When Raed Qazmouz and his team of Palestinian first responders finally reached Derna last week, he was stunned by the sheer scale of disaster in Libya’s flooded Mediterranean city.
The 41-year-old lieutenant colonel is the head of the Palestinian International Cooperation Agency (PICA) rescue team, whose 35 members had completed their week-long mission in Derna on Thursday and were on their way back to the occupied West Bank.
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“The devastation is beyond all imagination,” he said, describing buildings uprooted from their foundations and swept out to sea.
This was not Qazmouz’s first mission, as he led first response missions to Pakistan after major floods in 2022, and to Turkey after the earthquakes in February. But the shock felt in Derna by him and his team – which included 22 water search-and-rescue specialists – was palpable.
“The people here told us Derna was the most beautiful city in Libya,” he said.
“Today, you walk through it and see nothing but mud, silt, and demolished houses. The smell of corpses is everywhere, the smell of death from the sea, where thousands of decomposed corpses have been swept away.”
‘We answer the call’
That a Palestinian mission had arrived to help disaster-stricken Libyans came as a surprise to many, and this team of first responders had to fight harder than others to even be able to get out of the occupied West Bank and to an international airport in Jordan.
Yet they persevered, Qazmouz said, because of a belief in international humanitarian principles and the necessity of providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, regardless of gender, religion, or race.
“When we hear a call for help from anyone, we answer the call, in spite of the suffering we experience as Palestinians living under Israeli occupation,” he said.
Derna and other eastern Libyan cities were struck by Storm Daniel on September 10. The heavy rains caused the collapse of two neglected dams, resulting in a wall of an estimated 30 million cubic metres (8 billion gallons) of water bombing through Derna, destroying entire neighbourhoods.
A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said fatalities are in the thousands, but did not give a specific toll since the tally is still unclear. The World Health Organization says a total of 3,958 deaths have been registered.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says at least 9,000 people are still missing. Estimates are that tens of thousands of the city’s 100,000 people have been displaced.
“An estimated 43,059 individuals have been displaced by the floods in northeastern Libya,” the International Organization for Migration said on Thursday, adding that a “lack of water supply is reportedly driving many displaced out of Derna”.
The PICA mission has worked in 56 countries across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.
Bringing tonnes of aid to Libya
The PICA purchased more than 22 tonnes of food and humanitarian aid and presented it to the Libyan authorities, Imad al-Zuhairi, assistant minister of foreign affairs and director general of the PICA, who was with the mission, told Al Jazeera.
“[D]espite the occupation, Palestine is capable of playing its role on the international stage,” he said. “Our team’s mission stems from us being able to relate closely to the suffering of others, given that we live under Israeli occupation and its policies.”
Qazmouz said their travel was hindered by the lack of direct flights and the team was delayed by a few days given that their overall travel time was more than 30 hours. But they were glad to have made it in the end.
“If we had an airport or port, we could have been there in a few hours,” he said, adding that other international teams were able to go directly to their airports with all their equipment and supplies.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are banned by Israel from using any of its airports and have to cross the Israeli-controlled land border with Jordan, drive to the capital Amman, and fly out of the Queen Alia International Airport.
‘Whole families, wiped from civil registry’
Upon their arrival, the team set up two shifts to work from 7am to 7pm. “We wanted to work overnight, but search-and-rescue operations stopped completely at night,” Qazmouz said.
He described tragic scenes of people searching for victims, regardless of whether they were alive or dead, adding that he had never seen such scenes of destruction, even in Turkey in the aftermath of February’s earthquakes.
“I saw a completely destroyed city,” he said. “I saw cars on the roofs of buildings, bodies on the ground, and bodies coming out of the sea.”
Qazmouz said the city felt eerie, with entire families dead, “erased from the civil registry”.
“Walking around Derna, you see death everywhere,” he said. “We found victims in neighbourhoods they didn’t live in, swept up by the floods, buried underground or swept out to sea.”
Some bodies had been in the water so long, Qazmouz went on to say, it was difficult to identify the victims.
“We gave everything we could,” he said. “Hopefully, we were part of alleviating some effects of this disaster on the afflicted Libyan people.”