Omar al-Rifadi has been searching for his missing 20-year-old daughter since disaster struck the Libyan city of Derna on Sunday. She disappeared into the darkness amid a catastrophic flood that claimed the lives of thousands and dragged many into the sea.
“I looked for her everywhere. I visited all the hospitals and schools. But luck was not on my side,” says this 52-year-old, while tears are running down his cheeks.
Officials estimate the number of missing to be around 10.000. The Libyan Red Crescent says nearly 2.000 bodies have been dragged into the sea. Either way, it’s a terrible disaster.
The extent of the destruction is visible from the heights above Derna. This was once the center of the city, densely populated and built along the course of the seasonal crescent-shaped river. Now it is submerged in murky waters that shimmer in the sunlight after the buildings were swept away and the urban landscape obliterated. Derna mayor Abdelmonem al-Ghaithi said the death toll in the city could reach between 20.000 and 25.000, if the number of flooded settlements is taken into account. Storm Daniel also flooded nearby areas, including the seaside resort of Soussa.
Ghaithi said rescue teams have arrived in Derna from Egypt, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, and Qatar. “Actually, we need specialized teams to retrieve the bodies. I’m afraid that an epidemic could spread in the city because of the large number of bodies under the rubble and in the water,” he said.
The United Nations (UN) International Organization for Migration has reported that at least 30.000 people have been displaced in Derna, left without food or shelter.
Rescue operations are complicated because of the political division in Libya, a country of 7 million people. The country has been in an on-and-off civil war since 2011 when a NATO-backed uprising ousted Muammar Gaddafi. Libya has no central government and has two parallel administrations. There is an internationally recognized government based in the capital, Tripoli, and a rival government in the east, led by military commander Khalifa Haftar.
However, human tragedies are beyond politics. One family lost 40 members of their extended family after the water washed away their house above the Derna Valley. In another heartbreaking story, a father survived, watching helplessly as his only son died before his eyes. The man – who did not want to share his name – spoke from the overcrowded Derna hospital, which was full of injured people. “At 2 a.m., after the floods had risen to dangerous levels and reached our house, I went to get my son,” he recalls. It was difficult for him to speak, but he continued: “My son was at his friend’s house. Moments after I reached him, the water overwhelmed us and pushed us towards the roof. We fought for hours. And then, the water dragged my son away before my eyes, and he hit his head on the door. He was stuck there until morning. The last words I heard from him were: ‘Forgive me, Father.’ I lost my only son. He was a student.”