Where the echoes of helpless cries linger amid the ruins of Derna in eastern Libya, its citizens are living a nightmare brought about by the callousness of successive rulers and the unbridled cruelty of military elites. Two dams, remnants of a bygone era under Moammar Gadhafi’s rule, had stood for decades as neglected sentries, guarding a coastal city deliberately left vulnerable to climate-induced changes. As the dams eventually broke under the weight of Mediterranean Storm Daniel’s heavy rains earlier this month, flash floods literally cleaved Derna in two, instantly killing thousands of its residents and washing many out to sea.
It won’t just be nature’s fury that will haunt Derna’s residents, though, but the storm of negligence, manipulation and repression that preceded and followed this tragedy.
Derna’s suffering mirrors in many ways the tragic fate of Libya. Considered a cradle of opposition to Gadhafi during his rule, the city was renowned for its artists, poets and cultural scene. It was deliberately marginalized by the dictator for these very reasons. Post-Gadhafi, the country’s transitional authorities didn’t treat it any better, swapping their promises of new beginnings with disarray and plunder.
Derna’s security deteriorated in the margins, becoming a site for competing Islamist factions, including the Islamic State. By 2017, an internationally supported military general who had served in Gadhafi’s regime, Khalifa Haftar, laid siege to Derna under the guise of countering terrorism—despite the Islamic State already having been defeated by Derna’s own local, Islamist-led coalition. In a Pyrrhic victory in 2019, Haftar’s militia—the self-proclaimed Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) —conquered it at the cost of killing, displacing and imprisoning a quarter of its residents.
The plight of Derna did not end there, as political jockeying between Libya’s successive rival governments and its elites cast a long shadow over the city. The scramble by international mediators and self-serving Libyan politicians to broker bargains with Haftar condemned Derna to ostracism, and its residents suffered silently.
Meanwhile, Derna’s infrastructure crumbled, weakened by neglect. Political elites continued to pilfer, choosing greed over governance. As the clouds of Storm Daniel converged on Libyan shores, authorities had ample warning but displayed only apathy.
Before disaster struck, the negligence of eastern Libya’s authorities stood out. Instead of heeding the warning signs and evacuating the city, they gave contradictory orders. Some of Derna’s coastal neighborhoods were evacuated, but curfews trapped Derna’s residents in its most vulnerable areas.
The ensuing floods tore through the city’s heart, leaving nothing but destruction, death and despair in their wake. Lives were lost, homes were destroyed, and thousands displaced and injured. Residents were left to grapple with the consequences of a tragedy that could have been prevented. Naturally, they felt forsaken by those who should have protected them.
Yet, amid rubble and sorrow, a glimmer of hope emerged. The resilience of Derna’s people shone bright as those alive helped organize rescue and relief efforts alongside civil society, boy scouts and individual volunteers from the LAAF. Across the divided country, an unprecedented wave of popular support erupted, with Libyans from all walks of life rallying to support Derna. Some sold their most prized possessions to provide aid. It was a testament to the enduring spirit of a people who had been abandoned by their own leaders.
But that hope soon gave way to disillusionment as the Haftar family sought to hijack relief efforts through their LAAF, all while skirting responsibility for the tragedy and blaming Derna’s residents. Military units became gatekeepers of the recovery, creating bottlenecks and obstructing the flow of aid.
Saddam Haftar, a man whose only claim to military credentials is his father’s last name, and who has neither trained as a soldier nor an aid worker, appointed himself as de-facto head of the crisis committee responsible for Derna’s relief efforts. While individual soldiers on the ground indeed helped, the military leadership indulged in its usual theft. They set up checkpoints that hindered relief efforts and treated aid as war spoils.
Battered but undeterred, Derna’s residents took to the streets in a massive protest only nine days after the tragedy. Their voices rose above the ruins, echoing through the city’s shattered streets. Their demands were simple: accountability and justice. They called for an international investigation to uncover the truth. They also wanted the city’s reconstruction expedited under international oversight, with the involvement of reputable companies from abroad.
In a disturbing Orwellian turn of events, the military authorities responded by arresting protest leaders, and imposing a media blackout on a city reeking of death. Telecommunications were severed for nearly two days, plunging the city into silence.
Only a select few pro-military outlets and partisan individuals were granted internet access. The military’s crisis committee claimed the blackout was due to cable damage. The few remaining international journalists in Derna were given contradictory orders and were barred from covering the relief efforts.
Revealingly, the crisis committee’s spokesperson stated that one of the committee’s goals was to “manage the flow of information from Derna,” doublespeak for modern-day censorship. To onlookers, the truth was evident: Derna’s residents were being silenced, punished for daring to demand accountability.
Derna’s tragedy is ultimately a tale of leaders who turned their backs on their people and military elites who exploited their suffering for their own gain. Today, the city, like much of Libya, finds itself at the mercy of a dysfunctional political scene rife with disciples of Gadhafi’s nefarious schools of repression and corruption. It comes as no surprise that they are collectively perpetuating his legacy of neglect and avarice at Libya’s expense. But the wounds inflicted upon Derna’s residents will not fade over time; they are now etched into the city’s soul. Though their voices are now muffled, the people of Derna will never cease seeking justice.
In this hour of darkness, their calls should not be ignored. Derna’s story is not just one that should be told or remembered, it must also be acted upon. The truth should be unveiled, and those responsible for this disaster held accountable.
Emadeddin Badi is a Libyan consultant and researcher. He is a non-resident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council and a senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.