View a photo essay of Qaddafi's weapons cache.
During his 42 years in power, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's unpredictable behavior has become the stuff of legend. But on one issue Qaddafi was remarkably consistent: He was unrelentingly obsessed with purchasing a massive arsenal of weapons from whoever was offering them. As a result, much of Libya resembles one vast arms bazaar -- a museum of curiosities for arms inspectors, and a gallery of horror for those concerned about the safety of civilians. With the collapse of Qaddafi's control in eastern Libya, vast amounts of weapons and munitions are now up for grabs, often to whoever gets there first.
I have been traveling around eastern Libya for most of the past six weeks, since the first days of the regime's collapse, trying to establish a record of the ongoing human rights abuses in the country. Human Rights Watch has been investigating the large-scale killings of protesters by Qaddafi's forces in February, as well as the more recent possible forced disappearance of hundreds of people into the custody of Qaddafi's fighters at the front. Reporting from eastern Libya has been a roller-coaster ride: I have witnessed the euphoria of the uprising's early days, as Libyans celebrated their newfound freedom, to the despair of just a few weeks ago as Qaddafi's forces were once again at the gates of Benghazi. For many in eastern Libya now coming to grips with the limitations of their own untrained and unskilled rebels, the future remains uncertain. For these people, there is no middle ground -- either the rebellion succeeds, or they face certain death if Qaddafi regains control of the East.
And we've been looking at weapons and munitions -- lots of them. These arsenals represent a matter of pressing concern for human rights organizations because in the wrong hands, powerful military weapons can wreak havoc on the civilian population. In 2003, Human Rights Watch researchers deployed all over Iraq to inform U.S. authorities of the massive, unsecured weapons caches that we had found scattered across the country, urging them to secure the stocks. But the U.S. and allied armed forces, too busy looking for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, failed to act. We watched in despair as weapons stocks were looted in places like Baquba, where Saddam's Second Military College had vast supplies of powerful munitions.
Everyone paid the price for the failure to secure those weapons: Baquba became the capital of the bomb technicians, turning thousands of high-explosive artillery shells into powerful explosives aimed at the civilian population, the Iraqi security forces, and the Western militaries occupying Iraq. And eight years later, the Iraqi insurgents still haven't run out of their stock of weapons.
Libyans are extraordinarily welcoming people, and they don't seem to mind when I poke my nose into the backs of the battle-ready pickups at the front line and snap some pictures of the weapons and munitions the rebels are carrying. Even at the military bases and weapon depots under rebel control, a few words of introduction normally led to a warm welcome and a tour of the facilities. That is, if there is anyone guarding the facilities in the first place. When I went to the main military weapons depot in the contested town of Ajdabiya on March 27, just after Qaddafi's forces had fled the city and rebels were still busy celebrating their victory, I had the entire base and its 35 munitions bunkers, stacked to the rafters with weapons, all to myself for several hours.
What we found was shocking. Qaddafi's weapon stocks far exceeded what we saw in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein; some of the weapons, such as the surface-to-air missiles capable of downing a civilian aircraft, now floating around freely in eastern Libya are giving security officials around the world sleepless nights. After I began circulating some of the pictures I had taken, I began getting anxious calls from arms-control officials, asking for more details about what I had seen. There is good cause for U.S. and European officials to worry -- there are rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missiles, and artillery shells full of explosives that can easily be refashioned into car bombs. And there are plenty of groups in the region, including al Qaeda affiliates and rebel movements, that would love to get their hands on these weapons.