By Suliman Gaouda
This story was told by the late Mohammed Mousa Gaouda (my dads uncle, since both my grandparents are Gaoudas he is also my grandmas late brother. The story is always told by him originally and hand written, it was later picked up by a Libyan journalist who goes by the name of Mohammed Al Enezzy who wrote about it in more than one online magazine. The story was then passed down from my Grandfather and Grandmother to us to keep it alive.
There are particular events in history that entire nations will never forget. Stories are passed down from generation to generation, to keep them alive. Grandparents will recount events to their grandchildren as if they happened yesterday.
My story is about a crime committed by a bunch of terrorists who didn’t possess even the most basic of human feelings. Libya and its people suffered horrific and tragic events when the Italians invaded Libya destroying it and killing its people whether they were a part of the Libyan resistance or not. Without discrimination crimes were committed against men and women, young and old…all this in an attempt to bring a new civilization to the shores of Libya. Destruction, murder, and concentration camps were just a few of the crimes the Italians committed against the Libyan people.
And of the many war crimes, one in particular is the Gaouda family massacre in Benghazi. Benghazi- the city that witnessed the battles of Jiliana, Garyounis, the two palms or “Nakhlatain”, and many other battles…as the grandfathers of today’s revolutionary freedom fighters fought bravely to defeat the Italians and send them home.
For many years, after Libya’s independence up to 1969, April 5th of every year was the day Libyans remembered the Gaouda family massacre in which a group of the Italian soldiers broke into the home of Salah Gaouda firing bullets at the family members and throwing explosives inside the house. Salah Gaouda was the father of Ali Gaouda. Ali Gaouda was born in the year 1898 in Benghazi. He played a major role in the fight against the Italians with his fellow Mujahedeen. Ali Gaouda fought in many battles, and was one of the strategists of the battles that took place, in all parts of Libya.
During the war Ali Gaouda left to Egypt to join the Libyan Liberation Army, serving as a first lieutenant in the army. During WWII, Britain, with the help of the Libyan Liberation Army, started to fight the Italians for Libya, coming in from the east (Egypt). The war became an ongoing back and forth struggle. By day the Italians captured Benghazi and by night the British and the LLA recaptured it. This went on for countless days and nights. On one particular occasion the British and LLA managed to force the Italians to fully withdraw from Benghazi. It seemed like victory in Libya was close at hand.
The British assumed the Italians were defeated in Benghazi and that they had retreated to defend the rest of Libya but the Italian soldiers remained in Benghazi, changed into normal civilian clothing, and disarmed themselves in order to blend in with the rest of the civilian population. They played the role of spies gathering information on the movement of the British army and the LLA within Benghazi. Being none the wiser the Libyans of Benghazi were delighted over the defeat of the Italians.
Among the soldiers and generals from the LLA who had recaptured Benghazi was Ali Gaouda. The Gaouda family, happy at the return of their long gone son, organized a feast and many of the British and LLA officers were invited to celebrate the return of their native son. While the feast was going on, an Italian woman, who owned a bar on Share3 el taira, asked a man who was entering the Gaouda home what was happening inside the house. The man replied that British and LLA officers were invited to a feast to celebrate the return of Ali Gaouda. The man continued to tell her that she should pack and return to Italy so she replied, “we are at war and it is a matter of attack and retreat, just like a game of chess”.
The home of Salah Gaouda was also home to his sons Bashir, Ibrahim, and Othman. It was also home to his brother Mousa Gaouda (my dad’s grandfather) and his other brother, the famous poet Abu Baker Gaouda.
The liberation of Benghazi by the British and LLA did not last long and Italian reinforcements soon returned to Benghazi. The people started to panic. Many fled with the army. Ali Gaouda begged his father and uncles to leave with him back to Egypt, but they refused. Ali Gaouda had duties and could not stay with them.
The British and LLA were forced to retreat east after the Italians heavily bombarded the city. The Italian soldiers who had disarmed and hid themselves amongst the civilians came out of hiding and took up arms once again…and so Benghazi was once again recaptured by the Italians. The Italian army then released a statement known as the “Carta Bianca”, which meant that it was a state of emergency, and any person suspected of betrayal to the Italians was to be killed without being tried. One Libyan man who was returning from work on his bicycle was stopped and asked to kiss the Italian flag. When he refused they immediately shot him dead.
The Gaouda family knew that they were seen celebrating the victory with the British and LLA officers and knew that they’re fate would be death. They armed themselves with, as my grandpa says, hunting guns (3 or 4 maximum). Each took up a place at the door armed and ready.
On April 5, 1941, after Eisha prayer, the Italians, who were tipped off by the Italian woman, directly headed to the Gaouda home. They started to fire on the house so the men gathered all the women and children and put them into an underground room they stored vegetables in.
Amongst the children was my grandmother, who was only 3 or 4 years old at the time. The men then started to fire back at the Italians. The Italians shouted orders for the Gaouda family to open the door…shouting that they had betrayed the Italians by helping and feeding the British and LLA. When the Gaouda family refused to open the door the Italians blew it open using explosives. As the dust settled the Italians ordered the members of the family to come out. Seeing no recourse, and hoping to go peacefully to protect those inside, Othman Gaouda, Abu Baker Gaouda, and Ibrahim Gaouda walked out with their heads held high and their hands up and unarmed only to be immediately fired upon and killed. The Italians then entered the house looking for Ali Gaouda but couldn’t find him. They fired upon Salah Gaouda and Mousa Gaouda, killing them both. They found the women and children in the small underground room. Surprisingly, they did not kill them. The neighbouring families, shocked with what had happened, were forced out of their homes by the Italian soldiers and made to sit outside watch while the Italians searched the house.
The next day the families of Benghazi buried its five martyrs and from that time on April 5th became the day Benghazi remembers the Gaouda Family Massacre.
Epilogue: Soon after the massacre, the survivors gathered their possessions and moved to another home they owned in the city. Suliman Gaouda (my great grandfather) along with his brother helped care for the rest of their family. Ali Gaouda returned home after the war was over and went on to become Minister of Defence for a short time during the Monarchy.
Editor’s note: When Gaddafi took power in 1969 he made it a point to hide the brave acts and sacrifices of the Gaouda’s and countless other families in an effort to prop up his own family (who no one had heard of before, during, or after the Italian occupation). Before reading this I’d only known about the Gaouda family by their impeccable reputation and because a few of my family members are good friends with some of the Gaouda’s. Gaddafi has long made it a policy to burn history books containing the real event of our past, even going as far as to change the calendar and the way Islam is practiced in Libya. Even now in free Benghazi the people are buying up and reading books long banned by the Gaddafi regime to remember and honour our true past. Thank you for sharing this story with us, Suliman. I’m looking forward to reading more of your stories. Inshallah, someday soon, April 5th will once again be remembered in honour of the Gaouda family.
(Originally written in Arabic & English by Suliman Gaouda. English Editing by Omar Mansour El-Kikhia)