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Libya faces the aftermath of an unprecedented catastrophe

The massive displacement caused by Storm Daniel is heartbreaking. Thousands of people have sought refuge in public schools, while others fled affected cities in search of safety

People gather in front of a building affected by floods in Derna, eastern Libya, on September 16.Mostafa Alatrib

I have just returned from a harrowing visit to the cities affected by Storm Daniel, which swept through eastern Libya in the blink of an eye on September 10. I visited the most devastated areas: Al Bayda and Derna, the epicenter of the catastrophe. When I arrived in the Derna area, the air was charged with a mixture of hope and despair. The city affectionately known as “Jasmine City” had been ravaged by the relentless force of nature. Home to more than 100,000 people, nearly a third of its infrastructure had been decimated. And the statistics, while terrible, rarely reflect the human component. It’s the stories from the ground that really shake you.

Libya, a nation already battered by conflict, now has to cope with the aftermath of a catastrophe on a scale unprecedented in its history. As we visited the stricken cities and met with local authorities, the enormous needs faced by those affected in order to survive were evident.

They told us of the urgent need for clean water, the reopening of primary health care centers and schools, and mental health and psychosocial support services for survivors. We also delved into the harrowing details of the internally displaced, including children who have lost everything: their parents, their relatives, their homes, their schools, and their neighbors. Their psychological well-being is at stake. In addition, many children are being affected by the lack of essential services such as healthcare, schooling, and water supplies.

The massive displacement caused by this catastrophe is heartbreaking. Thousands of people have sought refuge in public schools, while many have fled to other Libyan cities in search of safety. World Health Organization (WHO) figures paint a bleak picture, with thousands dead and missing. The migrant community has also borne the brunt and suffered considerable losses. I have witnessed the devastating effects of the floods on children and families, many of whom are bearing a heavy psychological burden.

There I also met with Heba, a 15-year-old girl staying with her family in one of the shelters where UNICEF provides psychosocial services to survivors through recreational activities and counseling, among other forms of support. She was extremely distressed, had been unable to sleep for days, and found it difficult to socialize and play. She explained how she woke up in the middle of the night with water up to her neck in her room, located on the fourth floor of a building, and how she struggled with her siblings to reach the roof and safety. She was just grateful to be alive and wanted to go back to school soon.

Mothers who found shelter in schools told me stories of how they had to choose between saving their children or the older people in their home. They chose the younger ones because they represented hope for the future. One father told me how he had lifted three of his children onto the roof, braving the waters in the dark.

Beyond the obvious need for infrastructure, emotional and psychological reconstruction is essential. The story of girls like Heba, who have lost everything — homes, schools, neighbors — is a stark reminder of the intangible damage this disaster has left behind.

Children and families are in desperate need of shelter, clean water, medicines, and temporary care. So far, UNICEF has distributed 65 metric tons of relief items such as medicines, family hygiene kits, children’s winter clothing, School-in-a-Bag supplies and water purification tablets to prevent outbreaks of waterborne diseases. This remains a concern as cases of acute watery diarrhea have been reported among children. Restoring safe water supply chains is a priority. We are working together with health organizations to reinforce hospitals with essential drugs and supplies. Vaccination campaigns are being planned, for example, against potential cholera outbreaks.

UNICEF has also deployed mobile protection and psychosocial support teams to help children and their caregivers navigate through these harrowing experiences. Our protection team has been particularly active, reaching hundreds of children with psychosocial support and recreational activities.

As long as schools remain closed, the issue of education hangs in the balance. The focus over the next few weeks will be on working with the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR to provide temporary educational solutions, adopting a protection approach and coordinating with the World Food Program to deliver food rations. The medium-term focus is on restoring clinics, hospitals, and schools, repairing water and sanitation systems, and preventing disease.

Despite the horror, I am glad to have had the opportunity to witness the humanitarian response of the Libyan people and the international community to rescue and assist the affected population. The razed streets of Derna and Al Bayda echoed stories of mass destruction, but human resilience still prevailed.

To anyone reading this, I say that the people of Derna and the surrounding areas need your empathy, your support, and your voice. Together, let’s rebuild the Jasmine City and ensure a brighter future for its children. Every bit of help, no matter how small, can make a big difference.

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