Shouts of “God is Great, a survivor!” and “call an ambulance” rang out from onlookers as rescue teams searched through the rubble of a collapsed building in the eastern Libyan city of Derna. An hour later on Saturday evening rescuers were still working but no one had been found.
Efforts to find survivors continued over the weekend despite shrinking odds of finding people still alive almost a week after floods caused by Storm Daniel swept through the Mediterranean port.
Mahmoud Bakkar, a teacher, was looking for his aunt and one of her children, who lived in a two-storey house.
“You can’t distinguish any of its features now. I rushed here after it happened and in the early hours it was the citizens who pulled out the survivors,” he said.
Residents are still reeling from the destruction wrought by the storm that swelled up the Derna river and swept away two ageing dams in nearby hills. The torrents that ripped through the city during the night brought down buildings, tossed around cars and destroyed bridges, splitting the two sides of Derna.
The city centre and two residential districts in Derna have been wiped away. Many buildings have been reduced to jumbled piles of masonry and twisted metal. Tall trees have been uprooted by the force of the water and thrown on top of shattered buildings and through windows. The streets were littered with mangled cars.
While thousands have died, authorities have not communicated an official death toll as the scale of the disaster complicates the rescue mission. Officials in Derna said bodies that had been washed into the sea were still being retrieved from the shores, in addition to those buried under the rubble. At the seafront people were washing bodies in the backs of cars to prepare them for burial.
According to the World Health Organization, the bodies of 3,958 people have been recovered and identified. A UN spokesperson said the number was projected to increase as more bodies are recovered by search and rescue teams.
Some survivors report miraculous escapes. Ibrahim Sassi, a university student, lost his mother, brother, sister and aunt, but said the waters lifted him near the ceiling and he could still breathe in the sliver of air remaining at the top of the room. “I was there for 20 minutes until the water receded.”
Samah Abdel Hamid, a mother of six who lost her eldest son, said she and her other children floated on the sponge cushions in their homes. “When the water came down, I thought my children had died, but I found them in the other rooms.”
Noha al-Hassady, a teacher now with her family in a Red Crescent shelter, saw the front of a car being pushed by the water through her window when her husband opened it. The family of four survived the rising waters. “My son was about to drown but I pulled him up and placed him above the washing machine. My neighbour’s five children were taken by the floods.”
Some blamed the disaster on local authorities. Derna is under the control of the eastern government backed by the renegade general Khalifa Haftar. The oil exporting country is divided between rival administrations in the east and west with militias and warlords holding sway in large swaths of the country.
Libya has been mired in chaos since a Nato-backed uprising ousted dictator Muammer Gaddafi from power in 2011.
International efforts to forge a political settlement between rival factions have repeatedly failed. The division of the country has become more entrenched, analysts say, as politicians, backed by militias and foreign patrons, protect the privileges and access to resources they could lose if Libyans elect a single government.
“It is the municipality of Derna which bears the responsibility for this,” said Soheib, a young Libyan who said that his family home was ripped from its foundation and moved dozens of metres downstream, accusing local politicians of stealing millions of euros intended to fix the dams.
As Soheib criticised the mayor and Aguilah Saleh, the speaker of the eastern-based parliament, a man who said he was a member of the security services abruptly intervened to end the interview. Saleh is one of the power brokers of eastern Libya and an uncle to the mayor of Derna.
Another resident, Mohamed Mahgoub, also blamed local authorities and said many of the 150 people in his building were still missing. “The state is responsible because the dams needed maintenance and funds. The local authorities spend budgets the way they want.”
According to a 2021 report by a state-run audit agency, the two dams had not been maintained even though authorities had received more than $2mn for that purpose in 2012 and 2013.
Libya’s attorney-general has promised an investigation into the collapse of the two dams but analysts are sceptical about whether such a probe can be effectively carried out in the fractious state.
Abdel Wanis Ashour, a dam expert at Sebha university in south-western Libya, warned last year the two dams could collapse without extensive maintenance. He told local media in recent days that “this disaster would not have happened” had the dams been properly maintained.
It is not only Libyans whose lives have been blighted by the disaster.
At a shelter, 22 Egyptian workers said they had lost everything — money, IDs, mobile phones — in the storm. Egypt has repatriated 87 bodies but the workers said many of their friends were still lost.
“Only three of the 33 Egyptians who lived with me survived,” said Sabbah Hashem from southern Egypt. “We lost everything but we want the Libyan authorities to post the pictures of the bodies they find so we can identify our friends.”
Others wanted Egyptian consular authorities to issue them with new documents and repatriate them.
In addition to aid from Italy, Egypt and other countries, the affected areas have witnessed an outpouring of support from other parts of the country, despite the political divides.
On the road to Derna trucks loaded with mattresses, bottled water and other supplies could be seen, often with the name of the town or village offering the aid. Many vehicles bore the slogan “brothers to the rescue”.
“This is a turning point in the sense that it brought people together,” said Claudia Gazzini, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Contact has been made between military officials backing the rival governments in the east and west, yet Gazzini was still sceptical that the disaster would heal Libya’s divisions.
“Before the floods there was talk of a political process, but it has now stopped. Those in power will grasp the opportunity to put the political process in the freezer.”