In a Syrian workshop far from Libya's devastated Derna, a lost family is mourned

Dam collapse on September 10 that killed at least 11,000 has affected communities across the region

Muhammad Al Qalaaji mourns the loss of his brother and his family who were all killed in the Libya disaster. Hasan Belal for The National
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In a grimy workshop in Damascus, Muhammad Al Qalaaji, 48, is grief-stricken as he stands in the dark, tearful at the sight of his late brother’s images on his mobile phone.

The now poignant photos are all that remain of Firas Al Qalaaji and his family of eight who were swept to their deaths in Derna, Libya, in a disaster that has seen parts of the city completely washed away.

For many in Syria who had witnessed over 10 years of war and a devastating earthquake in February that killed thousands, the events in Derna have touched them deeply.

"My brother Firas was my soulmate, he was the best of us, we spoke to him just before [the dam burst] they felt something was in the air, like it could be their time,” Muhammad told The National.

Majd Al Laham says the events in Derna have shocked everyone in Syria. Hasan Belal for The National

“He has gone to God, swept away by the water. My younger brother Shadi survived, by luck, by a miracle.”

Little was known about the fate of Firas and his family in the hours after the flood, as Muhammad and his seven siblings scoured the internet for news.

In the Kafr Souseh district in the Syrian capital, events in Libya felt close to home.

“We didn’t hear a peep, not even a rumour, and we were glued to the television, seeing the tremendous devastation wrought by the floods, we feared the worst,” Muhammad says.

The fatal flood wave

Their fears became a reality when Shadi, who lived in the same apartment block as Firas, called home. His voice was feeble and he was struggling from a hospital bed as he gave them the news that Firas and his family had succumbed in the floods caused by the dam collapse on September 10.

Rescuers and relatives of victims set up tents in front of collapsed buildings in Derna, Libya. AP

Muhammad takes a deep breath in the workshop as staff hammer away at water motors on the greasy floor.

“Shadi survived by chance, he was on the fourth floor, getting some documents when the fatal wave came. Firas’ house was on the ground floor, they never even had a chance.”

“When the building collapsed, a wall [fell] on Shadi and he was dragged in a powerful vortex, the walls just exploded on impact [with the water], he was shielded somehow and managed to survive.”

Muhammad and his relatives held a wake after the burial in the family’s ancestral home of Al Midan where hundreds of mourners came to send their condolences, too far away to lend direct assistance.

“All we knew was that there was heavy rain, and then an explosion. Firas spoke to us before, he had a feeling and gathered all his children, video calling my mother who is 83, to tell her, this right here is my family,” he says, describing the days before the disaster.

“It was no coincidence, we heard the city [Derna] just vanished.”

Muhammad still has a treasure trove of images of Firas just days before the disaster.

“Firas was popular and a clever mechanic. He had gone to Libya before the crisis, and made an excellent income, sending money home to his family. He wanted to come back to Damascus to see us. He’d been away for thirteen years. What am I to do now? He’s gone, with his whole family. It's a black day, a dark day. I don’t think a person can ever recover from such a loss.”

At the wake, the governor of Damascus attended, along with several notables, said Majd Al Laham, who also works with Muhammad.

“Literally everyone I know came to pay their condolences, the governor, religious clergy, sheikhs, friends, and even people who didn’t know the family directly. It’s something which has moved the whole country.”

The Qalaaji family holds a wake for Firas and his family in Damascus. Hasan Belal for The National

Muhammad’s shattered heart was consoled by his boss, Ihsan Al Bahra, who stood by him through the worst times.

“I've worked here for thirty years, as a chief mechanic, Mr Al Bahra was with me from the second the disaster struck."

The search for more missing Syrians goes on as the world tries to deal with the sheer magnitude of the disaster which has ripped Derna apart.

Updated: September 19, 2023, 1:19 PM