In the days following devastating floods in the Libyan town of Derna, there were reports of survivors: a six-year-old boy pulled out of the water from a third-story balcony, a father saving his daughter by putting her to refrigerator, a baby found alive floating in water. Such stories are impossible to verify, but they represent a glimmer of hope that people want to cling to.
Torrential rains and the collapse of two dams flooded the coastal city, washing entire neighborhoods into the Mediterranean on September 10. Nearly 4,000 people died in the floods and another 9,000 are still missing, according to the World Health Organization. Even though the missing are presumed dead, their bodies still trapped under debris or in the sea, many still hope that their loved ones are still alive.
Abu Bakr thought his loved ones had perished in the catastrophic flood, until he saw a photo on social media of a child rescued from the floodwaters who looks like his nephew. This launched him on a research mission that took him to field hospitals and shelters for displaced people.
Schools turned into shelters in Derna display the names of their residents on their doors to help people like Abu Bakr. A stream of people pour through the lists each day, hoping to find a familiar name.
In the chaos of the first days, the survivors, the injured and the displaced were taken to other towns in eastern Libya. People lost their phones and mobile networks were down, making it difficult for survivors to reach their families. Hundreds of bodies were buried in mass graves without visual identification, and authorities only managed to take DNA samples from the bodies found days after the floods. Authorities say it could take up to a year before these bodies are exhumed for identification.
“My family thought I was dead and started offering condolences,” Karima El-Kilany, 62, told CNN. Water flooded her house and her husband clung to a collapsed ceiling until neighbors rescued him. It took her days to get on Facebook and read the eulogies written for her and her husband, she said.
She sits on a mattress in a school theater transformed into a shelter for displaced people. Next to her, Salma, a teacher and mother of four children, takes care of her 17-year-old daughter, who is sick and in shock.
Salma, who only gave her first name and agreed to be filmed while hiding her face, is having difficulty accepting her new reality. “Maybe I’m too paranoid.” There are 30 families in this room,” she says, describing how she struggles to disinfect the mattresses her children sleep on. “It’s difficult to suddenly find all your neighbors inside your house. Imagine that. If you create problems, you become suspicious.
“I hope to wake up one day (and) find the city still standing. Find the people. Find my mother,” Salma said. “I lost my mother, my brother, my sisters. I went back to get my mother, looked through the names, but nothing. But I am hopeful,” she adds.
At a nearby shelter, Salem el-Na’as, of the Libyan Red Crescent, scrolls through messages from strangers on his phone. They all come from people searching for loved ones, sending them names, photos and details. “The messages don’t stop. I have to put the phone on airplane mode just so I can write down the information I receive,” he says.
These efforts were hampered by a further drop in mobile network coverage earlier this week. While the two-day power outage began hours after hundreds of protesters called for accountability on Monday, authorities said it was caused by an infrastructure failure when excavators hit a fiber optic cable .
Grief turned to anger. As the sea slowly regurgitated the homes and lives dumped in its belly, more and more residents questioned the negligence and mismanagement that led to the collapse of the two dams. Protesters chanted slogans against Agilah Saleh, speaker of the eastern-based parliament who also supports the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) which controls the city.
This week marked the start of a decline in solidarity that briefly united a country divided by a decade of war. Eastern-based government officials increasingly expressed concerns about Western and internationally recognized government “infiltrators” and “extremist groups” taking advantage of the arrival of humanitarian convoys in the city. Several LNA officials told CNN that at least a dozen men had been arrested in Derna.
Activists said several residents and protesters were arrested.
“Political divisions still exist, but what is important (is) that all the institutes concerned are on the ground, regardless of where they are based,” Mohamed Eljarh, spokesperson for the Committee, said on Friday. supreme emergency and response, during a press conference. “We need to overcome political divisions on the ground,” he told CNN.
The emergency committee held a meeting with Derna representatives after the dissolution of the municipal council to include them in the decision-making process, Eljarh announced on Friday.
“It’s one of the ways to deal with anger, grievances and worries,” he told CNN.
The city, which was teeming with rescuers, journalists, visiting diplomats and volunteers bringing aid from across Libya, had become much quieter by the time the CNN team left on Wednesday. Authorities have expressed concern about the spread of infections, particularly in areas where corpses are believed to be trapped under mud and rubble.
Nearly 60 local recovery workers were hospitalized Tuesday with diarrhea and vomiting, which the eastern-based government’s health minister said are common infections in such situations. He said at this point there was no sign of endemic spread in the city.
Throughout this week, excavators have cleared paths for vehicles through the rubble. Local health workers were spraying damaged buildings and streets with powerful disinfectants.
Although authorities denied issuing city-wide evacuation orders, several areas were cordoned off. Access to the city was restricted and only a handful of regional and international channels, including CNN, were allowed to stay there for a few extra days.
However, in the streets ravaged by the floods, the residents of the buildings still standing insisted on staying at home. Those who have lost their homes, like Salma, want to stay in the city, hoping that international humanitarian organizations will provide them with temporary accommodation.
“We attempted an evacuation in 2018. I was displaced from my home and my neighborhood for two years. I experienced the misery that comes with displacement. I paid a high price and there was no compensation,” explains Moftah Al-Hanshiry. Its building still bears the scars of previous wars and battles that Derna has witnessed over the past decade.
Fueled by a rampant distrust of politicians and local leaders, he says he would only leave his home if ordered to do so by a responsible entity like the World Health Organization. Otherwise, he said, “I would rather die than leave.”