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A week after floods, Libyans haunted by fate of the missing

Published Sep 18, 2023 05:59AM ET Updated Sep 18, 2023 02:23PM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A sanitation worker disinfects rubble, amid rising concerns of spread of infectious diseases, as dead bodies started to decompose, following fatal floods in Derna, Libya, September 17, 2023. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfali

DERNA, Libya (Reuters) - Sabreen Blil was on her hands and knees atop the rubble of her brother's house, the wind beating at her black robe as she clawed with her bare hands at the flattened masonry in hope of somehow digging to the family buried below.

She recited their names as she wept.

"Taym, Yazan, Luqman, Salmah, Tumador, Hakim and his wife. Oh my God. My family, where are you?" she wailed. "Oh God. Even just one - my God - just let me find even one body."

A week after the flood that swept the centre of the Libyan city of Derna into the sea, families are still coping with the unbearable losses of their dead - and haunted by the unknown fates of the missing.

The centre of Derna is a wasteland, with stray dogs standing listlessly on muddy mounds where buildings once stood. Other buildings still somehow stand precariously above bottom floors that were mostly washed away. The legs of a store mannequin in dusty trousers stick out of the rubble in a ruined shopfront.

Dams above the city burst in a storm a week ago that sent a huge torrent down a seasonal riverbed running through the centre of the Mediterranean city of 120,000 people.

Thousands are dead and thousands more missing. Officials using different methodologies have given widely varying figures of the tolls so far; the mayor estimates over 20,000 people were lost. The World Health Organization has confirmed 3,922 deaths.

A total of 283 bodies have been recovered from the sea since searches began and there are many left to find, a search team source told Reuters on Monday. But the teams are increasingly finding only parts of bodies as they disintegrate.


Hundreds of people angrily protested in Derna on Wednesday, demanding accountability from authorities they said had done nothing to prevent the calamity despite advance warnings of the city's vulnerability to flooding.

They lambasted regional officials and called for national unity in a country left politically ruptured by over a decade of conflict and chaos that have hampered the disaster response.

Demonstrator Taha Miftah, 39, demanded an international inquiry and "reconstruction under international supervision".

Libya has been a failed state since a NATO-backed uprising that ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Derna is in the east, beyond the control of an internationally recognised government in the west, and until 2019 was held by a succession of Islamist militant groups including branches of al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Residents say the threat to Derna from the crumbling dams above it had been widely known, with projects to repair the dams stalled for more than a decade. They also blame authorities for failing to evacuate residents in time.


Sabreen Blil and other residents are mourning the uncounted thousands who are not on any confirmed list. She summons up a picture of her young nephew on her mobile phone, holding a kitten above his head in one outstretched hand.

"They used to play here. They were sitting here. They used to go out to visit me and I used to visit them. Nothing is left. The floods took everything," Blil said. "Their toys, books, their father, their mother."

Authorities have not yet given up on the possibility of finding people alive, Othman Abduljaleel, health minister in the administration that controls eastern Libya, told Reuters.

"Hopes of finding survivors are fading, but we will continue efforts to search for any possible survivor," he said by phone.

"Now efforts are focused on rescuing anyone and recovering bodies from under the rubble, especially at sea, with the participation of many divers and specialized rescue teams from countries."

For Ahmed Ashour, 62, the dissipating hope of finding survivors has meant accepting that he will have to raise his orphaned 3-month-old granddaughter. His daughter is gone. His wife still hasn't accepted it.

"Her mother is convinced that she is still alive. I am convinced that she is dead," he said.

Ahmed Kassar, 69, sat in front of his ruined house with a cigarette burned almost down to his fingers, quietly weeping for four of his children - two daughters and two sons - who drowned inside their inundated home, unable to escape before floodwaters rose to its ceiling.

"Catastrophe. I am all alone now," Kassar murmured over and over. He escaped death only because he had left for neighbouring Egypt for medical treatment just before the storm struck Derna.

"I am not saddened only by their death, I am saddened that I left and was not able to fulfil my role as a father to them, to guarantee my children's future," he said.


The roads into Derna were clogged on Monday with ambulances and trucks carrying in food, water, diapers, mattresses and other supplies.

Men in white hazmat suits sprayed disinfectant mist from pumps mounted in the back of a pick-up truck and from hoses in backpacks, as authorities hoped to halt the spread of disease.

"We are sanitising the streets, mosques, shelters, where displaced people are staying, mortuary refrigerators, the blighted streets and the bodies," said Akbar al-Qatani, head of the environment directorate based in Benghazi, eastern Libya's de facto capital.

The International Rescue Committee charity said the flooding had left thousands of people without access to safe drinking water, raising the risk of waterborne diseases.

Western countries and regional states have sent teams of rescue workers and mobile hospitals. Five Greek rescue workers, including three members of the armed forces, were killed in a car crash on Sunday.

A week after floods, Libyans haunted by fate of the missing

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