ZUWARAH, LIBYA — Ibrahim al-Attoushi was looking for another body. Nearly every day, the dead washed ashore on this remote stretch of beach, migrants whose boats had capsized on their way to Europe. This morning there had been a report of one more.
Another body meant another unmarked grave in the city’s cemetery, where hundreds of migrants have already been buried. It meant another statistic to record in a thick white binder. But mostly, for Attoushi and several other volunteer aid workers, it meant another person to identify and another grieving family to track down.
In the shadow of Europe’s worst migration crisis in decades, teams like this are working on the shores of the Mediterranean and the Aegean to identify the dead. There is perhaps no job that more hauntingly captures the scale of the tragedy. More than 3,000 people have drowned trying to get to Europe so far this year.
On this humid fall morning, Attoushi scanned the beach, where the ebbing tide splashed over rocks and debris. He passed a life jacket, a cellphone, a shoe and then the cracked hull of a smuggler’s boat. This country’s shores had become a reliquary for those who had fled their homes for the dangerous sea crossing, tens of thousands of Africans, South Asians and Arabs.
Some of the victims Attoushi’s team finds look as though they are sleeping. Others hardly look human at all. This time, trudging along the coast, the team was hoping for a body that offered any kind of clue. It could be a tattoo in Bengali script or a phone with a Nigerian SIM card in a pocket or a folded letter with a Syrian address. Anything that would help narrow their search to a country or a city or a house where a family waited.
“If we’re going to identify the person, we’re going to need something,” said Attoushi, his eyes on the tide.
Some migrants have become so acutely aware of the dangers at sea that they’ve begun writing relatives’ phone numbers on their life jackets. “If found, please call this number,” they say.
When families don’t hear from their loved ones journeying to Europe, they start tracing their routes from afar. They search Google for the name of the city from which their brother or sister last called. They send WhatsApp messages to those traveling with their son or daughter. Often, their search leads them to the Facebook page of the Zuwarah Red Crescent Society, the local chapter of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, located in this migrant-smuggling hub in western Libya.
Attoushi, a volunteer with the group, checks the messages every day, some of them in broken English.
“My brother was going from Libya and his boat was sink,” wrote a man from Pakistan. “Help us find my brother.”
“We are missing a young guy from Tunisia but we don’t know what he was wearing at the time,” said another message.
“Our sister is a 48-year-old Pakistan woman,” said another. “She was wearing a black gown with pink embroidery.”
Sometimes Attoushi is able to help people locate their relatives, sending a picture of the deceased as confirmation. He’ll then return to the graveyard, and on the wooden stick where there was only a number, he’ll write a name. More often, though, he can’t do anything.
Last month, from southeast Pakistan, Mubashar Ghuman sent Attoushi a picture of a cousin who had disappeared after his boat left Libya. Attoushi responded that the body had not been found, or at least recognized, in Zuwarah. Libya’s coastline is 1,100 miles long, and smugglers operate from nearly every city along it.
“We were shocked and depressed and so worried,” Ghuman said in an interview.
Twenty days later, Ghuman learned from the Pakistani Embassy in Rome that his cousin had made it to Italy but was in a coma after almost drowning. A month later, he died. His name was Mohammed Nawaz. He was an engineering student who had one son and one daughter.
The pain of identifying the dead is even more acute for those who lose their relatives to tragedy while traveling with them to Europe. Last month, after a Turkish police officer found the corpse of a 3-year-old boy on the shore, officials went searching for his father. Within hours, they found Abdullah Kurdi, a 40-year-old Syrian who had watched his two children slip from his grasp as their boat sank en route to Greece. His wife also drowned. The officers drove Kurdi to a yellow two-story morgue on the Turkish coast to identify the tiny corpse.
When Kurdi stepped outside, journalists were waiting. His son’s body, captured in a now-iconic photo, had become a symbol of the migrant crisis.
“Now all I want to do is lie in a grave next to my wife and children,” the weeping father said.
Only a fraction of deceased migrants are identified.
“In some of these countries, it’s hard enough to find resources to devote to the living migrants, let alone the dead,” said Frank Laczko, head of the Global Migration Data Analysis Center at the International Organization for Migration.
IOM is trying to strengthen programs to identify the dead and track down their families. But for now, it’s mostly an ad hoc process.
In Italy, a government forensics team based in Sicily compiles fingerprints, dental information and DNA samples. In Tunisia, Doctors Without Borders has offered a course in “dead body management.”
The challenge is even greater in war-torn Libya, where the teams charged with identifying migrants lack resources and training. Attoushi is a teacher who works with the Red Crescent in his spare time. The nearest forensic-science expert is many hours away.
“In the past we’ve had to wait for two days or more for the forensic scientist to come help us,” Attoushi said. “While we wait, the bodies pile up.”
On the recent September morning, Attoushi was accompanied by five other volunteers who wore Red Crescent baseball caps and smoked cigarettes while searching the coastline. After two hours, one of them called to Attoushi. A body had been found.
Attoushi inched toward it. It was missing its head. The skin had been bleached by the sun. Its clothes were missing.
The body was placed in a white plastic bag. It was taken to the city’s one-room morgue. Attoushi paused over the paper where he was supposed to record details of the deceased. There was nothing to write.
The team would normally wait for the forensic scientist to come from Tripoli. But his visit could be days away, and the body appeared to be a lost cause. The city’s authorities decided it should be buried right away.
Somewhere in the world, a family waited for news it would probably never receive.
Attoushi knew there would be more bodies like this one.
“The boats are still leaving from Libya,” he said, looking at the ground. “And this is where the tide takes the dead.”