MISRATA, Libya – Flies flickered through flashlight beams and a foul odor filled the air as the men tromped down the stairs to a basement. Their rubber boots splashed in shin-deep putrid water as they scanned the darkness for the bodies they'd come to retrieve.
"Here's one," someone said. Then another. And another. And another.
The men are all volunteers for the particularly morbid task of combing Misrata's war-shattered streets for the unburied dead from two months of urban combat.
Since the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi began in mid-February, Libya's third-largest city has endured some of the country's most violent battles. Gadhafi's troops have surrounded the coastal city from three sides and subjected it to daily shelling.
Residents-turned-rebels mobilized to fight back, pushing Gadhafi's troops from the city center in late April. That battle and others have killed hundreds — many of whom were buried hastily or merely left where they fell.
The group has found well over 100 bodies, including 44 charred corpses in one house, said Dr. Faraj Ahmed, a veterinarian.
The group's members are not trained to deal with the dead, and no one asked them to do it. Instead, the laborers, businessmen and university students organized themselves, driven by the desire to follow the Islamic obligation to respect the dead.
"In the end, we are all sons of Adam and need to be treated like sons of Adam," said Bashir Ibrahim. "We all deserve a proper burial."
The need for their job became obvious after rebels took the city center.
"When Gadhafi's forces pulled out, we found that they had left lots of bodies — 10 here, 25 there — and the dogs and the cats were eating them," Ibrahim said.
Since then, between 20 and 40 volunteers report for duty each day.
"It's whoever shows up," Ibrahim said. "It's not easy work and it smells bad. Some people come one day and never come back."
About 25 men assembled on a recent morning on Tripoli Street — Misrata's main commercial thoroughfare in prewar days — in front of a once-posh furniture store called Make Yourself at Home. Some wore blue smocks, others were in gray coveralls, but all sported gleaming white baseball caps and bright yellow rubber boots.
They knew bodies were in the basement, though not how many. Near the end of the battle for the strategic boulevard, rebels forced a group of government troops into the cellar, then rolled burning tires down the stairs to suffocate them.
"It's dark and the smell is really strong," Ibrahim told the men. "We have to move fast."
Some sprayed air freshener inside their paper face masks to cover the stench, then descended the stairs. They waded into the water and their flashlight beams danced around the room, revealing charred furniture and the four bodies face down in the water.
Like most of the bodies the team finds, all were soldiers from Gadhafi's regime. Among the more than 100 bodies the team has retrieved so far, only a handful were rebel fighters or civilians.
"When a fighter gets killed, his friends take his body away," said Fathi Salim, 43, one of the team members. He added that Gadhafi's troops didn't seem to do the same.
"Easy, easy," Ahmed said as the group rolled over one body to reveal a decomposed face. The man had a knife attached to his belt and bullets in a pocket.
The team spread a green body bag atop three tires to keep it dry, then lifted the body and put it inside, sprayed it with microbial soap, and zipped it up. Four men hauled it up the stairs, and the doctor trained his light on the next body.
Sometimes the team finds bodies hastily buried or in pieces. When they can, the men search the clothing on the corpse, sometimes finding stolen jewelry or foreign IDs — implying that the militants are mercenaries.
Ahmed said all bodies are treated the same — friend or foe.
"Gadhafi buys their souls," he said. "When the soul is gone, he has nothing left to do with them."
Misrata doctors estimate that more than 1,000 people have been killed in the city since the uprising began. The Gadhafi regime has released no information on how many troops it has lost.
The bodies go to a hospital, where they are identified if possible, Ahmed said. Then they are washed, prayed over and buried according to Islamic custom.
Ahmed guesses that the team has found less than half of the unclaimed dead in Misrata and will continue working "until the last body."
With businesslike efficiency, the group quickly found the bodies of seven Gadhafi fighters — some in full military uniform and combat boots, others in T-shirts and running shoes. One wore a white leather belt with metal studs.
All had been in the water for days.
"We've got another one!" Ahmed yelled.
The men eased it into a bag, sprayed it, zipped it up and carried it upstairs.
"After you," Ahmed told the others, pointing the way with his flashlight as his colleagues climbed the stairs toward the light.