Libya: Colonel Gaddafi's men held prisoner in Misrata

Graves
Image caption The bodies of Gaddafi's soldiers lie in a new cemetery nearby

Like so many things in Libya's chaotic rebellion, there's an improvised, do-it-yourself quality to the detention centre holding soldiers from Colonel Gaddafi's armed forces here on the edge of Misrata.

There's almost no security outside - or indeed inside - the smart secondary school compound that's being used to house more than 100 men, mostly captured during the battle for the city.

The sense, quietly reinforced by the man in charge - a local cleric named Abdul Hafid Abu Grain - is that the men are being held here as much for their own protection from the city's rag-tag fighters as out of any concern that they might escape.

We're ushered through a small gate, and the next sound I hear is of table tennis being played inside, apparently by two guards.

The prisoners are held, on two floors, in the school's classrooms - about 20 in each room, sitting on mattresses, many reading religious material. They look up quietly when we come in. Some smile and raise their hands in greeting.

Until recently, the local authorities in this besieged rebel-held city were reluctant to allow journalists into the facility. But Sheikh Abu Grain now seems keen to prove the men are being well treated, and to appeal for outside help in feeding them and providing medical care for the wounded.

"It's difficult, and expensive, given the siege," he says. "We give them the same food that we eat."

A rebel military official is leaving as we arrive. He doesn't want to give his name, for fear of reprisals against his family in Tripoli, but says the prisoners have been interrogated.

On the second floor, we speak to several prisoners who also ask that their identities be hidden for the same reason.

It's hard - inevitably - to judge how honest the prisoners are being. We're not able to speak to any of them in private and it may be that some are simply trying to ingratiate themselves with their captors. But my sense is that most of the men are simply relieved to be alive and safe, and are at least beginning to believe in the local version of the rebellion they were sent to crush.

There are no obvious signs that they are being ill-treated.

"I'm being treated well. It's as though I'm with my family," says a young soldier with a gunshot wound to his knee. "We were told Misrata was being invaded and that we must liberate it from crusaders and al-Qaeda. But when we arrived we discovered our superiors were telling lies and that we were fighting against the people. Our morale was destroyed. Some got the chance to escape and did, but if you refuse to fight they shoot you."

The windows rattle from a ripple of distant explosions on the front lines west of the city. Half a dozen prisoners murmur "Grads" - the name of the missiles that Colonel Gaddafi's forces used to bombard Misrata indiscriminately until they were pushed, within the past week, out of range of the city.

"Nato air strikes destroyed so many of our vehicles," says the same prisoner. "Gaddafi's troops cannot move. So many were killed. The proper units have been sent back to defend Tripoli. They rely on mercenaries now - some of our commanders spoke foreign languages we couldn't understand."

I ask him what he thinks will happen to him. "I'm absolutely sure I haven't pointed my gun at anyone in Misrata," he protests. "I hope they understand my position and that after Gaddafi is gone they'll let me go home."

On a nearby bed, an older soldier - a captain - strikes me as a less repentant figure. When I ask him about Colonel Gaddafi, he says his family "will be in trouble with their neighbours" if word gets back to Tripoli that he's spoken to the media. I ask him if he thinks the Libyan leader still enjoys popular support. "Maybe… maybe," he replies quietly.

The sheikh escorts us out. He wants to show us the new cemetery that has been built in the sand dunes close to the nearby beach. Once again he appears to be in charge of the project, which caters specifically for the bodies of dead Gaddafi soldiers.

On a North African coastline dotted with the graveyards of earlier conflicts - at places like El Alamein and Tobruk - there are more than 300 graves here, in 10 meandering rows, each covered in a thin layer of cement and pointing towards Mecca.

"These are our brothers and sons. They weren't born our enemies. Gaddafi hid the truth from them," says Sheikh Abu Grain.

In a besieged city, then, hints of forgiveness and restraint. Libya will need plenty of both when the fighting is done.