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 serious than in the worst moments of the war.” The center of the fourth most populated city in the country, more than 100,000 inhabitants before Storm Daniel, appears to have suffered a bombing in the last few hours. What was 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 the apocalyptic vision, groups of volunteers dressed in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and disposable gowns continue searching for survivors, but only find corpses.
A week ago, Storm Daniel crossed the Mediterranean and, concentrated in the form of a tornado, hit the northeastern area of Libya. The unprecedented volume of rain caused two dams in the city of Derna, with known and reported deficiencies in their maintenance, to collapse last 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 the center of Derna, on Friday, September 15, 2023, after the flood.RICARDO GARCIA VILANOVA
“This afternoon alone we have recovered the bodies of three and a half people. Half of it belonged to a ten-year-old girl,” explains Ahmed Aljaer with a lost look. The young man is referring to the small corner of the beach where we are, where dozens of civilians from all over Libya, helped by an excavator, are searching for bodies among an amalgamation of rocks, reeds and all kinds of objects dragged by the flood. Someone shouts and, immediately, a human chain is formed that carries the black bag to an ambulance. “We have only found one person alive for two days,” laments Aljaer, who has come from Tripoli, capital of the half of Libya governed by an Executive supported by the United Nations. Derna is located in the eastern part, 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 have moved to this region 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.
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“We have removed dead children and adults from cars, from houses, from basements, from under rubble. We do it so that his 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 advances, at a fast pace, with his thirteen-year-old son. Each one carries a bag with blankets from the international humanitarian aid that is beginning to arrive. They stop before the mountain of stones that once was his house. He is located at ground zero of the inverted tsunami, as the flood that Derna suffered is already becoming known. The collapse of 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 panorama with their cell phones without believing that they are observing a real Armageddon. Ayoub’s father and one of his nephews slept 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 them to live in the same block or in nearby homes.
“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 as he cries, pointing to the sky with his hands. “The sea has carried the dead to Tobruk,” he bellows desperately. One hundred and seventy kilometers separate Tobruk and Derna. When he can no longer find words of relief, he continues on the way to his daughter’s house, where he now lives with his wife and his son. There are no official figures for the number of people who have been left homeless, but organizations present in the area speak of several tens of thousands.
Risk of a cholera outbreak
A few meters away, several men are working to drain the water concentrated 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 accumulate in the city and its surroundings. In fact, most rescue workers wear masks to avoid the strong smell of decomposition, 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 who have arrived from countries such as Turkey, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates or Spain stand out for their uniforms.
One of them is Paco Alarcón Parra, member of Firefighters Without Borders. “What we can do at this point is recover bodies because there are no signs of life,” he explains to his colleagues, from different cities in Spain. Although they were ready to travel a few hours after the Derna flood became known, the bureaucratic obstacles to traveling to Libya did not allow them to do so until Thursday night, when the Repsol company 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 of Firefighters Without Borders. “We know that with every hour that passes we have less chance of saving anyone,” he concludes helplessly.
To get to Derna from Susa, the city where the flight from Madrid landed, you have to take a tortuous journey along dirt roads. The storm tore away fragments of the highway that connected both cities along the coast, so a trip of less than an hour now requires more than three. A transfer that these journalists have made with the military escort that the Libyan Government has assigned to them to accompany them throughout their stay.
“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. My uncle and my grandfather died,” says Bilab next to the mosque, from whose roofs hang branches, blankets and toys. Bilab still does not understand how his building survived and, thanks to it, he is still alive.
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