Floods in Libya: an arid desert with a lingering smell of death

by MMC
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  • By Anna Foster
  • BBC News, Derna

Video caption,

BBC’s Anna Foster walks along ‘wasteland’ that was once a riverbed

The journey to the Libyan town of Derna now takes twice as long.

Coming from Benghazi, the fields turn into rust-red lakes. As we get closer, traffic begins to slow down. Telegraph poles ripped from the ground by floodwaters now lie haphazardly. Cars crawl around holes in the highway, on detours hastily dug by diggers.

One of the bridges closest to Derna was completely washed away. Locals stand near the tarmac precipice, peering and taking photos.

Not far away, soldiers distribute masks to each car – for the driver and each passenger. Everyone who drives the other way wears them, and you’ll quickly understand why.

The smell of death in some parts of the city seems almost impossible to describe. It fills your nostrils, part the smell of sewage, part something harder to identify.

Sometimes it’s so loud it turns your stomach – especially when you overlook the harbor where recovery teams tell me the bodies are still washing up.


Not only people, but also buildings, property and livelihoods were swept away by the waters in the town of Derna in eastern Libya.

That morning they found three. Carried away by the tide, they find themselves trapped in piles of debris slowly rotting in the seawater.

Broken wood, entire cars lifted and dropped on scattered sea defenses, tires, refrigerators, everything mixes and swirls in the stagnant water.

The photos and videos published in Derna are shocking and shocking.

But looking at them prepares you for the extent of the damage the floods caused to this place. The line of the river now gapes like an open wound, perhaps a hundred meters wide in places. On these mounds of mud, there is nothing left at all. It is an arid desert.

The destructive power of water is extraordinary.

The cars lie around like toys tipped carelessly on their side or placed upside down. One of them was pushed entirely inside the terrace surrounding the Al Sahaba mosque. Another is completely out of the ground, embedded in the side of a building.


More than 1,000 people have so far been buried in mass graves, according to a UN report.

The walls made of thick concrete blocks collapsed. Strong trees were ripped from the ground, their roots twisting into the air. But everything else is gone.

It was not only a question of thousands of people being swept away by the waters, but also of their homes, their possessions, their lives. Humanity has been purified from this part of Derna.

For the survivors, life here has been changed forever. There is immense grief and palpable anger.


With many thousands still missing, Derna’s mayor has warned the total could reach 20,000

Faris Ghassar lost five members of his family in the raging waters.

“We were told to stay at home,” he cries. “Why? They should have told us that there was a storm, that the dam was old and in ruins.

“Some of these destroyed buildings were a hundred years old. It’s all political. There’s a government in the west, a government in the east. It’s a big problem.”

One of the victims was Faris’ ten-month-old daughter. He takes his phone to show me their photos. First alive, then their bodies, carefully wrapped in blankets, their faces testifying to their ordeal.

At the same time as we are talking, a convoy of ministers is traveling through the disaster zone. They belong to the Eastern government, one of the two powers opposed to Libya. Their fighting has decimated the country’s infrastructure.

Faris says it proved fatal for his family.


Faris Gassar, who lost his granddaughter and four other family members, asks why they were told to stay home

I asked the Prime Minister of the East, Osama Hamad, how could this have happened when the roadblocks were supposed to ensure the safety of people?

“It was a very strong cyclone,” he told me. “Too strong for dams. It’s nature, and it’s Allah.”

In the streets, rumors are circulating about a complete evacuation of Derna.

Those who remain in the city are battling the elements, with a shortage of clean water and medical care. Nearly a week after the deadly storm, the challenges facing survivors are only growing.

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