Apocalypse in Derna

Kamel Abdallah , Thursday 21 Sep 2023

Thousands of dead, wounded, missing, and displaced barely begin to speak of the scale of the humanitarian tragedy that Storm Daniel left in its wake in Derna and other parts of eastern Libya last week.

Apocalypse in Derna
Libyans demonstrate outside the surviving Al-Sahaba Mosque in Derna against their government s neglect to the two dams which collapsed during the Daniel Storm (photo: AFP)


As though the country has not suffered enough from a decade of division, civil strife and security breakdown, combined with institutional breakdown, the infrastructure dilapidated by years of neglect redoubled the magnitude of the damage and hampered search and rescue operations, with the result that the casualty toll was much higher than it might otherwise have been .

The storm that swooped down from the Mediterranean and raged through northeastern Libya for three days was at its most intense on Sunday and Monday, 10 and 11 September. Large stretches of the Benghazi plain and Jebel Akhdar were ravaged by torrential floods, which submerged entire towns and villages.

The Libyan authorities, initially confident they could handle the situation, soon found themselves overwhelmed and forced to appeal for outside assistance to reach the victims whose cries for help echoed through social networking sites, which were often the only means of communication left to them after the roads and power lines were cut off.

Other factors contributed to aggravating the disaster. Although meteorological reports warned of the storm three days before it hit, experts predicted that it would centre on Benghazi and areas to the west of that city.

Authorities therefore declared a state of alert and focused their preparations there while many of the areas actually struck were not sufficiently prepared. In addition, institutional division caused needless delays and complications in the emergency response and, at another level, discord and confusion quickly surfaced in the organisation of relief and search and rescue assistance.

After hitting Benghazi city, Storm Daniel immediately turned eastwards towards the Benghazi plain and Jebel Akhdar. As it wreaked its wrath on life and property, officials from rival governments in eastern and western Libya rushed to help the people in the afflicted areas.

But the most remarkable response came from the grassroots sectors from across the country in the form of a massive outpouring of sympathy and solidarity. The catastrophe put paid to the politicians’ claims that the spirit of national unity had been killed off by years of strife and political division.

The flooding in Derna displaced 145 families from the city centre and damaged around 1,600 buildings of which 891 were totally destroyed, 211 partially destroyed, and 398 submerged in mud. The city had 6,142 buildings before the storm struck, submerging an estimated six square kilometres, according to the relief team formed by the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU).

Because of the institutional bifurcation and multiplicity of agencies involved in relief operations, numerous and conflicting figures have been given on the casualty toll. In general, more than 5,000 people are dead or missing as a result of the storm. Around 4,000 have been buried after their identities were verified.

Search and rescue operations are still in progress, according to official agencies, whether from the Tobruk-based government formed by the House of Representatives, the Tripoli-based GNU, the UN, or the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Entire families were lost in the floods. Judge Marwan Al-Tashani, the head of the Libyan Judges Organisation, posted on Facebook that more than a hundred members of his extended family died in the floods in Derna. He attached a list of the victims from his family who have been identified so far.

Other survivors, via their social networking sites, relate harrowing stories of how they escaped floods that claimed the lives of loved ones. We read of some survivors, swept off by the torrents from upper story buildings and barely managing to cling to some floating debris until it carried them to dry land.

One person found himself on the roof of a car being carried off towards the sea, and only managed to save himself when the car approached a stationary object he managed to leap onto and, from there, scramble to safety.

In a meeting hosted by eastern Libyan officials of international rescue teams that had come to assist in the search and rescue operations, an officer from the Egyptian team related that he saw dozens of families trying in vain to escape their cars as they were being swept into the sea at the port of Derna.

It is unclear how these victims lost to the sea will be recovered, although the Mediterranean continues to wash ashore bodies, estimated to be in the thousands, according to local authorities and international relief organisations. Meanwhile, the organisations complain of a lack of sufficient number of shrouds and other materials needed to prepare the dead for burial.

The heavy rains and flooding have also turned the cemeteries in Derna into large pools of mud, preventing burial. Authorities were therefore forced to bury the victims in mass graves in the mountainous areas south of the stricken city. The chilling scenes of this documented by television cameras and activists on social media platforms stunned Libyan viewers unlike anything they had seen before.

Despite the violent shock, Libyans spontaneously acted as one while they leaped to help their fellow citizens in Derna and other stricken areas. As soon as possible, aid and relief convoys from towns and villages across the country set off towards northeastern Libya in tandem with the air bridges set up by Libya’s neighbours and other friendly nations.

In the course of a week, more than 40 military cargo planes carrying search and rescue teams, equipment and relief supplies set off from Egypt, Turkey, the UAE, Russia, Germany, Malta, Spain, France, Romania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Palestine, Kuwait, Iraq, Italy, Jordan and the EU to Benina Airport in Benghazi and Al-Abraq Airport in Jebel Akhdar.

Unfortunately, the political divide in Libya held up the arrival of international support to the affected areas. Initially, Libya’s rival governments thought they could cope with the disaster, but public pressure and the sheer scale of loss forced the Presidential Council to declare a state of emergency in the flood-ravaged areas and appeal to the UN and the international community for urgent humanitarian assistance.

Waves of displaced families in need of shelter have affected other areas in eastern Libya, placing pressures on available housing and other facilities and services. Schools had to cancel studies for ten days in order to serve as emergency housing.

Derna, situated on the Mediterranean coast at the eastern foot of the Jebel Akhdar, is the second main urban centre in eastern Libya. Inhabited by families from the western province of Tripolitania (home to Tripoli, Misrata, Zliten, Zawiya, Gharyan, Tajoura and Souk Al-Jumaa) and the eastern tribes of the Obeidat, Murabitin and Ashraf in Cyrenaica, it has long been a focal point of political tension.

These surfaced a few days before the storm hit when the scheduled municipal council elections had to be cancelled after some candidates threatened to destroy or drive out rival families if a certain candidate did not withdraw from the race.

Relief and reconstruction operations might aggravate tensions between rival factions and stakeholders in the country, especially in the east. Signs of this have already appeared following the House of Representatives’ approval of a 10 billion dinar ($ 2.3 billion) emergency fund and a committee to oversee it consisting of the governor of the Central Bank, a representative of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Speaker of the House Aguila Saleh as its head, all of whom have long been highly contentious figures in Libya.

At the same time, Ali Al-Qatrani, the deputy prime minister of the eastern based government, designated the Libyan National Army (LNA) Commander Field Marshal Haftar to supervise and ensure the security of the reconstruction operations in Derna.

Meanwhile, in the rival government in Tripoli in the west, the President of the Presidential Council Mohamed Al-Menfi, asked for international support for the Higher Finance Committee and urged the UN and the international community to take part in supervising the reconstruction of Derna to enhance transparency and reporting.

Some observers have suggested his purpose was to block local competition over the reconstruction, which could harm the operations. Numerous offers of reconstruction assistance have been forthcoming from international quarters in the East and West, with some offers amounting to more than a billion dollars.

Despite the early competition over reconstruction operations in Derna, Libyan authorities have yet to announce how they will provide housing for the displaced families, some of whom may soon be forced to find decent shelter elsewhere in the country unless the authorities act more quickly.

The full scale of the direct and indirect toll of Storm Daniel is still unclear and may be for some time. Libyans are still counting their human losses and dealing with the trauma. The material losses are another matter.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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