For a divided Libya, devastating floods have become a call for unity

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Zahra el-Gerbi didn’t expect a big response to her online fundraiser, but she felt she had to do something after four of her relatives died during the fundraiser Floods that decimated the eastern Libyan city of Derna. She called for donations for those displaced by the flood.

In the first half hour after she shared it on Facebook, the Benghazi-based clinical nutritionist said friends and strangers had already promised financial and material support.

“It is to cover basic needs such as clothing, food and shelter,” said el-Gerbi.

For many Libyans, the collective grief over the more than 11,000 deaths has turned into a rallying cry for a country’s national unity marked by 12 years of conflict and division. In turn, the tragedy has increased pressure on the country’s leaders, seen by some as the architects of the disaster.

The oil-rich country has been divided between rival governments since 2014, with an internationally recognized government in Tripoli and a rival authority in the east, where Derna is located. Both are backed by international patrons and armed militias whose influence in the country has grown sharply since a NATO-backed Arab Spring uprising toppled autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Numerous United Nations-led initiatives to bridge the gap have failed.

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In the early hours of September 11th Two dams in the mountains above Derna burst, which sent a wall of water two stories high into the city and swept entire neighborhoods into the sea. At least 11,300 people were killed and another 30,000 displaced.

A wave of support for the people of Derna followed. Residents of the nearby cities of Benghazi and Tobruk offered to house the displaced. In Tripoli, about 1,450 kilometers (900 miles) west, a hospital said it would perform free surgeries for anyone injured by the flood.

Ali Khalifa, an oil rig worker from Zawiya, west of Tripoli, said his cousin and a group of other men from his neighborhood had joined a convoy of vehicles heading to Derna to help with relief efforts. Even the local Boy Scout group took part, he said.

This opinion was also shared by 50-year-old Mohamed al-Harari.

“The wound or pain of what happened in Derna has hurt all people from western Libya to southern Libya to eastern Libya,” he said.

The disaster has resulted in opposing governments cooperating in rare cases to help those affected. As recently as 2020, the two sides were in an all-out war. General Khalifa Hifter’s forces laid siege to Tripoli in a year-long failed military campaign to capture the capital in which thousands were killed.

“We even saw some military commanders from the Tripoli-allied military coalition arrive in Derna and show their support,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group.

However, relief distribution in the city was extremely disorganized, with minimal aid reaching flood-affected areas in the days following the disaster.

Across the country, the disaster has also exposed the shortcomings of Libya’s fragmented political system.

While young people and volunteers rushed to help, “there was a kind of confusion between the governments in the east and the west” about what to do, said Ibrahim al-Sunwisi, a local journalist based in the capital Tripoli.

Others blame government officials for the bursting dams.

A 2021 state auditor’s report said the two dams were not maintained despite more than $2 million being allocated for that purpose in 2012 and 2013. As the storm approached, authorities told people – including those in vulnerable areas – to stay indoors.

“Everyone responsible is responsible,” said Noura el-Gerbi, a journalist and activist who was born in Derna and is also a cousin of el-Gerbi, who had appealed for donations online. “The next flood will be upon them.”

The tragedy follows a long series of problems resulting from the country’s lawlessness. Most recently sporadically in August Fighting broke out between two rival militias At least 45 people were killed in the capital, a reminder of the influence that armed rogue groups wield in Libya.

Under pressure, Libyan Attorney General al-Sediq al-Sour said on Friday that prosecutors would open a file into the collapse of the two dams and investigate authorities in Derna as well as previous governments.

But the country’s political leaders have so far dismissed responsibility. The prime minister of Libya’s government in Tripoli, Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, said he and his ministers were responsible for maintaining the dams, but not for the thousands of deaths caused by the floods.

Meanwhile, Libya’s eastern government spokeswoman Aguila Saleh said the flooding was simply an unparalleled natural disaster. “Don’t say, ‘If only we had done this, if only we had done that,'” Saleh said in a televised news conference.

Once the rescue and recovery operation in Derna is completed, there will be further daunting tasks ahead of us. It remains unclear how Libyan authorities will relocate and rebuild much of their population.

El-Gerbi, who has since closed the fundraising page to encourage people to donate directly to the Red Crescent, said two of her uncles were on their way from Derna to Benghazi, and tens of thousands of others may be making the same journey.

“They don’t have a job, don’t know where to live and don’t even know what to eat,” she said.

Jeffery contributed to this report from London.

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