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Libyan locals give ‘dignified end’ to unidentified refugee victims

For the Libyan coastal town of Zuwara, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Tunisian border, people smuggling — a lucrative and widespread business — is starting to leave its marks. Here, on the city’s 85-kilometer strip of beach, the large number of corpses of washed-ashore refugees, who were hoping to reach Europe for a better life, is becoming increasingly disturbing for the city’s locals.

 “People deserve a dignified end,” said one of Zuwara’s locals. Waled, who declined to reveal his real name for safety concerns, is the first person in the city to take care of the corpses that wash ashore. He can’t recount how many bodies he has witnessed thus far. “Too many,” he told Al-Monitor. Most of them are men between the ages of 20 and 35, from countries such as Sudan, Nigeria and Syria. It is impossible to estimate how many bodies he has buried; often, there are as many as two bodies per day, he said.

Waled, 27, studied to become a veterinarian in Tripoli but returned to Zuwara last year. He quickly realized that his skills were far more needed on the shores of Zuwara than with the city’s pets. Today, as soon as locals see a body that has washed ashore, they call Waled — everybody in the area knows about his work. He was taught forensic inspection while at university, and now he carefully takes care of the bodies. He identifies victims by taking their photos and gives them dignified ends by burying them; at the same time, he makes sure there isn’t any risk of contagious infections for him or the people who have been in contact with the bodies.

Most of the bodies that Waled encounters carry some sort of identification card. In desperate attempts to keep their loved ones informed, those making the crossing often write down their names and families’ contact details on the life vests. The identification process is important, but for those without identification cards it gets trickier. In Waled’s archive of bodies, he documents DNA samples and specific identifying information such as tattoos or birth marks, in addition to sex, estimated age and skin color. Family members of those missing contact Waled for information about a relative’s fate, upon which he compares his descriptions and photos of the bodies he encountered. Thanks to his efforts they sometimes have a grave to turn to. Today, there are two cemeteries in Zuwara; the original one is in central Zuwara, while the second one is 40 kilometers south of Zuwara. Volunteers who assist Waled dug out the graves.

This is high season for the people-smuggling business. At the end of August, a boat that left Zuwara with 400 people capsized in bad weather. Roughly 200 people are feared dead, adding to the already high toll of more than 2,300 people who have died at sea so far this year in their quest to reach Europe, according to estimates of the International Organization for Migration. Last year, the figure was 3,279. Many are African but others come from the Middle East; some are escaping the war in Syria and try crossing the sea for a better life in Europe. The people-smuggling networks in Libya are widespread, but the area around Zuwara has become a central point for the smugglers. The networks can operate fairly freely because of the country’s conflict, and today many boats leave from the Zuwara area.

The Libyan coast guard operating outside the city’s coastline cooperates with Waled. With two vessels they try to cover an area that reaches 70 kilometers out at sea from the Zuwara coastline, within which they usually face a boat with refugees once or twice a day. When they encounter a body at sea or on the shore, they inform Waled to make sure that someone is there when the body is brought into the harbor. But many of the roughly 25 men in the Zuwara coast guard have never received any training in how to deal with bodies. Yet, due to the high number of overcrowded boats and often dire weather conditions, sometimes they are transporting as many as 25 corpses at a time.

For the first time, sitting in a conference hall in the southern Tunisian harbor city of Zarzis during a training session with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Sept. 8, 15 members of Zuwara’s coast guard discussed the risk of infections. Their biggest concern is the lack of equipment and the risk of diseases when touching the bodies, which sometimes have been lying in the water or the sun for an extended period. The smell, as they describe it, is the worst. To improve their work, MSF provides them with protection gear including boots, gloves and facial masks. For their rescue operations, they receive life vests and advice from MSF on how to facilitate these missions. Even though it is a tough job, often requiring the coast guards themselves to pay for the ships’ fuel from their own pockets, there is no hesitation in their commitment. “We don’t need to ask why or where they are going,” said one of the coast guards with determination. “It’s my duty as a human to rescue you.”

Last week, Zuwara’s locals mobilized in a demonstration against the people-smuggling business. Protesters held signs that read “Stop Killing Children,” and a boat was painted with images of money and bodies to portray how they conceived the smuggling business. But the phenomenon is not new and demonstrations have been held since 2012. The smugglers are not from Zuwara, Waled said, but they are people who take advantage of the Libyan conflict in order to make money. Yet, Waled believes that these demonstrations will have a positive effect in the fight against these smuggling activities. People are tired of the situation and want to force them out.

By Christine Petré

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