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For a divided Libya, disastrous floods have become a rallying cry for unity

9 months ago 43

Zahra el-Gerbi didn’t expect much of a reaction to her online fundraising, but she felt compelled to act when four of her family were killed in the flooding that devastated the eastern Libyan city of Derna. She issued a contribution request for individuals affected by the flood.

Friends and strangers alike offered money and material help to the Benghazi-based professional nutritionist within the first half-hour after she published it on Facebook.

“It’s for basic needs like clothes, foods and accommodation,” el-Gerbi said.

Many Libyans see the communal mourning over the more than 11,000 deaths as a rallying cry for national unity in a country riven by 12 years of strife and division. As a result, the tragedy has increased pressure on the country’s top officials, who are seen by some as the architects of the disaster.

Since 2014, the oil-rich country has been divided between competing administrations, with one internationally recognised government in Tripoli and another in the east, where Derna is located. Both are supported by international donors and armed militias, whose influence in the country has grown since the 2011 Arab Spring rebellion that overthrew despotic dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Several UN-led attempts to reconcile the rift have failed.

In the early hours of 11 September, two dams in the mountains above Derna burst, sending a wall of water two stories high into the city and sweeping entire neighbourhoods out to sea. At least 11,300 people were killed and a further 30,000 displaced.

An outpouring of support for the people of Derna followed. Residents from the nearby cities of Benghazi and Tobruk offered to put up the displaced. In Tripoli, some 1,450 kilometres (900 miles) west, a hospital said it would perform operations free of charge for any injured in the flood.

Ali Khalifa, an oil rig worker from Zawiya, west of Tripoli, said his cousin and a group of other men from his neighbourhood joined a convoy of vehicles heading to Derna to help out with relief efforts. Even the local scout squad participated, he said.

The sentiment was shared by 50-year-old Mohamed al-Harari.

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

The disaster has fostered rare instances of the opposing administrations cooperating to help those affected. As recently as 2020, the two sides were in an all-out war. Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s forces besieged Tripoli in a yearlong failed military campaign to try to capture the capital, killing thousands.

“We have even seen some military commanders arrive from the Tripoli allied military coalition in Derna, showing support,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior Libya analyst at International Crisis Group.

However, the distribution of aid into the city has been highly disorganized, with minimal amounts of supplies reaching flood-affected areas in the days following the disaster.

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

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

Others have levelled blame for the burst dams on government officials.

A report by a state-run audit agency in 2021 said the two dams hadn’t been maintained despite the allocation of more than $2 million for that purpose in 2012 and 2013. As the storm approached, authorities told people — including those in vulnerable areas — to stay indoors.

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

The tragedy follows a long line of problems born from the country’s lawlessness. Most recently, in August, sporadic fighting broke out between two rival militia forces in the capital, killing at least 45 people, a reminder of the influence rogue armed groups wield across Libya.

Under pressure, Libya’s General Prosecutor al-Sediq al-Sour said Friday that prosecutors would open a file on the collapse of the two dams and investigate the authorities in the Derna, as well as past governments.

But the country’s political leaders have so far deflected responsibility. The Prime Minister of Libya’s Tripoli government, Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, said he and his ministers were accountable for the dams’ maintenance, but not the thousands of deaths caused by the flooding.

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

When the rescue and recovery operation in Derna is done, other daunting tasks will lie ahead. It remains unclear how Libyan authorities will rehome much of its population, and rebuild.

El-Gerbi, who has since closed down the donations page to encourage people to give directly to the Red Crescent, said two of her uncles are on their way from Derna to Benghazi, with potentially tens of thousands of others making the same journey.

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

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