid but we don’t have the means to stop them.”
Newly stationed police officers questioned by AFP described the situation as safe, even though several former rebel groups paraded around with heavy weapons.
An old man visited the station in the hope of finding his missing son, but detective Ali Loti said most people came to complain of theft.
“Helping the state is one thing but looting is another,” declared Adel Mohammad, a police officer from Tripoli, blaming armed groups from Misrata and “false revolutionaries” for the destruction.
A handful of foreign nurses who left during the worst of the fighting also returned Wednesday to find the hospital’s medical instruments and high-tech diagnostic machines destroyed and their personal lockers ransacked.
The stench of death still lingered in the now empty mortuary.
The few people who had remained at home despite a lack of electricity and telephone services said that the entrance of ex-rebels into Bani Wald was chaotic and that a lack of clear leadership had given way to revenge attacks and looting.
“All kinds of people exploited the situation,” said a medical official who stayed put during the offensive on Bani Wali, which was seen by many as a shelter for former regime loyalists and criminals.
The authorities are keen to boost the nascent army and traditional police force but often rely for law enforcement on a patchwork of militias made up of former rebels with fickle loyalties and varying degrees of discipline.
The medic blamed the damage on retreating Bani Walid fighters, incoming forces loosely linked to the state – including militias from Misrata – and common criminals.
Residents say ex-rebel groups entered the city even before getting the green light.
In the field, the chain of command in Libya tends to be vague and fluid, as it was during the 2011 war.
Graffiti expressing loyalty to Gadhafi in the town has been painted over and replaced with the names of armed units from Misrata, the western town of Zawiyah and Souk al-Jumaa, a neighborhood in Tripoli.
A few walls carry the name of Shaaban, whose death was the symbolic trigger for the offensive against Bani Walid.
Torkiya al-Kasi, who found the furniture in her children’s room shattered to pieces, has no doubt about the identity of the guilty parties: “The people who did this are apostates, not Muslims.”