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In Libya, Disastrous Floods Have Become a Rallying Cry for Unity

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TRIPOLI, Libya — Zahra el-Gerbi wasn't expecting much of a response to her online fundraiser, but she felt she had to do something after four of her relatives died in the flooding that decimated the eastern Libyan city of Derna. She put out a call for donations for those displaced by the deluge.

In the first half-hour after she shared it on Facebook, the Benghazi-based clinical nutritionist said friends and strangers were already promising financial and material support.

“It's for basic needs like clothes, foods and accommodation,” el-Gerbi said.

For many Libyans, the collective grief over the more than 11,000 dead has morphed into a rallying cry for national unity in a country blighted by 12 years of conflict and division. In turn, the tragedy has ramped up pressure on the country’s leading politicians, viewed by some as the architects of the catastrophe.

The oil-rich country has been divided between rival administrations since 2014, with an internationally recognized government in Tripoli and a rival authority in the east, where Derna is located. Both are backed by international patrons and armed militias whose influence in the country has ballooned since a NATO-backed Arab Spring uprising toppled autocratic ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Numerous United Nations-led initiatives to bridge the divide have failed.

In the early hours of Sept. 11, two dams in the mountains above Derna burst, sending a wall of water two stories high into the city and sweeping entire neighborhoods out to sea. At least 11,300 people were killed and a further 30,000 displaced.

An outpouring of support for the people of Derna followed. Residents from the nearby cities of Benghazi and Tobruk offered to put up the displaced. In Tripoli, some 1,450 kilometers (900 miles) west, a hospital said it would perform operations free of charge for any injured in the flood.

Ali Khalifa, an oil rig worker from Zawiya, west of Tripoli, said his cousin and a group of other men from his neighborhood joined a convoy of vehicles heading to Derna to help out with relief efforts. Even the local scout squad participated, he said.

The sentiment was shared by 50-year-old Mohamed al-Harari.

"The wound or pain of what happened in Derna hurt all the people from western Libya to southern Libya to eastern Libya,” he said.

The disaster has fostered rare instances of the opposing administrations cooperating to help those affected. As recently as 2020, the two sides were in an all-out war. Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s forces besieged Tripoli in a yearlong failed military campaign to try to capture the capital, killing thousands.

“We have even seen some military commanders arrive from the Tripoli allied military coalition in Derna, showing support,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior Libya analyst at International Crisis Group.

But the distribution of aid into the city has been highly disorganized, with minimal amounts of supplies reaching flood-affected areas in the days following the disaster.

Across the country, the disaster has also exposed the shortcomings of Libya's fractured political system.

While young people and volunteers rushed to help, “there was a kind of confusion between the governments in the east and west” on what to do, said Ibrahim al-Sunwisi, a local journalist from the capital, Tripoli.

Others have leveled blame for the burst dams on government officials.

A report by a state-run audit agency in 2021 said the two dams hadn’t been maintained despite the allocation of more than $2 million for that purpose in 2012 and 2013. As the storm approached, authorities told people — including those in vulnerable areas — to stay indoors.

“Everyone in charge is responsible,” said Noura el-Gerbi, a journalist and activist who was born in Derna and is also a cousin of el-Gerbi, who made the call for donations online. “The next flood will be over them.”

The tragedy follows a long line of problems born from the country’s lawlessness. Most recently, in August, sporadic fighting broke out between two rival militia forces in the capital, killing at least 45 people, a reminder of the influence rogue armed groups wield across Libya.

Under pressure, Libya’s General Prosecutor al-Sediq al-Sour said Friday that prosecutors would open a file on the collapse of the two dams and investigate the authorities in the Derna, as well as past governments.

But the country's political leaders have so far deflected responsibility. The Prime Minister of Libya’s Tripoli government, Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, said he and his ministers were accountable for the dams' maintenance, but not the thousands of deaths caused by the flooding.

Meanwhile, the speaker of Libya’s eastern administration, Aguila Saleh, said the flooding was simply an incomparable natural disaster. “Don’t say, ‘If only we’d done this, if only we’d done that,’” said Saleh in a televised news conference.

When the rescue and recovery operation in Derna is done, other daunting tasks will lie ahead. It remains unclear how Libyan authorities will rehome much of its population, and rebuild.

El-Gerbi, who has since closed down the donations page to encourage people to give directly to the Red Crescent, said two of her uncles are on their way from Derna to Benghazi, with potentially tens of thousands of others making the same journey.

“They don’t have work, know where to live, even what to eat,” she said.

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