Libya floods: Divers searching for dead off Derna say hardest part is 'what we see'

Volunteer rescue worker says retrieval of just one body can take up to three hours

Volunteer diver First Lieutenant Omar Berras Ali in Libya's eastern city of Derna. Pictures: Egab
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In Libya's port city of Derna, boats loaded with divers are searching for bodies a week after flash flooding caused by Storm Daniel overwhelmed the city.

As relief efforts face an increasing number of difficulties, including destroyed infrastructure and the smell of decaying bodies, divers in the sea are hit by more hardships.

First Lt Omar Ali has volunteered to join the search operations all the way from Misurata, which is run by the Tripoli-based government in rivalry with the Tobruk-based government, under which Derna falls in the east.

Lt Ali, 33, said equipment they rely on is “very primitive” and there were “too many” bodies, particularly in eastern parts of Derna.

“In the first days, retrieving bodies was very easy since sea conditions were on our side and bodies were still intact. We then managed to bring out around 35 corpses,” he told The National.

As days passed and the search continued, he said: “Waves got higher and bodies were getting decomposed, making the recovery of bodies very difficult for us.

"We were only able to retrieve five, six, maybe nine bodies a day at the most.”

Mr Ali said the retrieval of one body can take up to three hours.

“By now, the bodies are completely degraded, their features are completely erased,” he said.

A rescue boat searches for survivors and bodies in Derna.

Several countries have sent divers among the international rescue teams who have flocked to Libya from countries including Egypt and Malta to help in salvaging of bodies washed away by torrential rains.

But the amount of death and the conditions against which divers work to reclaim victims means many bodies still remain under water.

“Unfortunately, the equipment we are using is not advanced. They’re actually very primitive and are not specialised in recovering bodies,” said Lt Ali.

He said diving conditions presented challenges besides high waves.

“There are holes in the mountains and wood and logs that were washed away, so we need to be very careful,” he said.

“This is by far not an easy task. Not for a diver. Not for a whole team of divers.”

Scuba divers to retrieve bodies from Derna shoreline

Scuba divers to retrieve bodies from Derna shoreline

Lt Ali, who has joined in missions to rescue illegal migrants, described this operation as “unprecedented”.

“We’ve never seen anything like this – and we pray it never happens again” he said.

When asked about the personal effect of the operation, he said, while looking at the floor: “I probably don’t have an answer to this question now. But it has shaken me.

"When I recover the body of a child, I can’t help but imagine my children.

"The difficulty of this mission is not in the status of the bodies, but in what we see, to see children, women and elders in the sea.

“The most difficult situation I have been exposed to is recovering a woman who I found holding her baby, who was no more than three months old.

"This is the most difficult situation I have been through in my entire life. I did not sleep that night,” he said while holding back tears.

He said on Friday he managed to save three Libyans who were stuck in the basement of one of the buildings, while his team rescued three others in the sea.

Lt Ali said handing over of corpses on the first day was made difficult by a chaotic, unsettled situation.

By the second day, a procedure was put in place and the handling of corpses retrieved from the sea was smoother.

“We will do all that we can to help,” Lt Ali said. “We all do all that we can not to leave a single Libyan in the sea.”

This story has been published in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: September 18, 2023, 5:47 AM