The Qaddafi Files

How we found Muammar al-Qaddafi's secret trove of private photographs -- and what they tell us about his long, sordid, and curious rule.

For exclusive photos from the Qaddafi family scrapbook, click here.

The glass crunched under our boots as we walked through the abandoned compound of Muammar al-Qaddafi's military intelligence headquarters in Tripoli. It was late August, and the city had just fallen. Pancaked buildings destroyed by NATO airstrikes littered the grounds, and we entered one of the remaining undamaged buildings. For months now, we had followed the rebel offensive in Libya, monitoring the conduct of both the rebels and the Qaddafi loyalists, as well as NATO. Along the way, we were also working to ensure that the intelligence archives of the Libyan state were quickly secured and not looted or burned, as we knew they contained important answers about what had happened in the secretive country over the past 42 years of Qaddafi rule.

Just a few days before, we had struck gold. While looking through one of the office buildings of Qaddafi's foreign spy chief, Musa Kusa, who had defected during the war, we came upon a treasure trove of faxes from the CIA and the British MI6 discussing the capture and rendition of Libyan Islamists back to Libya in 2004, where they were certain to be tortured under interrogation. After years of documenting the war on terror's campaign of rendition by interviewing the Islamists who had been victim of the policy, we now had the CIA and MI6 in their own words.

Our project to secure the archives of the Libyan state was a race against time: Libyans were finally able to vent their fury against the police state that Qaddafi had built, and all too often, that fury involved burning down and tearing apart any symbols of the regime -- particularly the buildings of the loathed security agencies. We arrived in the eastern city of Benghazi in late February, just days after the Libyan revolution had begun there. Control of eastern Libya had been wrenched from the security services after days of arrests and shootings of demonstrators by Qaddafi's forces, and we found state buildings all over the city still smoldering, burned to the ground by angry mobs. It was as if somehow, the now-free Libyan people, then still under threat of a military offensive by Qaddafi loyalists to retake eastern Libya, believed that they could somehow hold off Qaddafi's return by burning down the symbols of his feared police state.

The Human Rights Watch teams didn't seek to haul off the files we were trying to preserve -- those belong to the Libyan people. In any case, the files of a state which had just about all of its citizens under surveillance were just too massive to haul away. We quickly photographed what we thought relevant, and then worked with Libyan lawyers and rebel representatives to impress upon them the importance of securing the archives, as they surely held answers to some of the mysteries from Qaddafi's 42-year rule. There were so many unsolved mysteries. No one knew what had happened to the bodies of the roughly 1,200 prisoners who were mowed down at the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996, after they protested their detention conditions, for one. Somewhere in the files, there should be answers. Unfortunately, two rooms with documents at the prison were already smoldering when we arrived.


While our search focused mostly on intelligence documents, we noticed that the archives contained rooms literally filled with photographs and films documenting Qaddafi's rule. The photographs were of little interest to our Libyan guides, who had been saturated with Qaddafi's omnipresent image and exploits during his long rule. Unlike with the intelligence documents, which revealed secrets that they had not been privy to, our Libyan friends could not understand why we foreigners found images of Qaddafi, well, being Qaddafi, so fascinating. On a number of occasions, we had to stop of Libyan counterparts from reflexively tearing up any image of Qaddafi that we came across -- another popular cleansing ritual in the new Libya.

One day in March in Benghazi, Idriss, one of our dearest Libyan contacts came to our hotel with a plastic bag filled with photographs. He shrugged his shoulders as he handed me the bag, explaining that it contained a bunch of black and white prints he had rescued from an intelligence archive as it was being set on fire. I knew he was telling the truth as soon as I opened the bag -- the sharp smell of smoke hit me. As I looked through the pile, I immediately saw how important it was to preserve what Idriss had just handed us: one of the first prints I thumbed through was of a jubilant young Qaddafi greeting his hero, the nationalist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser on the tarmac at Benghazi. Seeing my enthusiasm, Idriss just shrugged and said he had piles more at his house, "but they were all of Qaddafi." More interesting, he suggested, would be to come to his house for a homemade lunch, a respite from the daily chicken and soggy fries at the hotel. I eagerly agreed.

The next morning, we headed over to Idriss's house, accompanied by our photographer friend, Tim Hetherington, and started a fascinating journey into the personality cult built by Qaddafi. Sadly, we lost Tim along the way: he and his fellow photographer Chris Hondros were hit by a mortar shell in Misrata on April 20, and died from their wounds. In a way, every time we find more images of Qaddafi to photograph, more archives to secure, we think of Tim and his quest to teach us what images can tell us.

By now, our collection of images of Qaddafi's rule number in the thousands. The photo albums and the images themselves belong to the Libyan people -- and our role is to ensure their survival for now, working with the new Libyan rebel government. Aside from some rolls of negatives and aging film that were temporarily removed from Libya to be scanned and since returned, all of the images in our growing collection were photographed where they were found, and left in the archives.

While it is important that the archives from the Qaddafi era remain in Libyan hands, the history they illuminate are relevant to us all. They tell a story of Qaddafi's private and public personas, of a cruel tyrant and a warm father, of weddings and state functions, grand speeches and afternoons with the family.

In conjunction with Foreign Policy, we'll be presenting hundreds of these never-before-seen photos, building an online archive for scholars, historians, and curious readers.

The archives actually begin in the era of King Idris, the last ruler of Libya, who was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1969 led by the young Qaddafi. The red, green, and black flag of King Idriss has now been reclaimed by the Libyan revolutionaries as the symbol of their revolution, but the pomp, inefficiency, and sheer corruption of the rule of King Idris is what led to Qaddafi's then-popular revolution. The images of Queen Fatima, the wife of King Idris, in modern dress, looking somewhat like a Libyan Jackie Kennedy, are particularly striking when seen alongside the current debates in Libya about the role of women in government.

As expected, Muammar al-Qaddafi is the one constant in the archive, and the photos tell the story of his spectacular rise and the tragic consolidation of his personality cult that followed. The handsome, young Qaddafi stands in the midst of the soon-to-flounder waves of Arab nationalism as he first comes to power, sharing the stage with Nasser and the Sudanese leader Gafaar Nimeiri, addressing massive crowds. Or on the beach or in a military bunker, planning for revolutions around the world.

Over the years, Qaddafi becomes the ultimate victim of his own personality cult. In the images from his Green Book conferences and visits with fellow leaders in the Arab world and beyond, he seems bizarrely out of place, a bit too flamboyant to fit in. The hairdo he sports when visiting Syria's dour Hafez al-Assad just seems a bit too wild, the enthusiasm of the crowds at his rallies and speeches just a bit too fabricated, and his own admiring smile looking at images of himself at a local trade show just a bit too self-indulgent. And then there's the physique -- long gone is the lithe and toned young colonel, in his place a paunchy middle aged man, the worse for wear, in sweatsuits and slippers.

The images we found are not just of Qadaffi himself: in the archives, we also found evidence of the strong-hand tactics he used to stay in power. Back in Benghazi, we were given a set of ancient Betamax videotapes that were recorded back in the mid-1980s, showing an infamous public trial and hangings at a sports stadium that signaled the beginning of an intensely repressive period of Qaddafi's rule. Other images show hangings in the Benghazi harbor, beaten prisoners, smuggled weapons, and the mug shots of detained Islamists. Those too are an integral, if more brutal, part of understanding the nature of Qaddafi's regime.


The Cleanest Place in Africa

Once synonymous with genocide, Rwanda is now a budding police state. It's also a stunning African success story.

KIGALI, Rwanda — The first greeting travelers encounter when they step off the plane at Kigali International Airport is a large sign declaring: "Non-biodegradable polythene bags are prohibited."

Welcome to the capital of Rwanda, where cleanliness and order prevail. Trash is hard to find, even on the dirt roads outside the main arteries. Vendors have been banished from the sidewalks. And plastic bags? Walking down the street with one could cost you more than $150, while store owners found stocking them face six to 12 months in prison.

All this housekeeping makes Rwanda a pleasant place to visit. But it also raises the question: Does such a poor country really need so much spit and polish? And why scrub with such a heavy hand?

Rwanda is landlocked, hilly, and crowded. The Massachusetts-sized country exports coffee and tea, but otherwise has few of the natural resources that have blessed -- and more often cursed -- some of its neighbors. Despite these obstacles, the government says it wants to lift Rwanda into middle-income range by 2020. The strategy is to skip over the industrialization stage and transform Rwanda into a service economy (Singapore is often cited as an example). Miles of fiber-optic cable have been laid throughout the country. The government has also invested heavily in its population. Virtually all Rwandans have health insurance, and the country has made remarkable progress in beating back malaria. This focus on people has captured the imagination of ordinary Rwandans. As one man told me, gesturing toward his children, their education is what will pull Rwanda out of poverty. "This is our vision," he said.

Cleanliness is no small part of that vision. Kigali Mayor Fidèle Ndayisaba ticked off the reasons why for me recently in his downtown office. Basic sanitation is obviously a prerequisite for public health. People working in a comfortable environment will also think better, Ndayisaba added, and an attractive Kigali is more likely to draw in foreign visitors and investors.

More generally, Rwandan leaders seem to clearly understand what many mayors of struggling American cities have also realized: Image matters in economic development. If Rwanda wants to become a modern center of IT and finance, it has to look like one. And in a continent plagued by corruption, leaders here see Kigali's spotlessness as a symbol of their commitment to fighting graft.

"We want to be clean in everything," Ndayisaba said. "To have people clean in mind, clean just for sanitation, and ... investors get clean money."

And so, Kigali is miles away from the chaos that envelops most developing-world metropoles. Motorcycle taxis are ubiquitous, but so are the extra helmets that drivers are required to have their passengers wear. Medians and parks along the main thoroughfares are beautifully manicured. Warning signals built into the sidewalks at bus stops blink like Christmas lights. The city center is mooned over by an army of broom-wielding street sweepers. More ominously, soldiers and policemen line the major streets at rush hour.

The centerpiece of the clean campaign is doubtless umuganda, a monthly day of mandatory community service. The tasks are varied, but often involve litter removal and other beautification projects. Politicians are not exempt: Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, recently labored with residents of a Kigali neighborhood to prepare construction of a school building. Rwandans must have their umuganda participation certified on a card by local officials. Without that document, they can be denied services at government offices.

Even in poor neighborhoods, which tend to lie at the bottom of Kigali's many hills, the poverty appears less abject than in other African capitals. Streets are free of sewage, and the poor here live almost universally in mud-brick huts, which seem less haphazard than the shacks of other cities. Many households also make some effort to screen their property with plants or fencing.

Kigali, in other words, is upending the images that visitors from rich countries often associate with extreme poverty.

"We are convinced that cleanliness is not only for Western countries," Ndayisaba told me.

Everybody in Kigali seems to be on a mission, whether it's the workers carting goods about in wheelbarrows or the uniformed schoolchildren heading to and from classes. Begging is extremely rare, and there are few signs of homelessness. This absence of explicit human misery may be a function of Rwanda's emphasis on social services. But not only.

As Ndayisaba put it: "There are some who just are street people because they are irresponsible or because they are drug consumers. We take them; we bring them [into] re-education centers."

Kigali residents who are considered vagrants are subject to arrest and confinement in these centers, including one on a remote island in Lake Kivu. The conditions of their detention are unclear: A New York Times reporter visiting the island in 2010 described a grim camp whose residents included children under 18, but the Rwandan government angrily denounced his story.

Residents are sent to the centers without trial; a spokesman for Ndayisaba said the decision to commit a detainee is made by a team of social workers as a last resort.

The mayor himself was unapologetic about the policy, which he said applies to those considered irresponsible, but not to the sick. "When you can't take decisions for your [own] good," he said, "we take it for you."

The questions raised by Rwanda's push for pleasant streets mirror the larger debate about the country's development path.

On the one hand, Rwanda is a shining success story in the world of international development. Real GDP more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 (to a nominal value of $5.6 billion), according to World Bank data; aid from foreign governments shot up almost as quickly. The World Bank gives Rwanda high marks for making it easier for entrepreneurs to set up shop, and the country has won accolades for improvements to its health system. Corruption is relatively rare.

But on the other hand, politically, the country is on an autocratic slide. It is rated among the world's least hospitable environments for journalists, and opposition politicians hardly have it better. Kagame, who has essentially run Rwanda since his forces won the civil war in 1994, was reelected president in 2010 with more than 90 percent of the vote.

Optimists can hope that the Kagame government's progressive economic policies will end up providing essential fuel for a genuine democracy movement -- an educated populace, a solid middle class, and a society that has healed the social rifts of the 1994 genocide. Pessimists may wonder whether economic success will instead legitimate the continuation of one-party rule that glosses over divisions rather than repairing them.

Meanwhile, Kigali's streets will remain spic and span. Rwanda will continue wooing foreign capital. And leaders will do their best to ensure visitors get the message that this is a place where things work. Step out of the airport -- perhaps having left your plastic bags with a friendly but firm customs official -- and one of the first signs you'll see declares: "Investment Yes. Corruption No."