'Wherever you go, you find bodies,' say Libya flood rescuers after 11,000 die in Derna

UN says the country's two rival governments have joined forces to co-ordinate relief efforts as WHO releases emergency funds

People search in the rubble of a building in a flash flood-damaged area in Derna. AFP
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Teams searching through the devastation caused by the collapse of two dams in the Libyan city of Derna have compared the scene to a “horror movie”.

The dams collapsed on Monday, causing a huge flash flood that killed at least 11,300 people, according to a revised death toll from the Libyan Red Crescent.

At least 10,000 others are missing, the head of the aid group told the Associated Press on Thursday evening. The new death toll is more than double estimates given by officials from Libya's eastern administration.

At the UN, Libya’s ambassador Taher El-Sonni told reporters that he could not immediately confirm the toll.

“It’s a really high level of magnitude,” Mr El-Sonni said. “I’m afraid we will hear really large numbers, maybe even more than what has been confirmed so far.”

Aid workers have struggled to reach the Mediterranean city after the disaster washed away most access roads.

Those who managed to reach the city described devastation in its centre, with thousands still missing and more than 30,000 displaced.

“Bodies are everywhere, inside houses, in the streets, at sea. Wherever you go, you find dead men, women, and children,” Emad Al Falah, an aid worker from Benghazi, told AP from Derna. “Entire families were lost.”

Storm Daniel caused deadly flooding Sunday in many towns of eastern Libya, but the worst-hit was Derna.

Two dams in the mountains above the city collapsed, sending floodwaters roaring down the Wadi Derna and through the city centre, sweeping away entire city blocks.

As much as a quarter of the city has disappeared, emergency officials said.

The UN said on Thursday that Libya's two rival governments were working together to arrange relief efforts for victims.

"Both governments have reached out to the international community requesting services and help," Tauhid Pasha of the International Organisation for Migration, a UN agency, told BBC Radio 4.

"The Government of National Unity [western government] has extended its support to us and its request on behalf of the entire country and they are also co-ordinating with the government in the east.

"The challenge now is the international community responding accordingly to the needs and the requests of the governments."

The World Health Organisation has released $2 million in emergency funding for victims of the floods, its director general said on Thursday.

"The health needs of the survivors are becoming more urgent," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

In Derna, waves caused by flooding rose as high as seven metres, Yann Fridez, head of the delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya, told broadcaster France24.

Teacher Mohammed Derna said he, his family and neighbours rushed to the roof of their apartment building, stunned at the volume of water rushing by.

It reached the second story of many buildings, he said. They watched people below, including women and children being washed away.

“They were screaming ‘Help, help’,” he said from a field hospital in Derna. “It was like a Hollywood horror movie.”

Derna lies on a narrow coastal plain, under steep mountains. The only two usable roads from the south take a winding route through the mountains.

Collapsed bridges over the river split the city centre and have isolated the eastern parts of the city from the west, further hampering movement.

A crisis cell has now been established by the port and maritime authority to facilitate relief ships and retrieve the dead, many of whom were washed out to sea.

Ossama Ali, a spokesman for an ambulance centre in eastern Libya, said at least 5,100 deaths were recorded in Derna, along with around 100 others elsewhere in eastern Libya. More than 7,000 people in the city were injured.

The number of deaths is expected to increase since teams are still collecting bodies, AP reported. At least 9,000 people are missing, but that number could drop as communications are restored.

At least 30,000 people in Derna were displaced by the flooding, the UN’s International Organisation for Migration said.

The storm hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa and Marj. Rescuers retrieved at least 150 bodies on Wednesday from the sea off Bayda, bringing the death tally in the town to about 200.

The startling devastation pointed to the storm’s intensity, but also Libya’s vulnerability. The country is divided by rival governments, one in the east, the other in the west, and the result has been neglect of infrastructure in many areas.

Ahmed Abdalla, a survivor who joined the search-and-rescue effort, said they were putting bodies in the yard of a hospital before taking them for burial in mass graves at Derna’s sole intact cemetery.

“The situation is indescribable. Entire families dead in this disaster. Some were washed away to sea,” Mr Abdalla said.

Derna is 250km east of Benghazi, where international aid started to arrive on Tuesday.

Neighbouring Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Turkey, Italy and the UAE, sent rescue teams and aid. The UK and German governments sent assistance too, including blankets, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, tents, water filters and generators.

Authorities transferred hundreds of bodies to morgues in nearby towns. More than 300, including 84 Egyptians, were brought to the mortuary in the city of Tobruk, 169km east of Derna, the local medical centre reported.

The victims’ lists reflected how Libya, despite its turmoil, was always a magnet for workers from around the region because of its oil industry.

More than 70 of Derna’s dead hailed from a single southern Egyptian village, El Sharif. On Wednesday morning, hundreds attended a mass funeral in the village for 64 people.

Rabei Hanafy said his extended family lost 16 men in the flooding, 12 of whom were buried on Wednesday. Another funeral for four others was held in a town in the northern Nile Delta.

Among those killed in Libya was the family of Saleh Sariyeh, a Palestinian originally from Ain Al Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon who had lived in Derna for decades.

The 62-year-old, his wife and two daughters were all killed when their home in Derna was washed away, his nephew Mohammed Sariyeh said.

The four were buried in Derna. Because of continuing gun battles in the camp, the family there could not hold a gathering to receive condolences from friends and neighbours, teacher Mr Derna said.

The city, about 900km east of the capital, Tripoli, is controlled by the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Hafter, a powerful military commander allied with the eastern Libyan government.

The rival government in western Libya, based in Tripoli, is allied with other armed groups.

Derna was once a centre for extremist groups in the years of chaos that followed the Nato-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

Updated: September 15, 2023, 4:49 AM