We survived ISIS and will make it through this, say Libya flood survivors in Derna

Grief turns to anger as residents protest outside the city's grand mosque

Meftah Mohamed, who survived the storm that hit Libya, protests outside Al Sahaba mosque against the government in Derna, Libya, on Monday. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Derna survived a civil war after the Arab uprisings of 2011. A few years later, it endured a siege by ISIS and the horrors of extremism.

Now, residents say the city will make it through the aftermath of the flood that has killed thousands of people and swept neighbourhoods away.

“Derna survived all of that and it will go on to survive this flood,” elderly Derna resident Mohammed Al Khaled told The National, a week after the Storm Daniel left a trail of death and destruction.

Two dams collapsed during rains caused by Storm Daniel, sending a wall of water gushing through the city last week.

Many Libyans say that reality has begun to sink in, as any hopes of finding their lost loved ones alive have vanished.

Search and rescue operations have become recovery missions a week after the storm and international teams realised that efforts to find more survivors were in vain.

Rescuers from the UAE, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, France, Italy and Spain were all week working with their Libyan colleagues, using dogs and bulldozers.

Many dozens of volunteers from neighbouring countries and from cities such as Tripoli showed up in lorries loaded with canned food and blankets.

“We came here with hope of finding at least a few survivors, but when we arrived at the scene it was very clear to us that what we’re witnessing was beyond what we’ve encountered in any of our previous rescue missions,” Mohammed Ramadan, a member of the Algerian emergency and response team, told The National.

The death toll depends on who is counting. What is known is that thousands are dead and thousands more remain missing.

Officials using different methods have given varying figures. The former mayor estimates more than 20,000 people are lost.

The World Health Organisation has confirmed 3,922 deaths.

Local NGOs tell The National they believe they have recovered at least 11,000 bodies, most of which have now been buried in mass graves after fear of disease and because as yet there is no workable way of identifying the bodies and allowing the families to reclaim them.

‘Derna will never be the same again’

Derna was a vibrant city on the Mediterranean Sea. To reach the city, visitors would take the one mountainous road that connects it with the rest of Libya.

Once visitors reached the end of that road, they would have to take a bridge over the valley that separates the city.

Close by, two dams built in the 1970s by Yugoslavia help to kept the water at bay.

The bridge connected directly to the corniche area that had a main road for the entire coastline.

There, most of Derna's middle-class residents lived in apartment blocks, while the poor built mudhouses inland in the city on the slopes of the valley.

On Sunday, September 10, residents were warned of heavy rain and storms and the eastern government shut down four oilfields as a precaution.

Many residents only realised the danger too late, when they were awoken by the force of Storm Daniel that gathered pace and began surging water from the sea into their neighbourhoods at dawn.

The National reports from Derna in Libya – video

The National reports from Derna in Libya

The National reports from Derna in Libya

“I was sleeping with my son in our apartment on the fourth floor of our apartment building,” Mohammed Hassan told The National.

“Thankfully, our building is protected since we have two other buildings between us and the shore.

“As soon as we looked down from our windows, it was a scene from every disaster movie. Unimaginable scenes of people just fighting to stay above the waters rushing in.

“We could hear people screaming prayers first but then that just turned into bloodshot screams of despair.”

Hundreds protest

Grief among residents of Derna quickly turned into anger at authorities on Monday.

Hundreds of survivors gathered outside the city's grand mosque that partially survived the storm and chanted slogans against the Libyan House of Representatives and its Speaker, Aguila Saleh.

“We call for a speedy investigation and legal action against those responsible for this disaster,” read a statement released by the protesters in Derna on Monday.

“We also demand a full investigation from the UN office in Derna and the start of the city's reconstruction, plus compensation for affected residents.”

Politicians and analysts said the upheaval in Libya since 2011, when long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi was deposed and murdered, forced the rival governments to delay the maintenance of infrastructure while they continued political infighting.

The country has since been divided between rival administrations: one in the west backed by armed groups and militias; and the second in the east allied with the Libyan National Army, which is commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The dams, Abu Mansour and Derna, were built in the 1970s above the valley named Wadi Derna, which divides the city.

Abu Mansour, 14km from the city, was 74 metres tall and could hold up to 22.5 million cubic metres of water.

The Derna dam, also known as Belad, was much closer to the city and could hold 1.5 million cubic metres.

Devasation in the Libyan coastal city of Derna due to flash flooding when two dams burst unleashing torrents of water that destroyed bridges and swept away entire neighbourhoods. AFP

The dams were built from clay, rocks and earth, and were used to protect Derna city from flash floods, which are not uncommon.

Water collected behind the dams was used to irrigate crops downstream, where dozens of farmers make their living growing crops of fruit and vegetables.

A report by Libya’s state-run audit agency in 2021 said the two dams had not been maintained, despite the allocation of more than $2 million for much-needed work in 2012 and again in 2013.

No work was done in the area and authorities blamed the Ministry of Works and Natural Resources for failing to cancel the contracts and award them to others.

Before Storm Daniel, authorities also gave contradicting messages. They imposed a curfew in Derna and other areas in the east.

The municipality of Derna published statements on its website urging residents to evacuate the coastal areas for fear of a surge from the sea.

But many residents told The National they also received text messages on their phones urging them not to leave their homes hours before disaster struck.

“We are used to so much mismanagement in Libya, but especially here in our city,” Abdelaziz Al Sheri said.

“But honestly, I believe the government was never going to be prepared to anticipate this disaster that was fated to hit our city.

“We’re still in shock and all we can say this is God’s will.”

Disease next challenge

The only functioning dirt roads leading into Derna’s corniche have been cordoned off by checkpoints manned by the Libyan National Army since the floods.

The goal, the army told The National, was to allow only aid workers and rescue missions.

In and around the areas closer to the collapsed buildings near the overflown valley, emergency response team members in white hazardous material suits sprayed disinfectant mist from tanks on their backs or mounted on their pickups.

“We are sanitising the streets, mosques, shelters, where displaced people are staying, mortuary refrigerators, the blighted streets and the bodies,” Akbar Al Qatani, head of the environment directorate in Benghazi, told Reuters.

Officials warned on Monday that a disease outbreak in Libya's north-east could create “a second devastating crisis” as diarrhoea spread among those who drank contaminated water.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (Unsmil) said it was particularly concerned about water contamination.

“Both local officials, aid agencies and the WHO team are concerned about the risk of disease outbreak, particularly from contaminated water and the lack of sanitation,” it said.

“The team continues to work to prevent diseases from taking hold and causing a second devastating crisis in the area.”

In response to the coming challenge, the Health Minister from Libya's eastern government, Othman Abduljalil, said his ministry had begun a vaccination programme “against diseases that usually occur after disasters such as this one”.

“We’re used to one disaster after another, and we’ll get through this together,” Hassan Humaid, a resident of Tripoli who drove all the way to Derna as a volunteer, told The National.

“All we ask is that the world does not forget Libya. We have faith that we will rise above this even if hope seems bleak right now.”

Updated: September 19, 2023, 1:26 PM