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A Libyan soldier in Derna: ‘The situation is much more dire than in the worst moments of the war’

Volunteers are searching for survivors but only finding corpses. The biggest concern is the risk of a cholera outbreak

Floods Libya Derna DANA
Rescue teams remove a body in Derna on Friday, September 15, 2023.RICARDO GARCIA VILANOVA

Youssef, a soldier who has fought in the three conflicts that Libya has experienced since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, maintains without a shadow of a doubt: “The situation in Derna is much more dire than in the worst moments of the war.” The center of the fourth most populated city, with more than 100,000 inhabitants before Storm Daniel, appears to have suffered a bombing in the last few hours. What was once one of the strongholds of the Islamic State in 2016, has now been reduced to little more than rubble, cars turned into twisted iron and skeletons of buildings that can collapse at any moment. In the midst of this apocalyptic vision, groups of volunteers dressed in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and disposable gowns continue searching for survivors, but are only finding corpses.

A week ago, Storm Daniel crossed the Mediterranean and, concentrated in the form of a tornado, hit northeastern Libya. The unprecedented volume of rain caused two dams with known and reported maintenance deficiencies to burst on Saturday night, causing a flood that swept away dozens of buildings with many of their inhabitants inside. Since then, the death toll estimated by the Red Crescent has not stopped growing to the current 11,000. Sources from the eastern Libyan government raise it to 20,000.

An area in central Derna, Friday, September 15, 2023, after the flood.
An area in central Derna, Friday, September 15, 2023, after the flood.Ricardo García Vilanova

“This afternoon alone we have recovered the bodies of three and a half people. The half belonged to a 10-year-old girl,” explains Ahmed Aljaer with a lost look. The young man is alluding to the small corner of the beach where he is standing, and where dozens of civilians from all over Libya, helped by an excavator, are searching for bodies among an amalgam of rocks, reeds and all kinds of objects dragged by the flood. Someone shouts and, immediately, a human chain is formed that carries a black bag to an ambulance. “We have only found one person alive in two days,” laments Aljaer, who has come from Tripoli, capital of the half of Libya that is governed by an executive supported by the United Nations. Derna is located in the eastern region, under the control of Marshal Khalifa Hafter and his so-called National Liberation Army (ELN).

“We have once again felt like one people”

Libya is, since the fall of Gaddafi, a broken country, with two rival administrations that have now been forced to collaborate. “This catastrophe has made us feel like a single people again, above political divisions,” explains Aljaer, while remains of the victims continue to appear. Like him, dozens of Libyans from the western part of the country have come to help in any way they can. Many of them, with the names of their cities and towns painted on their cars to make their solidarity visible.

“We have removed dead children and adults from cars, from houses, from basements, from under rubble. We do it so that their family and friends can find peace,” says Ali Milad, a mechanic from Benghazi who, along with some acquaintances, traveled to Derna last Monday in his van. The level of destruction is so paralyzing that often all volunteers can do is listen to those who have lost everything, like Ayoub.

The man walks at a fast pace with his 13-year-old son. Each one carries a bag with blankets from the international humanitarian aid that is beginning to arrive. They stop before the pile of stones that once was their house. It is located at ground zero of the inverted tsunami, as the flood that Derna suffered is beginning to be known. The water from the two dams caused two giant waves that destroyed everything in their path through this channel that divided the city in two, including the eight bridges that connected it. The volunteers record the scene with their cell phones, expressions of disbelief on their faces. Ayoub’s father and one of his nephews were sleeping in one of the missing buildings. Many families have lost several of their members because in Libya, as in other Arab countries, it is common for families to live in the same apartment building or in nearby ones.

“The water reached the roof. We left the house and fled to the mountain to be up high. When I returned to look for my father, his house was gone. We found his body after searching for him for hours,” the man shouts and cries, pointing to the sky with his hands. “The sea has carried the dead to Tobruk,” he bellows desperately. Ninety miles separate the cities of Tobruk and Derna. When he can no longer find words to express his grief, he continues on his way to his daughter’s house, where he now lives with his wife and son. There are no official figures for the number of people who have been left homeless, but organizations working in the area speak of several tens of thousands.

Risk of a cholera outbreak

A few steps away, several men are working to drain the water in the basement of a building to avoid possible sources of disease. The government has warned of the risk of a cholera outbreak due to the number of human and other animal corpses that are accumulating in the city and its surroundings. In fact, most rescue workers wear masks to avoid the strong smell of decay, which quickly sticks to clothing and nostrils and is difficult to get rid of. Among the local rescuers, the groups of firefighters and first aid workers who arrived from Turkey, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and Spain stand out because of their uniforms.

One of these volunteers is Paco Alarcón Parra, a Spanish member of Firefighters Without Borders. “What we can do at this point is recover bodies because there are no signs of life,” he explains. Although he and his colleagues were ready to travel just a few hours after the Derna flooding made world news, the bureaucratic obstacles to traveling to Libya did not allow them to arrive until Thursday night, when energy company Repsol chartered a plane for their transfer. Among them is a team specialized in underwater rescues. After scanning the coast with drones, they identify the places where bodies are most likely to be found. “Although the sea continues to return corpses, it will be days until many of them emerge. And we must remember that they can appear dozens of kilometers from here,” laments Luis Enrique Utiel, head of the emergency intervention team at Firefighters Without Borders. “We know that with every hour that passes we have less of a chance of saving anyone,” he concludes helplessly.

“I lived on a second floor. First the first wave passed and we were saved. But then came the second, which surpassed the fourth floor in height. One building hit the next building and they all fell down. My uncle and my grandfather died,” says Bilab, standing next to the mosque, from whose roofs hang branches, blankets and toys. Bilab still does not understand how his building survived and how he is still alive.

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