© 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, 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 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 shop-front.
Dams above the city burst in a storm a week ago, sending a huge torrent down a seasonal riverbed that runs through the centre of the 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 more than 20,000 people were lost.
The World Health Organization has confirmed 3,922 deaths. But 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 says. “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 fading 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.
The roads into Derna were clogged on Monday with ambulances and trucks carrying in food, water, diapers, mattresses and other supplies.
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.
The recovery effort has been hampered by chaos in a nation that has been a failed state since a NATO-backed uprising that toppled 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 the city 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.
The biggest threat to survivors may now come from contaminated water supplies.
“The flooding crisis has left thousands of people in the Derna region without access to clean and safe drinking water, posing an imminent threat to their health and well-being,” the International Rescue Committee charity said.
“Contaminated water can lead to the spread of waterborne diseases, putting vulnerable populations, especially women and children, at increased risk.”