Volunteers open the ambulance door. They are dressed in PPE and masks, but when several of them prepare to carry the black bag that lies on the stretcher, they realize that one is enough. The package it contains is as small as a basketball. It’s a baby. Suddenly, everyone present falls silent and the scene, which is repeated four times in an hour, slows down. The transfer, of a few meters, to the truck where a dozen corpses are accumulated before taking them to the mass grave, is done carefully. And among the twenty men who have been recovering and carrying bodies of the Derna flood victims for almost two weeks, from eight in the morning until nine at night, there is only one woman: Rathia Mohamed Azqiba.
When dawn broke in Derna after two dams broke due to Storm Daniel at the beginning of the month, Azqiba saw how his entire neighborhood – “38 buildings,” he details – had simply disappeared. And with them, “his uncles and most of the neighbors.” Then, the 65-year-old woman knew where she should go. “In the first few days, I was at the hospital washing bodies of victims and preparing them for burial. But when they stopped preserving them because they were so decomposed, I came to this position. Here, before, there was a vegetable market,” she continues explaining in the tent in which her companions lie down to try to sleep for a few minutes when they can’t take it anymore.
Five days after the passage of Storm Daniel, which has caused at least 4,000 deaths, the Government of Marshal Khalifa Hafter, which controls the east of the country, decided to quickly bury the bodies found, after taking a DNA test, to avoid outbreaks of diseases like cholera. It was then that Rathia moved from the morgue to this post located next to the beach, at the epicenter of the tragedy. She is the only woman authorized to access this area, closed to civilians not registered as volunteers, and to work with the men with long beards and rigid ideas in charge of coordinating the transfer of bodies to the mass grave. They have emerged as the authority in this task due to their involvement in the daily life of the city’s mosques and are in charge of monitoring compliance with the precepts of Islam, such as ensuring that the remains of women are not seen by foreign men or photographed. . Several interviewees have insisted on the psychological impact that it had on the survivors to find, when the flood ended, the streets crowded with naked women and girls, a particularly disturbing image for a society as conservative as that of Derna.
The volunteers carefully transfer the bodies to the truck where they accumulate them before taking them to the mass grave.ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI (REUTERS)
Therefore, the presence of this woman among the volunteers is unusual. It has been possible due to her involvement in charitable organizations at her mosque during the two civil wars and the fight against the Islamic State group that Libya, and with particular ferocity Derna, have suffered since 2011. The woman, with a kind look, distributed food and clothing among those affected by the battles that were fought within the city and by the bombings. “But nothing can compare with what is happening to us now,” she points out in a conversation on September 19. When she hears the ambulance approaching, she quickly grabs a diffuser with disinfectant and another with air freshener. She mixes with the volunteers who carry the bodies and sprays them, both to prevent illness and to mask the smell of death. After her, she pours bleach water on her gloved hands. Men look for ways to show her gratitude with her gaze, over masks and, in some cases, protective glasses. “This woman has washed more than 1,000 bodies,” exclaims proudly Salah, a 25-year-old boy who has lost count of the victims he has carried and who hugs her tenderly. He’s not the only one. There are many who express reverent gratitude for the care that his work entails.
Try to restore normality
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Rathia Azqiba avoids delving into the reasons why she is the only female volunteer at ground zero. “Many women died, others are taking care of children and the elderly. That’s why they’re not here. And it is also true that in the first days it was very hard to be washing bodies and to suddenly find your relatives among them.” There is something that she repeats, like a mantra, throughout the interview: “Despite my pain and my losses, my obligation is to come.”
Rathia’s presence has been made possible by his involvement in his mosque’s charitable organizations during the two civil wars and the war against the Islamic State. Patricia Simon
Right behind him, some workers are hurriedly erecting a double metal wall. The objective, they explain, is that when civilians are authorized to return to what remains of their homes, they do not relive the catastrophe seeing the coast still littered with twisted cars, rags of clothing, remains of toys and shoes. Also, avoid the sight of waters still browned by the tons of waste carried by the flood. Hundreds of people are working throughout the city to try to restore an apparent normality, a thankless undertaking given the magnitude of the destruction.
Walking through the streets of Derna plunges one into a state of perplexity due to the inability to explain the magnitude of seeing dozens of destroyed neighborhoods, hundreds of cars piled up blocking dozens of streets, entire buildings buried up to the second floor underground. Even in war zones it is difficult to find such a level of devastation. And as in those war contexts, one of the first symptoms of the return to life are the lines of children and adults, some with ragged clothes, collecting donated food. In this case, the boxes of eggs that the owner of a supermarket is giving out, for free, on the first day of reopening. The store shelves look perfectly stocked with a wide variety of products, including several brands of sweets produced in Spain. “We do it for our customers who have been asking us for days to reopen. This is not for money, it is for our neighbors,” explains Mansour, one of the employees, excitedly. He lost all of his cousins and many of his friends and the only way he finds to appease his grief is to attribute the tragedy to God’s designs.
Africa’s deadliest flood
A few streets away, a group of firefighters from Turkey, one of the great allies of the Government of Tripoli, is working hard, in conflict with that of the east of the country, under which Derna is located. Helped by an excavator, they sift through the earth until the stench becomes unbearable. “For it to smell like that, it has to be less than two meters away,” says one of the red-uniformed men, who is now digging carefully looking for the bulge that will give him the key to where to go. Then, a foot emerges that quickly becomes a masculine body through the precise and respectful work of those who until before the flood were considered enemies in this part of the country. They quickly put it into two bags, place it in the bucket of the bulldozer, which wraps around it like a spider to transport it to the other side of the street. In this area of the city, many of the buildings have graffiti on their facade: a date, the name of the rescue team and a number. They are the corpses found; There is no figure less than three.
The plagued coast is still littered with twisted cars, rags of clothing, remains of toys and shoes. In the image, rescuers pull a vehicle from the sea on September 19. AMR ALFIKY (REUTERS)
The United Nations has revised the number of victims downwards, now placing it at 3,958 dead and more than 9,000 missing. It is the deadliest flood recorded in Africa since 1900, according to data from the World Health Organization. Most of them are being buried in a mass grave on one of the mountains surrounding Derna. There, in the middle of a plain, several machines widen the pit while around thirty men dedicate themselves, tirelessly, to celebrating the funerals before burying them. Around the reddish earth, now broken with the white of quicklime, dozens of plastic tents. It is where those who, since the flood, are dedicated to burials live. Like the rest of the volunteers in charge of managing the bodies, they refuse to speak with this journalist because she is a woman and because only men are allowed access to Muslim cemeteries.
Hope for reunification
“See that unity? They killed some of ours and we have killed some of theirs during the war. Well now, they are here helping us. Never have I had such hope as now that Libya can be under the same Government again,” confesses a soldier, whose identity cannot be made public because he is not authorized to make statements. An emotion that Rathia Atqiba shares: “As soon as this misfortune happened to us, Libyans from the east and the west came to help us. It is a demonstration of the unity that our country experiences.” A new commotion forms around the woman: someone has seen a dark spot in the rough sea. Little by little, a crowd spreads out on the rocks that stop the waves. They observe for more than half an hour, until they estimate that it is some type of plastic or clothing.
“When the work here is over, I will continue looking for people to help, all those refugees who have been left homeless.” More than 40,000 people, according to the UN, now live in schools and other public centers in Derna and surrounding towns. Some 40,000 people, the population of a medium-sized city in Spain, who have been left with nothing; Rathia is clear that when Derna stops being in the news, these people will need help more than ever.
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