Libya's flood-ravaged Derna struggles to cope with thousands of corpses

Libya's flood-ravaged Derna struggles to cope with thousands of corpses
Following a devastating flood in the Libyan city of Derna, residents and rescue workers grapple with thousands of corpses washing up or decaying under rubble, with aid agencies urging authorities to refrain from mass burials.
4 min read
16 September, 2023
A UN report showed more than 1,000 people had so far been buried in that manner since Libya [Getty]

Residents and rescue workers in the devastated Libyan city of Derna were struggling to cope with the thousands of corpses washing up or decaying under rubble, after a flood that smashed down buildings and swept people out to sea.

The World Health Organization and other aid groups called on authorities in Libya to stop burying flood victims in mass graves, saying these could bring long-term mental distress to families or might cause health risks if located near water.

The aid agencies spoke after a UN report showed more than 1,000 people had so far been buried in that manner since Libya, a nation divided by decade of conflict and political chaos, was hit on Sunday by torrential rain from a Mediterranean storm.

Thousands were killed and thousands more are missing.

"Bodies are littering the streets, washing back on shore and are buried under collapsed buildings and debris. In just two hours, one of my colleagues counted over 200 bodies on the beach near Derna," Bilal Sablouh, the ICRC's regional forensics manager for Africa, told a briefing in Geneva.

Live Story

Ibrahim al-Arabi, health minister in Libya's Tripoli-based government in the west, told Reuters he was certain groundwater was polluted with water mixed up with corpses of people, dead animals, refuse and chemical substances. "We urge people not to approach the wells in Derna," he said.

Mohammad al-Qabisi, head of Derna's Wahda Hospital, said a field hospital was treating people with chronic illnesses needing regular attention. He said there were fears waterborne diseases would spread but no cholera cases had been recorded so far.

Swathes of Derna, the centre point of the destruction in Libya's east, were obliterated when stormwater swept down a usually dry riverbed, smashed two dams above the city and brought down whole buildings while families were asleep.

The International Organization for Migration mission in Libya said on Friday that more than 5,000 people were presumed dead, with 3,922 deaths registered in hospitals, and over 38,640 were displaced in the flood-stricken northeastern region.

The death toll could be far higher, officials say.

Live Story

"We should be afraid of an epidemic," 60-year-old Nouri Mohamed said at a bakery, which was offering loaves for free to help Derna's shattered community. "There are still bodies underground ... Now there are corpses starting to smell."

The U.N. health agency together with the International Committee of the Red Cross and International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies called for better-managed burials.

"We urge authorities in communities touched by tragedy to not rush forward with mass burials or mass cremations," Kazunobu Kojima, medical officer for biosafety and biosecurity in the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, said in the statement.

The statement called for demarcated and documented individual graves, saying hasty interments could lead to mental anguish for families as well as social and legal problems.

The bodies of victims of trauma from natural disasters "almost never" posed a health threat, it said, unless they were in or near freshwater supplies since corpses may leak faeces.

Live Story

Dealing with the dead

A doctor in Derna said this week that photos were taken of unidentified bodies before burial, in case relatives could identify them later on.

Thursday's U.N. report said more than 1,000 bodies in Derna and over 100 bodies in Al Bayda, another coastal city which was hit by flooding, had been buried in mass graves.

The ICRC sent a cargo flight to Benghazi, eastern Libya's largest city, on Friday with 5,000 body bags. Other aid has also been coming in from abroad.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, which has a team of 100 in Libya, said dead body management was the most pressing concern.

"I've heard from my team that there are mass graves where rescue workers were appealing: 'Don't bring us food, don’t bring us water, bring us body bags'," the NRC's Ahmed Bayram said.

Live Story

The Danish Refugee Council said it is sending a team specialised in explosive ordinance disposal because of the risk of landmines being dislodged by flooding and moving around.

Some residents were frustrated that the country's fractured authorities were not acting faster to help.

"The state is no of use to us," said Saad Rajab Mohamed al-Hasi, a 50-year-old security officer who lives in Susah, a town about 60 km (38 miles) away that was also damaged by flooding. "Now I’m in the street with my children and wife."

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths told the Geneva briefing that Libya needed equipment to find people trapped in sludge and damaged buildings after the floods as well as primary health care to prevent a cholera outbreak among survivors.