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MELISSA BLOCK, host: In Libya, thousands of rebel fighters and political prisoners have been freed from Moammar Gadhafi's notorious prisons, and they're now slowly making their way home. But tens of thousands more are still missing. In the eastern city of Benghazi, anxious relatives and friends flood the airport and the city docks night after night, hoping to greet loved ones.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Benghazi and filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON BYLINE: Shouts of joy erupt from a sea of assembled relatives as passengers trickle out of the Benghazi airport terminal after a flight from Tripoli. They jostled for a peek at the arrivals, which include former prisoners freed from the notorious Abu Salim prison in the capital more than a week ago.

The prison became infamous 15 years ago when more than 1,200 inmates were massacred there, many of them political opponents of Moammar Gadhafi. Libyans say it's is a prison few people ever returned from.

Even with rebels firmly in charge of Tripoli now, many of those gathered here are afraid their loved ones did not make it out of the prison. But for a handful, the trip on this night pays off.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

BYLINE: One elderly woman breaks down as she sees her son, Nasser al-Malki, who has a broken leg and is rolled out in a wheelchair. She kisses his face and his feet as relatives hold her steady.

NASSER AL-MALKI: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: Malki is a 54-year-old rebel army colonel. He says he was captured in April in nearby Ajdabiya by Gadhafi forces and sent to Abu Salim. He says rebel fighters freed him and scores of others just over a week ago from a prison hospital. Malki adds that residents in a pro-rebel neighborhood in Tripoli gave each of them more than a thousand dollars to buy clothes and tickets to get home.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BYLINE: Nearby, there's another joyful reunion. Male relatives hug Abdul Rauf Faraj, a 25-year-old accounting graduate who was picked up by Gadhafi forces in March, while delivering ammunition to rebel fighters. He spent 48 days at Abu Salim before being transferred by a sympathetic official to another prison in the nearby town of Tajura. Faraj says he and nearly 400 other prisoners escaped from there on August 21st, after guards who secretly sided with the rebels unlocked all of the cells and gates.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

BYLINE: At the airport, Faraj and his family pile into several cars and head to the family compound.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

BYLINE: The relatives honk and fire guns into the air in celebration as they approach the house where his tearful mother and sisters are waiting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

BYLINE: They bury the young man in hugs and kisses. A newborn nephew he's never seen is placed in his arms. Faraj looks overwhelmed, but smiles weakly. He is pale and has lost 30 pounds during his months in prison. He says it feels strange to be home.

ABDUL RAUF FARAJ ACCOUNTING GRADUATE: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: When he first went through Abu Salim's gates, he feared he would be tortured and imprisoned for years, if not killed. Faraj said those fears were heightened when he saw that many of the prisoners were wounded. There were rumors that some had been dragged behind cars and others had been burned by prison guards.

His father, Musa Faraj, shared those fears, after learning that his youngest child had been sent to Abu Salim.

MUSA FARAJ: The reputation of Abu Salim prison is very well-known to all Libyans, especially that massacre in 1996 when they killed 1,269 people. So the people, they said, well, Abu Salim, that's the end.

BYLINE: But last week, a Libyan TV station broadcast a list of freed prisoners and where they could be contacted. Musa Faraj said his heart leapt when his son's name appeared on the screen.

FARAJ: His name was number 14 on that line. And then my son, Abdullah, who was here, the older one, managed to get him on the phone. And he was here so his mother talked to him. His sister and I talked to him.

BYLINE: Many more people in Benghazi are still looking for family members they believe were also in Abu Salim.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)

BYLINE: At the Red Crescent office here, officials are trying to locate some 800 missing prisoners from Benghazi alone. Mona Mohammed Ali has come for word of her brother, Osama. She says he disappeared in the western town of Zawiyah six months ago. She is joined by an elderly man named Omar Al Wahali who is looking for his 25-year-old son.

OMAR AL WAHALI: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: He says he comes here because there is no other place to look. Wahali adds that not knowing what happened to his son is like dying 10 times a day.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Benghazi.

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