MISRATA, Libya – Hundreds of corpses of Islamic State fighters have lain stored for the past year in a row of refrigerated containers in the Libyan city of Misrata awaiting a final decision on their fate.
"The temperature must be kept at between minus18 and minus 20 (Celsius, 0.4 to minus 4 Fahrenheit) for the bodies to remain conserved," said Ali Tuwaileb at a high security anti-organised crime complex in the city.
Around 700 bodies have been housed at the improvised morgue ever since IS jihadists were expelled in December 2016 from the coastal city of Sirte that had been their bastion in Libya.
Two old stretchers under an improvised tent, set up in front of the containers, serve as a laboratory for a forensic doctor.
"As you can see, we don't have the means. This is where we took samples for DNA tests and where we photographed the corpses," said Tuwaileb, who is in charge of the facility.
Due to the lack of resources, several hundred other IS corpses have been abandoned under the rubble in Sirte or in makeshift cemeteries dug by the jihadists.
In the wake of the battle during which US-led coalition air strikes backed Libyan security forces, decaying bodies on the streets of Sirte gave rise to fears of epidemic.
In a comment after an August visit that drew strong criticism, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the country could one day become a magnet for tourists and investors once it can "clear the dead bodies away." According to Tuwaileb's estimate, between 1,500 and 2,000 jihadists were buried in the Mediterranean city.
"We don't have enough fridges, or we would have exhumed all the bodies," said the Libyan official, who pointed out that the containers were loaned by private companies.
Out of the seven refrigerated containers in Misrata, three have broken down. "We've had to redistribute the bodies among the fridges that still work," said Tuwaileb.
But he said it has been a struggle, especially during the North African summer and constant power cuts. "So a backup has to be ready and we have to refuel it regularly," he said.
Bags smudged with blood and mud
Opening one of the containers released a thick cloud of vapour that reeked of dead bodies and expanded on contact with the warm air outside.
Inside, white body bags smudged with blood and mud lay on metal shelves.
"The bags are numbered and classified. Each body has its own file, DNA sample... documents or other signs collected with each body," said Tuwaileb.
In January, 60 more bodies were added to the collection, of jihadists killed in air strikes south of Sirte in which Washington said its stealth B-2 bombers fired some 100 laser-guided missiles.
Tuwaileb said all the files have been transferred to the prosecutor general's office in Tripoli to decide if and where the bodies are to be buried. Based on documents found on the bodies, most the dead jihadists came from Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan, with some from Libya, but no families have come to Misrata to claim them.
"We don't know if countries have contacted the prosecutor general to recover the bodies of their nationals, but as far as we're concerned nobody's come here to try to identify the bodies," said Tuwaileb.
The prosecutor's office, contacted several times by AFP, declined to comment on the case.
"In the meantime, the bodies will stay here. The problem is that some of the companies who lent out the refrigerated containers want them back," he said.
"Every time I tell them they can take the fridges if they want, but with the contents."