Two dams collapsed and entire neighborhoods were swept away after a storm hit the town of Derna, Libya and other towns along the Mediterranean coast this week.
The extent of the damage is not yet known, but so far at least 5,000 people have been confirmed dead and thousands more are still missing.
Huda Akram is a doctor based in Benghazi, Libya, whose family is originally from Derna. She spoke to All things Considered Mary Louise Kelly on Wednesday, describing the heartbreaking scenes and what is happening now.
This interview contains some striking and disturbing details.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Marie Louise Kelly: Can I start by asking about your family: have you managed to contact them? Are they okay?
Houda Akram: Well, my aunts and uncles are doing well, both my mother’s and my father’s side. But my grandmother, unfortunately, did not survive, along with my aunt.
Kelly: I am really sorry. I am really sorry.
Akram: But his son survived. At first we heard that a storm was coming. We thought it was just a (little) rain, people could seek shelter on the roofs of their houses. But then, as things started to deteriorate, get worse, we learned that the dam had collapsed. However, we only saw the images. Even after hearing about the dam collapse, we couldn’t even imagine it would be this bad.
It’s just in seconds. The people who anticipated, they managed to warn others to flee. And my cousin said to me: “We were running and the water was flowing after us.” And they stayed there, on the roof, hanging on because the water was pushing them too. There are many people whose entire household, entire family name, from grandfather to husband to wives to grandchildren have been completely erased.
Kelly: I mentioned that you are a doctor and a psychiatrist. So you’ll think about that in terms of how do you deal with something like that, how do you deal with the current shock and the upcoming trauma. Is it correct?
Akram: Yes. I mean, we suffer from PTSD a lot. We are dealing with many soldiers suffering from PTSD from all previous armed conflicts. And nothing compares to this. I couldn’t imagine that we’d ever seen patients who…I mean, my cousin over there, he’s six or seven years old, he’s just mute. He’s just mute. He literally watched his mother die in front of him. He was clinging to a tree while my aunt and grandmother were drowning. And drowning in your own house, trapped, it’s… it’s ugly. It never ceases to haunt you how they must have felt as they saw (and) anticipated their deaths.
Kelly: I want people to understand that what you are describing — an indescribable situation — is made worse by the instability that Libya has experienced in recent years, the political instability. What are you hearing about relief efforts, about trying to get help to people who desperately need it?
Akram: Yes, but the fact is that it’s a very small town and people always help each other. For example, for us, we will welcome our uncles and aunts. My other uncle has an apartment here in Benghazi. So it’s about family and relationships and people taking shelter. Because every person here has a relative there. The bond between Benghazi and Derna is very strong, and there are always family members coming and going to welcome us. However, I have heard that help is going there, but no one tells us that they are actually getting help.
Kelly: Do you have any news from the government? Is there anything emerging in terms of leadership through this crisis?
Akram: Well, in all honesty, this city has received millions of dollars in budget for maintenance and infrastructure. And there was a special budget for the dam. But this money was never actually spent. This money was never spent for this purpose. We don’t know where this money is going. It’s just that the money is going away and we don’t see it on the ground. And I was waiting for someone to apologize, or for someone to resign, or for someone to even be forcibly fired – no one did. The local city governor said, “Well, we asked them to evacuate and, you know, it’s just God’s will.” » That’s all he ever said. I don’t know how he isn’t held accountable for this. No one is held responsible. They are treating this as if it were a natural disaster. It’s not a natural disaster, it’s man-made. This is negligence.