Middle East

Clinging to hope in Derna, as grief turns to anger

By Sarah El Sirgany and Jomana Karadsheh, CNN

Derna CNN  —  In the days that followed the devastating floods in the Libyan city of Derna, reports emerged of survival – a six-year-old boy plucked from the water from a third-floor balcony, a father saving his daughter by putting her in the fridge, an infant found alive floating in the water. Such stories are impossible to verify but are a glimmer of hope people want to cling to.

Torrential rainfall and the collapse of two dams flooded the coastal city, sweeping entire neighborhoods into the Mediterranean on September 10. Close to 4,000 people died in the floods and 9,000 more are still unaccounted for, according to the World Health Organization. While the missing are presumed dead, their bodies still trapped under debris or in the sea, many still hope their loved ones could still be alive.

Local and international rescue teams scan the sea for washed up bodies.

Abu Bakr thought his relatives perished in the catastrophic flood, until he saw a picture on social media of a child rescued from the water that looks like his nephew. It set him on a search mission that took him to field hospitals and shelters for the displaced.

Schools-turned-shelters in Derna list the names of their inhabitants on their doors to help people like Abu Bakr. A stream of people go from one to another to go through the lists every day, hoping to find a familiar name.

In the mayhem of the first few days, survivors, the injured and the displaced were taken to other cities in eastern Libya. People lost their phones and mobile networks were down, making it difficult for survivors to reach their families. Hundreds of bodies were buried in mass graves without visual identification, and officials only managed to take DNA samples of recovered bodies days after the floods hit. Officials say it could take up to a year before these bodies are exhumed for identification.

“My family thought I was dead and started taking condolences,” Karima El-Kilany, 62, tells CNN. Water flooded her house and her husband clung to a collapsed ceiling until neighbors rescued them. It took days for her to get on Facebook and read the eulogies written for her and her husband, she says.

Piles of cars and trees brought by the water block streets in Derna.

She sits on a mattress in a school theater-turned-shelter for the displaced. Next to her, Salma, a teacher and mother of four, is tending to her 17-year-old daughter, who’s ill and shell-shocked.

Salma, who only gave her first name and agreed to be filmed covering her face, finds it difficult to accept her new reality. “Maybe I’m too paranoid. There are 30 families in this room,” she says, describing how she struggles to sanitize the mattresses her kids sleep on. “It’s difficult to suddenly find all your neighbors inside your house. Imagine that. If you make problems, then you become suspicious.”

“I hope to wake up one day (and) find the city still standing. Find the people. Find my mother,” Salma says. “I lost my mother, my brother, my sisters. I went back to search for my mother, I went through the names, but nothing. But, I’m hopeful,” she adds.

At a nearby shelter, Salem el-Na’as of the Libyan Red Crescent scrolls through the strangers’ messages on his phone. They are all from people looking for loved ones, sending him names, pictures and details. “The messages don’t stop. I have to put the phone on flight mode just to be able to write down the information I get,” he says.

The tide turns

These efforts were hampered by another drop in mobile network coverage earlier this week. While the two-day blackout started hours after hundreds of protesters called for accountability on Monday, officials said it was due to infrastructure failure when excavators hit a fiber optics cable.

Grief has morphed into anger. Like the sea slowly regurgitating the houses and lives thrown into its belly, more residents were questioning the negligence and mismanagement that led to the collapse of the two dams. Protesters chanted against Agilah Saleh, the speaker of the eastern-based parliament that also supports the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) that controls the city.

This week ushered a waning of the solidarity that briefly united a country divided by a decade of war. Officials of the eastern-based government were increasingly expressing concerns about “infiltrators” from the western-based and internationally recognized government and “extremist groups” taking advantage of the aid convoys arriving in the city. Several LNA officials told CNN at least a dozen men were arrested in Derna.

Activists said that several residents and protesters were arrested.

“Political division still exist but what’s important (is) that all the relevant institutes are on the ground regardless of where they are based,” Mohamed Eljarh, spokesman of the Supreme Committee of Emergency and Response, said in a press conference Friday. “We should overcome the political divide on the ground,” he told CNN.

The emergency committee held a meeting with Derna representatives after disbanding the municipal council to include them in the decision making, Eljarh announced on Friday.

“This is one of the ways to deal with the anger, grievances and concerns,” he told CNN.

Staying put

The city that was buzzing with rescuers, journalists, visiting diplomats and volunteers bringing aid from across Libya, got a lot quieter by the time the CNN team left on Wednesday. Officials said they were worried about the spread of infections especially in areas where dead bodies are believed to be trapped under mud and rubble.

Close to 60 local recovery workers were hospitalized on Tuesday suffering from diarrhea and vomiting, which the minister of health of the eastern-based government said were infections common in such situations. He said at this stage there are no signs of an endemic spreading in the city.

Local teams spray damaged streets with chemical disinfectants following warnings about a secondary health crisis.

Throughout this week, excavators cleared paths for vehicles through the rubble. Local health workers were spraying the damaged buildings and streets with strong disinfectants.

While officials denied giving city-wide evacuation orders, several areas were cordoned off. Access to the city was restricted and only a handful of regional and international networks, including CNN, were allowed to stay for a few more days.

Yet, in streets ravaged by the floods, residents of the buildings still standing were adamant on staying in their homes. Those who lost their homes, like Salma, want to stay in the city, hoping international aid groups would provide temporary housing.

“We tried evacuation in 2018. I was displaced from my home and neighborhood for two years. I experienced the destitution that comes with displacement. I paid a high price and there was no compensation,” Moftah Al-Hanshiry says. His building still holds the scars of previous wars and battles that Derna witnessed in the past decade.

Fueled by endemic distrust of local politicians and leaders, he says he would only leave his home if a responsible entity like the World Health Organization issues the order. Otherwise, he says, “I’d rather die than leave.”

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