In Libya, the fall of a dictator came faster than anyone expected. After six months of fighting along what were often stagnated front lines, the rebels succeeded last week in overwhelming the forces of Col. Muammar Gaddafi to take control of the Libyan capital. The sudden assault sent the enigmatic 69-year-old Libyan leader and his family into hiding; his forces scattering.
And throughout Tripoli, TIME contract photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I have watched over the past week as a population celebrates its victory over a tyrant. As security improves with each night, more and more families flock into the city’s iconic Green Square—now renamed Martyrs’ Square—where Gaddafi once delivered his bombastic speeches. And in a sprawling assortment of military bases, mansions, villas and farms, curious Libyans have sifted through the surprises and the horrors left behind by a 42-year-old regime.
Among the discoveries are Gaddafi family mansions, where odd assortments of belongings have offered a rare glimpse into the luxuries, eccentricities and paranoia that defined the ruling family’s existence for more than four decades.
In the center of the capital, rebel forces broke through the gates of Gaddafi’s most notorious prison, Abu Slim, liberating thousands of mostly political prisoners to tell tales of hardship, torture and disappearance.
But other discoveries have yielded little more than overwhelming tragedies and ominous signs of a desperate regime’s intent and capabilities. After days of fighting between rebels and Gaddafi’s forces last week, residents found a city strewn with bodies—many of them allegedly killed execution style and en masse.
So far rebels and journalists have reported at least half a dozen sites where Gaddafi’s forces appeared to have carried out massacres in the final hours of their control. Many of the dead are rebels and soldier defectors who were captured and tortured before their being killed. But at least one site, where the more than 30 victims might be Gaddafi fighters or supporters, suggests that both sides may have been guilty of brutal conduct in the battle for Tripoli.
Now as the country turns toward an uncertain and perilous future, Col. Muammar Gaddafi and his sons remain at large. And as food, water and fuel shortages disrupt an already fragile peace in the capital, many wonder whether Libya will be able to save itself or whether it will follow the footsteps of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq into civil war and chaos.
Abigail Hauslohner is a Cairo-based correspondent for TIME. Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME who has covered the Arab Spring since January. To see his previous work from Libya, click here.
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