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Desert Turned into a Sea: Survivors Recall Horror in Eastern Libya

September 16, 2023
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These haunting words resonate with 22-year-old Muhammad al-Awkali and countless others who witnessed the devastating floods that struck eastern Libya, particularly the village of al-Mukhaili near Derna, during the recent Storm Daniel.

The tempestuous storm, accompanied by fierce winds, gave way to a deceptive calm, lulling residents into a false sense of security. Little did they know that, at around 12:30 am, their lives would be forever altered by the sudden rush of water into their homes.

Al-Awkali’s account reveals the shock and terror that enveloped the region as massive floods surged in from both the north and west. As he clung to a neighbor’s wall for dear life, he realized the extent of the disaster.

He and his friends took on the formidable task of aiding their neighbors, who were trapped in their submerged homes. For many, seeking refuge on their rooftops was the only option, but not everyone could make it there safely.

Al-Awkali vividly described the ordeal as water tossed him about like a ragdoll, ultimately depositing him on his neighbor’s property. The family there was forced to spend the night atop their furniture, their pleas for help drowned out by the raging torrent.

For days, the entire village endured a perilous existence on their rooftops and household furnishings, completely cut off from the outside world due to downed power lines.

Imagine, an entire village grappling with hunger and thirst, unable to access provisions.

Their plight mirrored that of thousands across the coastal region. Derna, inundated by the overflowing dams, suffered the worst of the catastrophe, with thousands missing and the death toll continuing to rise.

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Members of the rescue teams from the Egyptian army carry a dead body as they walk in the mud between the destroyed buildings, after a powerful storm and heavy rainfall hit Libya, in Derna [Ahmed Elumami/Reuters]

Aid efforts have begun, with support pouring in from both the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli and international donors. Yet, many areas in desperate need remain overlooked.

In al-Wardiya, a village 20 kilometers west of Bayda, Faisal al-Darsi reported that their community had yet to receive any government assistance due to the destruction of roads and infrastructure. They relied on the goodwill of neighboring communities for help.

The aftermath of the storm left them grappling with darkness, fuel shortages, and a scarcity of essential supplies. Supermarkets, homes, electricity, and communication towers were all casualties of the deluge.

The catastrophe exposed Libya’s vulnerabilities, a nation long embroiled in conflict, corruption, and political turmoil, ill-prepared to face a natural disaster of this magnitude.

Residents in the affected areas continue to search for missing loved ones, with entire families unaccounted for. The floods have rendered some bodies unidentifiable, washing them into nearby valleys from the southern regions.

In Susa, approximately 50 kilometers from Derna, hospitals remain overwhelmed. Surgeon Tahani al-Zani, head of an emergency department, described the chaotic scene as bodies piled up, including children.

The storm’s unprecedented scale caught them off guard, plunging them into darkness, isolating them from their families, and inundating their hospitals.

The toll, though difficult to quantify, is devastatingly high, a harsh reminder of the fragile nature of life in a region where nature’s fury can transform a desert into a sea in the blink of an eye.

(With inputs from AJ)

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