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The tragedy of many Libyan families: “The water took my son in front of my eyes”

Omar al-Rifadi searches for his 20-year-old daughter after a disaster devastated the Libyan city of Derna on Sunday, 10. The young woman disappeared and was lost in the dark amid catastrophic flooding that claimed her life. Thousands of people and many were dragged into the sea.

“I have been looking for him everywhere. I have been to every hospital and school. Luck was not on my side,” says this 52-year-old man with tears in his eyes. Rifad explains that he was working on the night of the disaster.

Floods destroyed much of this city on the Mediterranean coast. Heavy rains from Hurricane Daniel flooded the dry riverbed and caused the collapse of two failed dams. The water washed away entire buildings in central Derna while families slept.

Rifadi calls his wife’s phone again. No one answers, the phone is switched off. “At least 50 members of my family, including missing and deceased, are missing,” he lamented.

According to the government, the number of missing is around 10,000. According to the Libyan Red Crescent, almost 2,000 bodies have sunk into the sea. Any way you look at it, it’s a disaster on a monstrous scale.

Children’s clothes, toys, furniture, shoes and other things could be seen scattered on the shore of Derna. A leg sticking out of a pile of rubble. Mud covered the streets, uprooted trees and hundreds of wrecked cars, many of which overturned. The car was submerged on the balcony of the second floor of the destroyed building.

“My wife and I survived, but I lost my brother,” explains Salem Omar, a 38-year-old engineer. “My brother lives in the center of the city where most of the destruction happened. We haven’t found his body. We are afraid that the dead bodies will be infected with serious diseases.” The bodies of two unknown people were found in his apartment.

Speaking to The Guardian, a search and rescue team from the United Arab Emirates working nearby informed him that they had found the body of their neighbour. “She’s my aunt, Amina. May she rest in peace,” he explains.

“Tens of thousands of people have been left homeless. We need international help. Libya does not have the necessary experience to deal with this type of” natural disasters.

The extent of the destruction can be seen from the elevated areas of Derna: the city center was densely populated and built along the crescent-shaped seasonal river. Now it’s submerged in muddy waters that glisten in the sunlight, after floods washed away entire buildings and destroyed the cityscape.

The mayor of Derna, Abdelmonem Al-Ghaiti, explained that the death toll in the city could range from 20,000 to 25,000, depending on the number of neighborhoods flooded. Hurricane Daniel also flooded surrounding areas, including the resort of Sousa.

He notes that rescue teams from Egypt, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Qatar have arrived in Derna. In his opinion, specialized groups are needed to retrieve the bodies: “I am worried that the large number of bodies in the rubble and in the water will cause an epidemic in the city.

Because of these fears, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that the bodies of people killed in natural disasters or armed conflicts “almost never pose a threat to the health of communities”.

Another UN agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), estimates that more than 30,000 people have been left displaced, homeless and without food as a result of the disaster.

Rescue operations are more difficult in Libya, a country of seven million people, because of political divisions. It has been the scene of intermittent fighting since 2011, when a NATO-backed uprising toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Today, it has no central government, but two parallel administrations, in the east and west of the country: the internationally recognized government based in Tripoli and a rival in the east, led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Besides politics, there are human tragedies. A family lost 40 members after their home overlooking the Derna Valley was razed to the ground. In another heartbreaking story, a father survived but watched helplessly as his only son, aged 22, died in front of him.

The man, who preferred not to be named, spoke to The Guardian in a crowded Derna hospital, overflowing with wounded. “At two in the morning, after the flood reached a dangerous level and reached our house, I went to look for my son,” the father recalls, speaking with visible distress.

“My son was at a friend’s house. I found him, but after a few seconds, the water washed us away and pushed us to the roof. We fought for hours. Finally, the water took my son in front of me and hit his head on the door. “He remained trapped there until morning. The last words I heard from him were: “I’m sorry, father” and I lost my only son, he was studying at the university.

Derna has already experienced natural disasters before, such as a flood in 1941 during World War II, which caused significant damage to German troops stationed on the outskirts of the city. There were other catastrophic floods in 1959 and 1968 and another in 1986, which, although serious, was mitigated thanks to two dams that played a crucial role in preventing damage to the city.

Those dilapidated dams collapsed during Sunday’s floods. Although the country was divided into two parts, both demanded an investigation into whether there was negligence.

Whatever the cause, it is the worst disaster since records began at the turn of the last century. The results cannot be compared to any previous flood in terms of material and human losses.

Rescue teams from eastern and western Libya have had difficulty reaching Derna and other affected mountain towns in the affected areas. Most of the roads and bridges leading to them collapsed. Residents of Derna have been cut off and phone and internet services are slowly being restored. Equipment and international aid also began to arrive.

Derna was split in two by a torrent that came down from the mountains towards the Mediterranean Sea, from which many bodies were recovered. Now the Libyan authorities are trying to save what remains of the city and its residents, but it is estimated that this will take a lot of time and resources, which are in short supply.

Source: El Diario





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