Libya floods: ‘We saw our friends and neighbours dying around us, and we couldn’t do anything’

In the hardest-hit city, Derna, the search for survivors continues as concerns mount over the danger of more dams collapsing

As two dams collapsed and storm waters tore through the streets of the Libyan city of Derna, carrying bodies and buildings with them, Ruba Hatem Yassine, her pregnant sister and several older relatives clambered up a neighbour’s ladder to the roof to flee the grasp of the rushing flood below.

From there, they scampered from rooftop to rooftop along their narrow street, Yassine (24) recounted on Wednesday, two days after her terrifying ordeal. Eventually, they sought shelter in a small storage unit on one of the rooftops and watched for hours as the water overwhelmed the city.

They could hear their neighbours – trapped in half-destroyed homes by rising water or under rubble – screaming, “Save us, save us,” Yassine said, speaking by phone from a friend’s home in the nearby town of Marj. Once the floodwaters had somewhat subsided, other survivors helped her family of nine come down from the roof to safety.

They waded through the knee-deep water, leaving everything behind. “We walked out barefoot and saw our friends and neighbours dying around us,” she said. “And we couldn’t do anything.”


A North African nation polarised by years of civil war and intense political and territorial divisions, Libya was poorly prepared for Storm Daniel, which swept across the Mediterranean Sea, pummelling its coastline and quickly destroying poorly maintained infrastructure.

The country is split between an internationally recognised government in the western half based in Tripoli, the capital, and a separately administered region in the east. That includes Derna, where the main authority is the Libyan National Army. The rival governments have further complicated rescue and aid efforts.

Desperately needed aid was trickling into the eastern half of the country by Wednesday. But with roads and bridges damaged or cut off, access to the hardest-hit city, Derna, on the Mediterranean coast, remained a huge hurdle to bringing in help, according to international aid groups.

Islam Azouz, an aid worker from Derna, said he lost dozens of relatives. He was outside the city when the flood ripped through, and when he returned, he said he could no longer recognise the city where he grew up, which had been swallowed by water or mud. Those who survived, he said, were waiting to hear news of those who are still missing.

“People are waiting by the sea,” he said. “Today, 40 bodies washed up ashore.”

Faris al-Tayeh, who heading a network of volunteer relief workers, said he managed to reach Derna on Monday afternoon despite treacherous, torn-up roads packed with people fleeing.

“We could never have imagined what we saw: corpses in the ocean, whole families wiped out, fathers and sons and brothers stacked on top of each other,” he said. “Whole buildings dragged into the water with their residents still inside.”

The entire city had been split in two by the flooding, he added. “To get from one side to the other, you need to travel around for over 100 kilometres,” said al-Tayeh, who was organising an aid convoy to Derna.

The failures of the dams raised alarm over Libya’s dilapidated infrastructure.

On Tuesday, the mayor of the northeastern town of Tocra told al-Masar, a Libyan television channel, that a third dam in eastern Libya, the Jaza dam, was filled with water and on the brink of collapse. That dam, between Derna and the main eastern city, Benghazi, needs maintenance to prevent another disaster, he warned.

Hours later, a military official with the Libyan National Army, the main authority in the east, raised concerns about the safety of yet another dam, the Qattara, next to Benghazi. A government statement sought to assure residents that both dams were functioning and under control. Nevertheless, the government said it was installing water pumps to relieve pressure on the Jaza dam.

The flooding began after heavy rains over the weekend burst through two dams south of Derna, unleashing torrents of water through the city of nearly 100,000 people. Much of the city was destroyed as entire neighbourhoods, including homes, schools and mosques, were swept away. The Derna city council has called for the opening of a maritime passageway to the city and for urgent international intervention.

In the wake of the disaster neither the western nor eastern entrances to Derna were passable, so the only way in to the city was from the south on an unpaved road, slowing the delivery of aid and the arrival of rescue teams, said Bashir Ben Amer, an aid worker with the International Rescue Committee in Libya.

But because of the wet conditions, there was concern that the one functioning road might not hold up under the demands of the convoys pouring into the city, he added. Many of the more than 30,000 people left homeless in the city had not tried to leave, he said.

“Most people are staying inside the city, either looking for loved ones, or they are burying them,” he said.

But the Libyan National Army on Wednesday urged residents to leave, saying the army was taking over Derna to co-ordinate relief efforts, according to a report on al-Masar.

As with other natural disasters, climate change factors into storms in the Mediterranean Sea, and Libya is especially vulnerable. Warming causes the waters of the Mediterranean to expand and its level to rise, eroding shorelines and contributing to flooding, according to the United Nations. Low-lying coastal areas, where much of Libya’s population lives, are at particular risk.

The Libyan Red Crescent reported early on Wednesday on Facebook that, for a third day, its volunteers were searching for some of the thousands still missing, combing fields, trails and riverbanks. “No missing people have been found at this moment,” the group said.

The group published a document on Facebook listing the survivors from Derna. By Wednesday evening, it had grown to more than 300 names.

“The support is trickling in. We just need more of it,” said Dax Roque, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director for Libya. “The response in Libya for so long has been underfunded. There’s an urgent need for international help.”

– This article originally appeared in the New York Times