Divided Libyans Seek Unity in Flood's Wake

Disaster's pain has been felt around the country, one man says
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 18, 2023 6:00 PM CDT
Libyans See Signs of Unity in Aftermath of Flooding
People deliver donated aid to Derna, Libya, on Saturday.   (AP Photo/Yousef Murad, File)

Zahra el-Gerbi wasn't expecting much of a response to her online fundraiser, but she felt she had to do something after four of her relatives died in the flooding that decimated the eastern Libyan city of Derna. She put out a call for donations for those displaced by the deluge. In the first half-hour after she shared it on Facebook, the Benghazi-based clinical nutritionist said friends and strangers were already promising financial and material support, the AP reports. "It's for basic needs like clothes, foods and accommodation," el-Gerbi said.

For many Libyans, the collective grief over the more than 11,000 dead has morphed into a rallying cry for national unity in a country blighted by 12 years of conflict and division. In turn, the tragedy has ramped up pressure on the country's leading politicians, viewed by some as the architects of the catastrophe. The oil-rich country has been divided between rival administrations 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 ballooned since a NATO-backed Arab Spring uprising toppled autocratic ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Numerous United Nations-led initiatives to bridge the divide have failed.

Early on Sept. 11, two dams in the mountains above Derna burst, sending a wall of water two stories high into the city and sweeping entire neighborhoods out to sea. At least 11,300 people were killed and 30,000 displaced. An outpouring of support for the people of Derna followed. Residents in nearby Benghazi and Tobruk offered to put up the displaced. In Tripoli, 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 men from his neighborhood joined a convoy of vehicles heading to Derna to help relief efforts. Even the local scout squad participated. "The wound or pain of what happened in Derna hurt all the people from western Libya to southern Libya to eastern Libya," said Mohamed al-Harari.

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The disaster has fostered rare instances of the opposing administrations cooperating. As recently as 2020, the two sides were in an all-out war in which thousands were killed. But the distribution of aid into Derna has been 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. Some have leveled blame for the burst dams at government officials. A report by a state-run audit agency in 2021 said the two dams hadn't been maintained despite funding. "Everyone in charge is responsible," said Noura el-Gerbi, a journalist and activist. "The next flood will be over them."

(More Libya stories.)

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