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A week after Libya flood, aid effort gains pace

By Amanda Mouawad
Libya A week ago a wall of water rushed through the Libyan coastal city of Derna, sweeping thousands to their deaths.  By - (AFP)
SUN, 17 SEP 2023 LISTEN
A week ago a wall of water rushed through the Libyan coastal city of Derna, sweeping thousands to their deaths. By - (AFP)

A week after a tsunami-sized flash flood devastated the Libyan coastal city of Derna, sweeping thousands to their deaths, the international aid effort to help the grieving survivors slowly gathered pace Sunday.

Search-and-rescue teams wearing face masks and protective suits kept up the grim search for bodies or any survivors in the mud-caked wasteland of smashed buildings, crushed cars and uprooted trees.

Traumatised residents, 30,000 of whom are now homeless in Derna alone, badly need clean water, food, shelter and basic supplies amid a growing risk of cholera, diarrhoea, dehydration and malnutrition, UN agencies warn.

Rescue teams work amid the devastation of Derna.  By Karim SAHIB (AFP) Rescue teams work amid the devastation of Derna. By Karim SAHIB (AFP)

"In this city, every single family has been affected," said one resident, Mohammad al-Dawali.

Another, Mohamed al-Zawi, 25, recounted how he saw "a large mountain of water bringing with it cars, people, belongings... and pouring everything out into the sea".

Emergency response teams and aid have been deployed from France, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, with more on the way from other nations.

The aid effort has been hampered by the political division of Libya, which plunged into years of war and chaos after a 2011 NATO-backed uprising led to the overthrow and killing of veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

The oil-rich North African country now remains split between two rival governments -- a UN-backed administration in the capital Tripoli, and one based in the disaster-hit east.

The International Organization of Migration's Libya chief Tauhid Pasha posted on X, formerly Twitter, that the aim now was to channel all authorities "to work together, in coordination".

Britain's foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said "the big challenge with Libya" was that it lacks a fully functioning government to coordinate with.

"Sadly, in the eastern part of Libya, we just don't have that, and that is why we are not seeing the international support on the ground ... we would wish," he told the BBC.

Thousands missing

Map showing buildings and roads destroyed or damaged in the Libyan city of Derna after a flash flood, according to satellite data from Copernicus.  By Cléa PÉCULIER, Sophie RAMIS (AFP) Map showing buildings and roads destroyed or damaged in the Libyan city of Derna after a flash flood, according to satellite data from Copernicus. By Cléa PÉCULIER, Sophie RAMIS (AFP)

Amid the chaos, the true death toll remained unknown, with untold numbers swept into the sea.

The health minister of the eastern administration, Othman Abdeljalil, has said 3,252 people were confirmed dead in Derna.

But Libyan officials and humanitarian organisations warned that the final toll could be much higher with thousands still missing.

The massive flood came as Libya was lashed on September 10 by the hurricane-strength Storm Daniel, which had earlier brought deadly floods to Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria.

Tunisian rescue workers recover a body while assisting in relief work in Libya's city of Derna.  By - (Tunisia's National Office of Civil Protection/AFP) Tunisian rescue workers recover a body while assisting in relief work in Libya's city of Derna. By - (Tunisia's National Office of Civil Protection/AFP)

The rapidly rising waters burst two upstream river dams in Derna, sending a late-night tidal wave crashing through the centre of the city of 100,000, sweeping entire residential blocks into the Mediterranean.

UN experts have blamed the high death toll on climatic factors as the Mediterranean region has sweltered under an unusually hot summer, and on the legacy of Libya's war that has depleted its infrastructure, early warning systems and emergency response.

Questions are being asked about whether the disaster could not have been prevented, as cracks in the dams were first reported in 1998.

Bodies on the beach

A boy stands next to rubble and debris in Libya's eastern city of Soussa on September 15, 2023.  By Mohamed Shalash (AFP) A boy stands next to rubble and debris in Libya's eastern city of Soussa on September 15, 2023. By Mohamed Shalash (AFP)

A week on from the disaster, bodies are still washing up on the sea shore, along with vast amounts of household items and debris.

Hamza Al-Khafifi, 45, a soldier from Benghazi, described to AFP finding the unclothed bodies of "old, young, women, men and children" strewn along the seafront.

"Bodies were stuck between rocks," he said.

A Libyan rescue team in an inflatable boat reported seeing "perhaps 600 bodies" at sea off the Om-al-Briket region, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) east of Derna, according to a video shared on social networks.

An Emirati rescue team assists in relief work in Libya's eastern city of Derna following deadly flash floods.  By - (UAE MINISTRY OF DEFENCE/AFP) An Emirati rescue team assists in relief work in Libya's eastern city of Derna following deadly flash floods. By - (UAE MINISTRY OF DEFENCE/AFP)

In Derna port, three volunteer divers from the west looked on as an Italian team used an underwater camera to search for bodies.

The United Nations has launched an aid appeal for more than $71 million.

The aid being sent to Libya includes water, food, tents, blankets, hygiene kits, medicines and emergency surgical supplies as well as heavy machinery to help clear the debris, and more body bags.

A field hospital sent from France was now operational, President Emmanuel Macron posted on X on Sunday.

Vehicles are buried in mud and rubble in the aftermath of a devastating flood in eastern Libya's city of Derna.  By - (AFP) Vehicles are buried in mud and rubble in the aftermath of a devastating flood in eastern Libya's city of Derna. By - (AFP)

The scale of the devastation in Derna and surrounding areas has prompted shows of solidarity across divided Libya, as volunteers in Tripoli have collected aid for the flood victims.

The International Committee of the Red Cross warned of another risk in the flood area -- unexploded landmines and other ordnance left over from the war that may have been washed into areas previously free of weapon contamination.

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