The Martoba cemetery near the Libyan city of Derna is quiet, despite the presence of dozens of volunteers. Men in white suits pour lime over the brown soil to seal the graves. Cement bricks sticking out of piles of dirt are the only signs of the hundreds of bodies buried beneath.
Behind them, excavators dug rows of trenches several meters long in anticipation of the bodies yet to come.
“We are preparing the place according to the numbers we hear, according to the number of dead and missing. The missing are presumed dead. We can only hope that these numbers are not correct,” one of the men, Mohamed el-Sharwy, told CNN. A school principal volunteered at a cemetery in his town after Derna was hit by floods last week.
According to WHO figures, almost 4,000 people have died in Derna after heavy rains and two collapsed dams caused wild floods. Thousands are still missing.
“Our proximity to Derna means that I have friends there, friends from school, colleagues from work,” he says. And in the early days, he says, he recognized their faces among the bodies he was tasked with burying.
“Initially the bodies brought here were not covered and I was shocked to see my friends. It was extremely difficult,” he recalls.
School principal Mohamed el-Sharwy is among the volunteers at the cemetery.
More than 2,500 people were buried in the first three days after the disaster in a rush to avoid infection and disease, health officials said. City hospitals and morgues were overburdened, unable to handle the influx of the dead.
Martoba, one of three cemeteries designated for flood victims, received more than 1,000 bodies in the first week. The dead were initially buried in graves separated by cement bricks, each holding six or seven bodies. Later, bodies pulled from the sea and mud-filled wreckage arrived decomposed and bloated. Each compartment only holds three.
The volunteers soon realized that they needed larger mass graves, especially when visual identification became impossible. Officials are now taking DNA samples before burials. Bodies buried without such tests in the early days will be exhumed later for DNA testing, officials said.
The arrival of two trucks in Martoba transforms the place into a hive of activity, albeit still quiet and serious. Under the setting sun, dozens of men perform funeral prayers for victims identified only by numbers. Then they put white body bags into a freshly dug hole, big enough to hold a shipment of 35 bodies. Men line its edge, shoveling dirt before excavators fill the hole.
“We can’t understand it. I can’t sleep at night. There is no sleep. It’s just a short rest so I can continue working the next day,” says Sharwy.
Akram al-Kawwash (left) and Abdallah al-Sheikh were unable to find the bodies of their family members in Derna.
Amidst the rubble of a destroyed neighborhood in Derna, the same deep trauma and loss weigh in the air. Akram al-Kawwash, 54, sits on a pile of dirt that was once his brother’s house. Her eyes are red from the flow of tears.
“I lost my brother and his children. This house was his. I lost them all. I lost my neighbors. I lost my whole world. This is his house. We’re sitting on it,” he says, holding a handful of dirt and leaning his back against the remains of a collapsed wall.
He tries to remember the last conversation he had with his brother two days before the floods and breaks into loud sobs. He covers his face with his hand and presses his fingers against his eyes.
Graffiti on a flood-damaged building in Derna, Libya, reads “Rest in Peace, Mom.”
He is surrounded by survivors who are also searching for their families. He sits under a makeshift tent in front of the collapsed buildings. Graffiti is one of the few ways to say goodbye here. “Rest in peace mom,” says a sign on one wall.
“I lost 25 members of my family. We found only four of their bodies,” says Abdallah al-Sheikh (48). His face is expressionless, numb with shock.
“The dead son I found in the hospital. The one that is still alive I took out myself. But no one else. Not my wife, not my mother, not my siblings, not my nephews, not my neighbors,” he says.
He was carrying his 10-year-old son and jumping from one roof to another when the floods inundated his neighborhood, he says. After the water receded, he set out to find the rest of the family.
“There was no one to help. The neighbors were just helping each other,” he says. He searched the wreckage hoping to find his family members, but found only the bodies of his neighbors and a few survivors.
“It is God’s will.” It is cruel. But we accept it,” says Kawwash. Like Sheikh, he has yet to find the bodies of his family.
Clarification: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the city’s name.