The catastrophe stands for the wider crimes and failures of those in power. The people have had enough.
To count the thousands killed by the floods in the eastern Libyan city of Derna does not truly help us grasp their loss. “Those people are not numbers at all … Those people are love stories, friendships, dreams, ambitions … are people who had names,” Johr Ali, a journalist from the city, told the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast.
Libyan authorities do not want people to focus on those victims, or why they died. Global heating made the torrential rain that hit Libya 50 times more likely, scientists say. But it was the collapse of dams and failure to evacuate that multiplied this disaster.
Survivors want to know why warnings about the structures were ignored and what happened to millions of dollars allocated for their maintenance. But on Tuesday, after furious residents protested, officials blocked foreign journalists from entering the city and local media were reportedly detained. Telephone and internet links were cut.
This is a country with two competing governments, but a barely functioning state. The coalition of militias under warlord Khalifa Haftar in the east competes with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in the west.
Those who rule pursue wealth and power, with scant regard for 7 million Libyans reeling from years of dictatorship, revolution, civil war and political deadlock. Incompetent, corrupt and callous governments rely on others – even teenage Scouts – to do their duties, while caging and repressing civil society.
Now many fear that political leaders will exploit the crisis to enrich themselves and delay elections. Mr Haftar is already entrenching his power and that of his family. His son Saddam has been put in charge of the disaster response committee; the international community will be coordinating with a man whose forces took “substantial quantities” of cash and silver belonging to the central bank, according to UN experts, and have carried out a “catalogue of horrors”, including war crimes, according to Amnesty International.
Libyans at home and abroad have had enough. They want an international inquiry into the disaster and the response, looking at the role of authorities in both power centres. Any domestic inquiry will at best find scapegoats, and they do not expect cooperation with foreign investigators. But political elites have enjoyed complete impunity for the last decade – not even having to justify failures and crimes.
Derna’s tragedy has thrown the spotlight upon their behaviour. An inquiry would at least highlight their actions and inaction, essential information for Libyans; it might play some part in preventing future catastrophes; and it would confront western governments with their own responsibility.
A new paper from the Chatham House thinktank, focusing on Libya, Iraq and Lebanon, notes that international policymakers “have repeatedly prioritized ‘stability’ over accountability. The resulting settlements (or ‘elite bargains’) have instead created and perpetuated political systems that benefit those elites at the expense of citizens.”
The paper’s authors, Dr Renad Mansour, Tim Eaton and Dr Lina Khatib, argue that such deals have reduced direct violence, but overlooked structural forms of violence and have failed to improve, or even worsened, corruption and human development scores. Increasing accountability, they argue, must be a key part of reaching political settlements. Libya’s leaders have dodged that until now. But nothing less is owed to the lovers, friends, dreamers and strivers of Derna.