Of all the things he’s found in the blue Mediterranean waters of Derna, the many bodies of children with vacant eye sockets and protruding bones haunt Bashir Saqr El-Hassi the most.
The 42-year-old Libyan coastguard diver is solemn as he describes the experience of pulling out bodies that are still in the sea in the aftermath of the devastating dam rupture near Derna in early September.
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“I can’t help but think of my own children when I’m retrieving children who drowned. I’ve been away from my family for days,” El-Hassi said, his eyes gazing away.
Overhearing him, one of his teammates steps in, recalling a sight that still haunts him.
“One of the bodies was stuck under the rubble of a building and the fish were eating it. It was a tragic sight that I cannot describe,” he said.
The pair are local divers, El-Hassi from the nearby city of Sousa, part of a squadron left to find missing bodies after international relief teams have largely left Libya, including navy divers from Egypt, Turkey, Malta and other countries.
The eerily quiet divers pile onto boats to jump into the sea whenever the weather and waves permit, trying to salvage the bodies still in the waters.
The storm burst two dams above Derna, causing floods that washed through the city, wiping out the landscape, sweeping away buildings and obliterating whole neighbourhoods. The death toll is estimated at thousands, with thousands more reported missing.
“It’s a city down there. More so in the earlier days, as it was populated with bodies. But there’s still a city down there,” said one of the divers.
Race against time
El-Hassi has been in Derna since the first days of the catastrophe.
“The mission was easier at the beginning because the bodies were intact. Now they’re very decomposed,” he said, adding it’s a race against time to retrieve as many bodies as possible before they fully disintegrate.
The experienced diver has been on search missions before, but nothing prepared him for what he saw after the flood.
“Of all my experience in diving missions retrieving the bodies of asylum seekers who drowned at sea, this by far has been the most difficult,” he said.
The divers support each other before their daily missions. What they have seen is part of their collective memory, their toughest experiences together, encountering death on a daily basis, away from their families.
Before each dive, El-Hassi makes sure to talk to his wife and children, whom he doesn’t see for days at a time.
“I feel fear and anxiety. This experience has affected me deeply. I keep thinking about my family and what if they were the ones to have met this horrible fate,” he said, looking numb.
Driven by a sense of humanity
It’s another day and El-Hassi and his team are preparing to look for more victims of the floods.
He makes sure his oxygen tank is full to allow him the longest time underwater. Some divers will take the plunge without oxygen tanks for more speed and mobility, he said.
He and the team captain then go over diving locations where they will search for more bodies.
They have marked seven submerged vehicles to check during this dive. They were washed into the sea and have not yet been searched for drowned passengers.
Before they know it, the grim day has passed and another search is complete. El-Hassi and the divers make their way back to Derna’s Mina Port after the gruelling mission.
Though this is, without a doubt, his most difficult mission, it is one that El-Hassi believes in wholeheartedly, driven by his sense of humanity.
The whole team feels the weight of the task entrusted to them: to help the families finally get closure and lay their loved ones to rest.
“The cars we inspected today were empty,” El-Hassi said. “Tomorrow, if the waves and weather allow, we’ll check another spot.”
This story has been published in collaboration with Egab.