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Q&A: Tracking down Libya’s post-flood missing

‘There were names of people I knew, friends of my family, distant relatives.’ 

Abdul Salam Ibrahim Al-Qadi, 43 years old, is pictured jumping over rubble inside of a room that has been destroyed. He is looking inside his home for his father and brother who are missing after the deadly floods in Derna, Libya, 28 September 2023. Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters
Abdul al-Qadi, 43, searches his ruined Derna home for his missing father and brother after the catastrophic September floods in northeastern Libya.

The days and weeks since September’s catastrophic flooding in northeast Libya have been marked by anxiety and frustration for survivors, many of whom are still struggling to figure out what happened, why, and where their loved ones are.

The death toll is estimated to be more than 4,000, but no one really knows how many died as thousands more are reported missing. This chaos has spurred many Libyans into action, defying political divisions to donate their money, resources, and time

In the early hours of 11 September, shortly after the storm hit and news began to spread of how bad it was, Nour Moman, a data specialist from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, created a website to keep track of the people who had gone missing in the disaster.

As the scale of the destruction — and the number of missing people — grew, word of the website, Mafqood (“missing” in Arabic), spread. Some 600 names came in within the first few hours of operation, and more than 3,700 names have now been reported on the site, which allows people to input information about their loved ones. Authorities and the Red Crescent can use the database to crosscheck with people who are found, either dead or alive. It is then up to the authorities to inform relatives about their fate; Mafqood just gathers information.

Moman and a team of volunteers received some support from a local NGO at the start of the project, including some donated tablets and phones, but are for the most part independent, reliant on their own time and resources. That includes answering phones to input data for people and collecting information on the ground in places like Derna, the city hit hardest by the disaster.

The New Humanitarian spoke with Moman about why she does this work, the role of data in a humanitarian crisis, and the mental toll of documenting the missing. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: How did Mafqood begin?

Nour Moman: I created Mafqood in light of the horrific crisis that happened in eastern Libya this September. It was the only platform registering missing people in the early hours, although others were created a few days later.

At first, it was a simple Google form, but within the first few hours, between 8am and 12pm on 11 September, families had reported more than 600 people as missing. The form completely crashed [and we had to switch to other tools that are the basis of the current website].

I got in touch with the Red Crescent and various authorities and organisations who work with forensics and missing people for guidance and support [on the website, on data protection standards, and other issues], and to tell them what we were doing. 

Our first volunteers were Libyans in the country or abroad who were specialists in various fields, including data and media, and later we recruited volunteers who were already on the ground from cities and villages that were impacted. 

I had some past experience in documenting missing persons from Libya’s war in 2011. I was one of a team of young volunteers who visited hospitals in August and September 2011 [a time of intense fighting following a NATO-led intervention against then-leader Muammar Gaddafi], to register the injured. We found that many young people hadn’t told their parents that they left home to fight, and they didn’t have SIM cards or phones to tell them.

Back then, we worked with a centre for missing people in [the northwest Libya city of] Misrata and managed to connect 84 people to their families. 

The New Humanitarian: What challenges have you come across while collecting data on the missing? 

Moman: The main challenge is a lack of computer literacy from the families of victims and missing people. They had trouble completing the form on our website, so we had to call each person to make sure the information was correct. [The website asks for numerous details in addition to name, address, and other basic information, including the clothing the missing person was last seen wearing, and any identifying marks or scars]. 

Another challenge has been raising awareness about the importance of documentation. It’s important for people to understand that even if they believe their relative has passed away, they are still considered missing until a death certificate is issued, or if they are buried in a marked grave. All of the information we are collecting can be useful if a person is missing, even for potential DNA matches in the future. 

People fled the area as soon as the floods hit, and we still just don’t know where many people are. Some may be alive, but in hospitals without any ID. Some are injured. Some people — lots of people — lost their phones, so they have been unreachable.

It has been important to stress to families that we need as much information as possible, even if they believe their relatives are dead.

It has also been challenging to be a woman doing this work. I have managed people in past jobs, and I’m used to being the youngest person in the room or the only woman in the room. But over the past weeks, I have been meeting with military officials to find out what is happening on the ground and their processes for identifying missing people. 

At first, it was very difficult for them to feel comfortable with my presence as a woman in that room.

The New Humanitarian: This work sounds emotionally challenging. How have you and your team coped with the potentially overwhelming nature of the disaster and your work?

Moman: It has been extremely overwhelming, and I didn't expect it to have such an effect on me. 

The first hours were the hardest because I didn’t realise how bad the situation was. In the first three hours [after setting up Mafqood], the logs of reported missing people started coming in… There were names of people I knew, friends of my family, distant relatives. That was the most devastating part. 

I was in complete shock… I didn’t know what to do. I had to work really fast to try to keep going, especially emotionally. I couldn’t sleep or eat.

It took five days until the volunteers, as a team, began to realise that we needed guidance from specialists. So we are now working with volunteer mental health professionals to guide us through this. They have given us advice on taking breaks and rotating the work, especially for those who are in direct communication with victims’ families, because they are hearing the stories, the devastating stories. It’s very, very difficult, and we are still struggling.  

We have been in touch with search-and-rescue teams and medical crews, and hearing from them was really difficult because they were showing us actual images of what was happening, telling us stories. The state of the bodies after days under the rubble… It's extremely devastating. 

It's just a lot of injustice and a lot of harm and a lot of pain.

The New Humanitarian: The purpose of Mafqood is to help people locate missing loved ones, whether they are alive or dead. Are there any stories of people being reunited that stand out to you?

Moman: There have been a lot of emotional stories of people who have been found alive. I can’t share most of them because of privacy concerns [Moman also cannot share the numbers of people who have been located using the database because that information is restricted to officials].

One father couldn’t find his young children, and he registered their information with Mafqood. The authorities were able to locate them, and we later called to check on him. They survived and were reunited. 

There have been some hard cases. One person who called us was a minor. She had saved some of her siblings but witnessed the water take her parents and her newborn baby brother. 

The New Humanitarian: In the absence of a quick and coordinated government response, many Libyans have felt pushed to act on their own. This isn’t just an issue in Libya. What advice would you offer to other people in that situation who are looking to provide meaningful support during a humanitarian crisis? 

Moman: Unfortunately, parts of our government didn’t just fail to support us, they also created deliberate obstacles. 

My advice would be to make sure you are safe. When the pressure is high, know that it is because your work matters. Right now, I’m trying to work with government bodies to train them, so we can make sure this process is completed until the very end and that the families of the missing are not forgotten.

Additional reporting and editing by Annie Slemrod.

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