MISRATA, Libya » The gravediggers worked methodically and with few words.
The corpses of Moammar Gadhafi’s soldiers, wrapped in cloth or plastic sheets, had arrived in trucks. The men who would bury them sprinkled perfumed powder on the dead men’s burned or bloodied brows. Then they prayed. A quiet processional began.
The gravediggers carried each corpse over the sand and lowered it inside a waiting box. Each was placed right shoulder down, left side up. In this way, all of the dead men faced Mecca. At last the gravediggers closed and covered the tops of the boxes. Then came the wait for the next truck, which would bring more.
The final formation for many of the Gadhafi soldiers who put Misrata under siege lies in a solitary plot beside the Mediterranean Sea. The gravediggers have been busy.
That number reflected something of the toll suffered by Libya’s military in its effort to subdue a city that with the help of NATO aircraft and supplies sent by sea has thus far fought off the Gadhafi troops.
Watched over by religious men, who both enforce a culture of quiet respect and keep away the dogs, the cemetery serves not just as a resting place but also as a midwar testimonial to a distinction no military force could ever want: that of an army that attacked one of its nation’s own cities, only to meet defeat.
It also suggests rebel ambivalence. The Gadhafi government is hated in Misrata. The soldiers who have shelled and looted the city are perceived as invaders and traitors.
But some of the city’s residents have insisted that the remains be treated with dignity. Those who run this cemetery say this is because many of these dead men were forced into battle by their government, and were fed lies about those they fought.
And there are deeper motivations. The rebels say they wish not to act like those who besieged them, who, independent observers and rebels say, have spirited away untold numbers of corpses of the fighters and protesters killed in the uprising.
Moreover, as the fight for this city dragged on, religious leaders in Misrata stepped forward and told the rebels’ de facto government that no matter the public anger, a higher law must be observed.
"In our faith we have the book," Sheik Abdulhafiz Abu Ghrain, the man who oversees the cemetery and the soldiers’ last rites, said of the Quran. "And this book tells us we must do to others as we would have done to us."
Behind him was the cemetery, with its neatly arranged rows, and its gravediggers laboring in midday desert heat. The sheik gestured to it. "We are Muslim, and we must do it like this for every person," he said. "Not just for us, but for our enemies, too."
The people who run the cemetery asked that its exact location not be disclosed, beyond saying that it is near the sea. They worried, they said, that if the Gadhafi military counterattacked the city, it might try to capture the place.
It was a well-chosen spot, a bowl between rolling dunes, where the strong winds that blow inland from the Mediterranean on hot afternoons are deflected and softened, to brush gently over the sand.
Where this cemetery’s silent population will fit in the final accounting of this battle is not known. The precise number of Gadhafi soldiers lost in and near Misrata is not established. Maybe it never will be.
But given that Misrata’s rebels have captured more than 230 Gadhafi soldiers and 358 more were thus far buried here, the directly measurable losses to the Gadhafi military in the siege had reached nearly 600 men by the end of last week.
And considering that the tally of dead included only the corpses gathered by rebel fighters, and not the many dead and wounded evacuated by the Gadhafi military, rebel estimates that the siege has cost his army and militias at least 2,000 men seem, if not verifiable, then not outlandish either.
This is especially so because the number of confirmed dead — contained in the cemetery’s registry — is most likely smaller than the quantity of dead actually recovered by rebels.
There are credible accounts in Misrata, from people who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation and not have their future access to rebel leaders restricted, that some fighters disposed of dead Gadhafi soldiers by dumping them into the sea. If the accounts were true, this behavior would mimic allegations rebels have made against the Gadhafi government of hiding and defiling the rebel dead.
Rebel leaders deny that their fighters have done this. "That could not be so," said Salaheldin Badi, the senior rebel commander in the city. "If we had done that, the sea would have given them back. Bodies would have washed up and you would have seen them. But you have not seen them."
The Misrata coastline covers many miles. The chance that an independent observer will encounter human remains on the shore is very small.
The sheik, for his part, was not interested in calculations or in discussing what compelled him and other religious leaders to step in to create a proper cemetery and oversee the burials. He had more immediate duties, he said.
One of them, he said, was making a registry of what could be recorded of each dead man.
As of Friday, there were 303 graves for Gadhafi soldiers whose remains were relatively intact. Each had been assigned a number, corresponding, Ghrain said, to documents that included a photograph of each dead man’s face. These men were wrapped in cloth.
Some of the remains, the sheik said, had been tentatively identified by documents found with them. Most had not.
Another 55 graves held the remains of Gadhafi soldiers whose condition was too poor for any identification.
These were the burned, the exploded, the decomposed — a mix of soldiers who were blown apart by NATO airstrikes or who, after being surrounded in the fighting in the city’s center, died in buildings that were reduced to rubble or set afire.
They were found, often a week or more after they died, when the stench led rebels to where they were. These men were wrapped in plastic. In some cases, because of dismemberment, several dead men share a common grave, because gravediggers could not tell what belonged with each ruined body.
Many of the names of those in these holes will most likely never be known. The others may have a chance at being claimed by those who miss them.
The cemetery, as conceived, is an interim resting place. Ghrain said the registry would be available to Libyan military families when the war ends, and that they might look at the photographs and examine the possessions to try to identify missing relatives.
"When this war is all over, families can come and we will help them," he said.
Behind him, the gravediggers worked, on this day burying corpses wrapped in green plastic.
They had been found in the rubble of buildings, and had most likely died more than two weeks before. They were a group of men who, even as they were found by those who surrounded and killed them, might remain forever unclaimed in their own land.