5/5 © Reuters. People walk amid the rubble after the floods in Derna, Libya, on September 15, 2023. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori 2/5

By Ahmed Elumami, Ayman al-Warfali and Emma Farge

DERNA, Libya/GENEVA (Reuters) – Residents and rescue workers in the devastated Libyan city of Derna are struggling to cope with the thousands of bodies that are washing up or rotting under rubble after a flood destroyed buildings and swept people into the sea.

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

A UN report said more than 1,000 people have been buried this way since Libya, a country divided by a decade of conflict and political chaos, was hit by torrential rain on Sunday that caused two dams to burst.

Thousands have been killed and thousands more are missing.

“Bodies litter the streets, are washed ashore and buried under collapsed buildings and rubble. In just two hours, one of my colleagues counted over 200 bodies on the beach near Derna,” Bilal Sabouh of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), forensics manager for Africa, said at a briefing in Geneva.

Ibrahim al-Arabi, health minister in Libya’s Tripoli-based western government, told Reuters he was certain the groundwater was contaminated by water mixed with corpses, dead animals, garbage and chemical substances. “We ask people not to go near the wells in Derna,” he said.

Mohammad al-Qabisi, head of Wahda Hospital in Derna, said a field hospital treats people with chronic illnesses who need regular care. He said there were fears that water-borne diseases could spread, but no cholera had been recorded yet.

Parts of Derna, center of destruction in eastern Libya, were devastated as dams over the city burst and floodwaters washing down a normally dry riverbed caused entire blocks of apartments to collapse as families slept.

The International Organization for Migration mission in Libya said more than 5,000 people were believed to have died, 3,922 deaths were recorded in hospitals and over 38,640 were displaced in the flood-hit region.

The actual death toll could be far higher, officials say.

“We should be afraid of an epidemic,” said 60-year-old Nouri Mohamed at a bakery offering free bread. “There are still corpses underground… Now the corpses are starting to smell.”

The UN health agency, along with the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, called for better management of burials.

“We call on authorities in communities affected by the tragedy not to carry out hasty mass burials or mass cremations,” Kazunobu Kojima, medical officer for biosafety and biosecurity in the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said in the statement.

It called for the demarcation and documentation of individual graves, noting that hasty burials could lead to psychological distress for families as well as social and legal problems.

The bodies of victims of traumatic natural disasters “almost never” posed a health risk unless they were in or near freshwater sources, as the bodies could leak excrement.


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

Thursday’s U.N. report said more than 1,000 bodies were buried in mass graves in Derna and over 100 in Al Bayda, another flood-hit coastal city.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, which has a 100-strong team in Libya, said managing the bodies was the most pressing concern.

“I heard from my team that there were mass graves where rescue workers appealed: ‘Don’t bring us food, water, but body bags,’” said Ahmed Bayram of the NRC.

The ICRC sent a cargo flight with 5,000 body bags to Benghazi, the largest city in eastern Libya, on Friday. Further help also came from abroad.

The Danish Refugee Council said it is sending a team of explosives disposal experts because of the risk of landmines being released by floods.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said his country, which had already sent three planes and a ship carrying supplies, had now sent two amphibious landing ships carrying 122 vehicles, including ambulances and rescue vehicles.

Some residents were frustrated that Libya’s fragmented authorities did not act more quickly.

“The state is of no use to us,” said Saad Rajab Mohamed al-Hasi, a 50-year-old security guard who lives in Susah, a town about 60 kilometers away that was also damaged by floods. “Now I’m standing on the street with my children and my wife.”

U.N. aid commissioner Martin Griffiths told the briefing in Geneva that Libya needed equipment to find people trapped in mud and damaged buildings, as well as basic medical care to prevent a cholera outbreak.

Source : www.investing.com

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