Salemah, a German Shepherd, and Yoshika, a pointer, and their handlers from the Abu Dhabi Police K9 Unit are working alongside a team from UAE’s Urban Search and Rescue department that has been in Derna since last week.
“This is not their first mission. They have been to other search and rescue missions abroad and were commissioned on this trip because of their high success rate during past missions,” said Khamees Aldhahnani, head of the K9 unit.
“What makes Salemah and Yoshika different though is that they are trained in sniffing dead bodies, not those still breathing.”
Dogs that can sniff out the dead are trained differently compared to those sent out to find survivors, Mr Aldhahnani explained.
“We wanted to send some K9 units that can find living survivors to Libya but as soon as we received an assessment of the situation on the ground, we quickly assessed that our mission requires dogs more of Salemah and Yoshika’s calibre,” he said.
The National accompanied the UAE team in their search along the coastline, the area that suffered the most destruction when heavy rains, brought by Storm Daniel, caused two dams inland from Derna to collapse and unleash a deadly torrent that swept through the city of 100,000 people.
The flooding destroyed as much as a quarter of Derna and killed almost 4,000 people, many of whom were swept out to sea. Thousands more remain missing, according to official figures released by Libya's eastern government. Independent NGOs fear the death toll could be far higher.
The UAE team said Salemah and Yoshika have helped to recover several bodies so far, but declined to reveal the exact number.
Near the valley dividing the city, Yoshika, the younger of the two dogs, was sent in first to check the completely destroyed ground floor of a building.
She quickly sat down – a signal to her handler that she may have picked up the scent of a body. Salemah, with more experience, was then brought in to confirm the find. She did.
A group of young Emirati soldiers started clearing the rubble at the spot where both dogs gave a positive signal. After about 10 minutes the scent of death becomes evident, even through face masks. The team waits anxiously in expectation of finding another body.
Thankfully, the scent the dogs picked up this time was from a dead goat.
“It's a weird feeling,” one of the team members told The National.
“Yes, we spent a few minutes thinking we might help recover a body, but there’s a sense of relief at the same time.”