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Emergency teams in flood-hit Derna lament “humanitarian disaster” amid dearth of volunteers

A man sits as rescue teams work in a destroyed area in Libya's eastern city of Derna on September 18, 2023.   -  
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MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP or licensors


In flood-devastated Derna on Monday (Sep. 18), Libyan rescue teams kept up the search for bodies or any survivors in the mud-caked wasteland of smashed buildings crushed cars and uprooted trees.

The health minister of the eastern administration, said that over 3,200 people were confirmed dead in the port-city, where corpses keep arriving at the morgue.

Libyan officials and humanitarian groups have warned, however, that the final toll could be much higher.

"It's indeed a humanitarian disaster. Since the first day and the second, and today, the numbers are increasing, but today is the worst. We no longer recognize the victims," Halima, who works at a mortuary said.

One week after the disaster occurred, there is a growing risk of cholera, diarrhoea, dehydration and malnutrition, the UN has warned.

Libya's disease control centre banned citizens in the disaster zone from drinking water from local mains, warning that it is "polluted".

Volunteers also need backing: "From a health perspective, we have a shortage of medical supplies, a lack of medical equipment and children's supplies, and a shortage of volunteers," Mohammad Bashir Qusaya, member of rescue teams revealed.

Emergency response teams and relief goods from countries including Greece, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, France, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have been deployed. 

Libya is divided in two rival administrations. Speaking on Sky News on Sept. 17, Britain's foreign secretary, James Cleverly hinted that "the big challenge with Libya" was that, unlike Morocco and Turkey which were hit by major earthquakes this year, it lacks a fully functioning government to coordinate with. 

Libya's rival government are cooperating to aid flood victims as misery piles on.

Search operations are grim even though certain residents have miraculously been excavated alive.

"A family of five people has been rescued and they are alive after being trapped for 6 days," Mohammad Bashir Qusayasaid. 

"The number of casualties has exceeded 35, including Libyans and non-Libyans. This is the tally from yesterday. Today, we just recovered a body a while ago and retrieved hands, legs, and decomposed bodies from the water," he added.

'We grew up here but we've come to hate this place'

Traumatised residents, 30,000 of whom are now homeless in Derna alone, are in dire need of help, UN agencies warn.

Last week's massive flooding caused two upstream river dams in Derna to rupture, sending a late-night tidal wave crashing through the centre of the city of one hundred thousand 100,000 and sweeping entire residential blocks into the Mediterranean.

The waters submerged a densely populated six-square-kilometre (2.3-square-mile) area in Derna, damaging 1,500 buildings of which 891 were totally razed, according to a preliminary report released by the Tripoli government based on satellite images.

"We grew up here, we were raised here... But we've come to hate this place, we've come to hate what it has become," said one bereaved Derna resident, Abdul Wahab al-Masouri.

Bulldozers cleared roads of mud, including at a mosque where a foul smell hung in the air and a woman prayed for children and grandchildren killed in the disaster.

Amid the chaos, the true death toll remained unknown, with untold numbers swept into the sea.

Field hospitals

Five members of a Greek rescue team were killed when their vehicle collided with a Libyan family's car on the Benghazi-to-Derna road on Sunday, officials said. Three members of the family also died.

Egypt has sent a helicopter carrier to the eastern Tobruk military base to serve as a field hospital with more than 100 beds, Egyptian media reported.

France has set up a field hospital in Derna.

On Monday (Sept. 18), the UN, which has launched an emergency appeal for more than $71 million, said nine of its agencies were delivering aid and support to survivors.

The European Union said it was releasing 5.2 million euros (around $5.5 million) in humanitarian funding for Libya, bringing total EU aid so far to more than 5.7 million euros.

On Monday (Sept. 18) the Tripoli-based government said it began work on a temporary bridge over the river that cuts through Derna.

UN experts have blamed the high death toll on climatic factors as the Mediterranean region has sweltered under an unusually hot summer, and on the legacy of Libya's war.

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