With the progressive retreat of the waters, mud has become Derna’s worst enemy. In much of this city of 120,000 inhabitants in eastern Libya, mud remains knee-deep. Meanwhile, volunteers from all over the country, international firefighters and soldiers from Marshal Khalifa Hafter’s army, which controls this part of the country, are working to unearth rubble to recover the dead. The search at sea has focused these days on the port, the place where the flood dragged thousands of people after the storm caused by Storm Daniel collapsed two nearby dams. The balance of the rescuers at this point is devastating: 800 bodies recovered and only nine people found alive. There are no official figures, but estimates are around 20,000 victims, including dead and missing throughout the area.
An excavator tries to drag one of the four cars that have formed a column blocking a downtown street. Four men strive to make the task easier, moving earth aside with the help of hoes and their own hands. They put their arm up to the shoulder through the window to check that no one was trapped inside. The car emerges from the mountain of waste and is transported to a plain converted into a scrapyard. Rida, who does not want to give her last name, covers her face with an FFP2 mask, which the army has begun to distribute at ground zero of the catastrophe. “I am from Misrata. I came to help as soon as I found out what happened. We stopped clearing debris only to sleep. There is no rest. Then, we look around and see everything we have left,” she explains while still looking inside the car.
Derna has gone from being a ghostly city, in which there were only groups of volunteers, military and international firefighters, to a kind of battlefield full of people trying to support its reconstruction. Including those who have lost everything. Abdelhamid stands barefoot in the doorway of his house, covered in mud up to his eyebrows. He can barely make it to the living room, where a construction cart blocks the way to the bedrooms. “The water reached the ceiling. My wife, my daughters and I were saved because we went up to the third floor and the building resisted. But most of our neighbors are dead,” he explains before joining the group that, in one day, has taken more than 10 cars off the road.
A few meters away, Amrajeh Gadur walks with difficulty, leaning on a crutch. “When the flood started we ran to the roof. There we realized that my little sister was not there. “We had to wait for the waters to subside and then we found her body in the kitchen.” The boy asks a group of men what he can contribute. There is more need to be useful than means to be useful.
“We have recovered 800 bodies and only nine people alive in the port,” explains Commander Mohaned Alshahiebi, responsible for coordinating the search at sea, one of the main scenes of this humanitarian tragedy. Some of the soldiers who have participated in collecting the deceased on the coast admit that their work is becoming more and more complex. Thanks to the tracking carried out by helicopters and army drones, corpses are located in the most inaccessible places on the coast, but their state of decomposition makes the task difficult.
It is the military who are directing debris removal work to begin the reconstruction of the nine bridges that were washed away by the flood and that connected the western and eastern parts of the city, divided in two by the river of the same name. . It is still unknown when electricity, running water and sanitation, already deficient before the catastrophe, and essential to avoid possible epidemics in the coming weeks, can be restored.
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Dig up to bury
“There is so much to do that it is difficult to decide where to start,” explains Yousef Jalal Alfietori, a nursing assistant based in Benghazi, as he looks around. As the week has progressed, traffic has become more intense in Derna. Ambulances, humanitarian aid trucks, United Nations SUVs and cars full of civilians continue to arrive in the city. However, much of the volunteers’ efforts continue to be concentrated on the need to remove the rubble, earth and mud under which unknown how many people remain buried. Dig up to recover the dead and bury them. That remains the main mission.
A few meters away, in the city’s port, soldiers from Khalifa Hafter’s navy prepare to receive his son, Saddam. A week after unprecedented rains and the collapse of the two dams caused this tragedy, the man known as Brigadier has toured the most affected areas in a military convoy and has listened to the evaluations of those responsible for the response to the humanitarian crisis in a meeting organized in the port of Derna.
The ruler’s son met the Spanish firefighters who, after days of trying, managed to travel to Libya on Thursday to participate in the rescue. Four days later they will return to Spain due to the lack of expectations that there will be any people left alive. Saddam Hafter has also listened to the Italian soldiers deployed to the area. The Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, maintains close collaboration on migration matters with the two opposing Libyan governments: that of Hafter and that of Albdelhamid Dabeiba, which controls the western part of the country.
“We knew that Derna was built on the natural passage of two dams with millions of hectoliters. And that was something dangerous. But something so horrible cannot just be the product of a natural disaster,” laments Taofek Rafah, an elderly man who observes what is happening around him and needs to express his pain. “It has to be God’s will.”
A group of soldiers participates in the distribution of water to the population of Derna (Libya). RICARDO GARCIA VILANOVA
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