Floods have not been a rare occurrence in the history of Derna. However, the power of Storm Daniel this month was on a scale unlike any of the other shocks, natural or otherwise, the Libyan city has endured over the years, including its recent transformation into a battleground between Islamists and a notorious warlord.
Some might argue that the “reverse tsunami” marked Libya’s initiation into the uncertain future of climate change but the country already had a foot in that door, situated as it is in one of the most climate vulnerable regions of the world.
However, the threats are magnified by the extent to which Libya’s future, and its resilience to inevitable shocks, is compromised by the corrosive legacies that amplified Derna’s tragedy and will continue to have similar effects on the country for years to come.
We are already seeing some of the ways in which the effects of those legacies manifest themselves, just days after the devastating storm swept through. The residents of Derna are now trapped by an almost apocalyptic mix of corruption, death and destruction.
A despairing populace, rightfully aggrieved and furiously demanding accountability and change, is left to salvage what remains of their destroyed city, abandoned by a homeland that persistently betrays them at every turn.
Having survived the most catastrophic storm since records began in the 1900s, Derna’s survivors have seen their lives reduced to rubble. Some have told how they watched, helplessly, as loved ones were swept away by the torrent.
The full extent of the horrors becomes more apparent each day, with entire families wiped from civil registries. Meanwhile, authorities busy themselves policing dissent rather than rendering aid or facilitating recovery efforts, while the hopeful gather with the mournful along the coastline as now-unrecognizable bodies continue to wash ashore.
Their ordeal is far from over. As if to add insult to injury, this week Derna was inexplicably cut off from the rest of the world. Libyan authorities — continuing to coast on dubious claims of legitimacy bought by the gun and assured by a disinterested international community — have proffered only a conflicting stream of statements and press releases about the communications blackout.
It is unclear whether the intent is to buy time to find a convenient scapegoat, or to come up with palatable justifications for isolating the residents of a devastated city who, with no hope of recourse or relief, took to the streets to protest in a rare display of public furor against a firmly entrenched ruling elite.
However, their demands for an investigation into the disaster and calls for the UN to oversee the reconstruction of Derna have been met only with further oppression for daring to voice their grievances. In a stark reminder of the kind of disconnect that pervades Libya today, the very authorities responsible for handling the aftermath of the devastation would rather brand the foremost voices of the rightfully aggrieved as “terrorists.”
The media and internet blackout was imposed in the name of “safety,” it is claimed — but whose safety? Certainly not the survivors of the disaster, who now face a second crisis given the UN’s recent warnings of possible disease outbreaks stemming from contaminated water and lack of sanitation.
For the few journalists who managed to reach Derna before the enforced isolation of the city, the stories they uncovered were harrowing. Survivors, desperate for their voices to be heard, gave chilling accounts of their experiences so far. Aid and rescue workers said they had never seen such scenes of destruction, even in Turkiye after the earthquakes in February.
Yet pleas for help and calls for swift action continue to be swatted aside by a greedy and corrupt cabal that is rapidly positioning itself to exploit Derna’s tragedy, eagerly anticipating the influx of international aid and the opportunity to control its distribution.
They could not care less that their repression and blackouts only send the horrifying message that the lives, grief and rage in Derna — or elsewhere else for that matter — will never be worth more than their own self-preservation.
Naturally, the knee-jerk lunge to silence, refute, arrest and “disappear” any dissenting voices has further fueled the intense anger, and galvanized Libyans far beyond Derna and even outside the country.
Meanwhile, rather than acknowledge the gravity of the situation in the city and how it is emblematic of a deeply flawed system that is crumbling under its own weight, to the global community the situation in Libya remains business as usual.
Take the US, for instance. Given the absence of stable, functioning state institutions in Libya, Washington could have easily facilitated the full empowerment of the UN and other international bodies to manage the aftermath of the disaster, while sidelining an apathetic, callous, inept and corrupt Libyan political elite.
Instead, the US opted for a bizarre, tone deaf and, frankly, insulting response by publishing pictures of a meeting between the head of its US Africa Command and the leader of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar.
For one thing, he is the de facto overseer of Russian private military company Wagner’s operations in eastern Libya, which the US Treasury Department stopped short of designating a terrorist group but describes as a “significant transnational criminal organization.”
Secondly, and even more dastardly, it is his Internal Security Agency that terrorized Derna’s survivors in its efforts to arrest organizers of the protests in front of the city’s grand mosque this week.
Worse yet, there have been no notable reports of outrage in the world’s press concerning the blackouts in Derna or the arbitrary arrests of survivors of the disaster, demands for accountability, or the fact that one of Haftar’s sons is overseeing recovery efforts.
Moreover, reporters can only get as far as Benghazi, about 250 km away, in their efforts to cover what is happening in Derna while it is cut off from the rest of the world. It is an insidious recipe for the inevitable result that developments in the wrecked city will end up relegated to a cursory line or two in the margins as attentions shift elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the death toll continues to rise, while Haftar and his ilk set about turning Derna into a potential windfall for their political aspirations and a showcase of legitimacy in their rivalry with the UN-backed authority in the west of the country. Control of access and the funneling of resources, funds and personnel to the disaster area will afford the rival authority in the east more influence and attention, which are already being wielded for nefarious purposes.
Derna could have been the type of wake-up call the global community has consistently missed or resisted concerning Libya. It is unlikely a unified, accountable and receptive government would have come about even if the voices of protest in Derna had not been abruptly interrupted. However, the swiftness and harshness of the repression in an attempt to silence them does indicate the glaring vulnerabilities, and a palpable fear of a contagion of unrest, among the seemingly unassailable elites.
If only Libyan authorities responded to their citizens’ needs as swiftly as they cracked down on dissent.
Meanwhile, we watch as the global community continues to break bread with the same entities complicit in creating the conditions that resulted in the Derna disaster. As the cries for aid grow louder, the international community must heed not only the calls for immediate relief but also the desperate pleas for transparency, accountability and decisive blows to the malignant corruption that is compromising Libya’s future.
As we bear witness to the unraveling of Derna, we must remember that its residents are not merely the victims of a terrible natural disaster, but the casualties of a system that prioritizes power over people. For the people of the city, the nightmare has only just begun.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.