Survivors find strength in community after horror of Derna floods
I had come with my colleagues from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and other UN agencies to assess the humanitarian impact of Storm Daniel and coordinate the provision of aid and support to tens of thousands of people affected by the floods. As the head of UNHCR’s protection team in Libya, my role is to ensure that the immediate and long term needs of survivors and their hosting communities are at the heart of our response.
We had been on the road for over a day, and after driving for many hours along what remained of the main road into the city, we finally stepped out of the car and were hit with a smell of death that will never be erased from my mind. In my 19 years as a humanitarian, I have worked in many countries ravaged by conflict and destruction in the Middle East and North Africa, Europe and the Americas, but nothing had prepared me for what I experienced that day.
As we set out to organize the logistics of bringing in and distributing tons of emergency relief items, we were stunned into silence by the destruction all around us. But the true scale of the tragedy was only revealed when we heard of the loss and pain residents were suffering having watched their loved ones, homes, and city being washed away.
Over 40,000 people have been displaced in the northeast of the country, including 30,000 in Derna alone. UNHCR is scaling up operations to respond to the fast-growing needs of tens of thousands of internally displaced people, refugees and others affected by the devastating floods. Our teams in Libya began distributing relief items like blankets, kitchen sets, solar lamps and plastic sheets three days after the floods hit, as soon as access was possible to the worst-affected areas in the east of the country.
A few days after I returned from Derna, I visited the Ras al Mongar neighbourhood in Benghazi, a city that is now hosting hundreds if not thousands of families who have lost everything – their homes, their belongings, their livelihoods and, worst of all, their loved ones. We were there to assess the needs of families living temporarily in a privately-owned compound donated by a local businessman to host people displaced from Derna.
There I met survivors whose heart-wrenching stories left me far more deeply shaken than the horrific scenes I had witnessed in Derna days before. I was there to offer my personal condolences and, through listening, understand from them how UNHCR and our partners can best respond to their needs.
Among those I met was Amal*, who had been staying with her three daughters – Fadwa, 8, Dunia, 6, and Ibtisam, 4 – at her mother’s house in Derna on the day of the tragedy. Her sister, who was visiting from Tripoli, was also staying with two of her five children.
“It was a windy and stormy night. We didn’t think anything of it. Around 11 p.m., after all the kids went to sleep, I was scrolling on Facebook when I saw a post saying that one of the dams had burst. I panicked and ran to my mother and sister. My mother said that it was impossible because if the dams burst the entire city would be wiped out. I agreed and went to bed.”
She continues: “I woke up at around 2 a.m. to the noise of cars smashing into one another. It was such a strange sound to wake up to that I thought I was dreaming. But I knew I wasn’t. I looked up in panic at one of my daughters who was sleeping under a window and ran to grab her before she was hurt by whatever it was that I knew was coming our way. But I never made it. Right when my hand reached her arm, a flood of water burst into the house and I was swept upwards almost touching the ceiling of our living room. I tried holding on to the floating furniture to stay close to my daughter, but the water was stronger than I was.”
“I screamed to my sister, mother and daughters to tell them to hold onto anything they could, desperately hoping they would hear me. But the only voice I heard back was my sister’s. Suddenly, the water level started going down as the water made its way out of the windows continuing into the valley taking with it all of our belongings and leaving behind tree branches, car parts, furniture. At that moment, I thought I heard my daughter’s voice so I ran towards the sound. I never heard her after that. I don’t know if she was really there or if I had imagined it.”
Amal never saw her daughters again. She ran outside to search for them, but they were gone. She found her mother lying dead on the ground outside their house. She later found her sister, but her nieces, like her own daughters, are still missing.
Nothing had prepared me for what I experienced that day.
“My mother hated the sea her whole life,” Amal told me. “She always said she felt suffocated looking at the waves as if she was drowning. It’s like she knew her whole life that this is exactly how she would die. I know that so many others have, like me, lost what mattered most in their lives. I know their pain, and they know mine. We will help each other learn how to cope with our pain.”
I was speechless, knowing there was little I could do or say to ease her immense suffering, and in awe of the compassion she showed for others in the depth of her own grief. I hugged her tightly and hoped this simple human contact would help her feel seen and heard in any way possible.
Later, I met Ikhlas* and her husband. Both survived the flooding, but Ikhlas lost 21 members of her family, including a brother with whom she was especially close.
When we entered their temporary home in the compound, her husband Mohammed* was sitting on pieces of cardboard arranged on the floor, and behind his polite welcome his expression was still blank with shock. As Ikhlas recounted the events of that night, her profound trauma and state of shock was painfully clear.
“I was up that night when the floods happened,” Ikhlas told me. “I was watching the sea from my balcony and all of a sudden I started hearing a horrific sound, and I didn’t know what was happening. I thought it was an earthquake, but the floor was not moving. Before I knew it, my husband and I were pushed by strong waves into our bathroom. I kept hold of his shirt, and he held on to mine. I told him: ‘Mohammed, we either die together tonight, or we survive together’. We never had children. He is all I have.”
She said it was like a tsunami had swept into their home, destroying everything before continuing down the valley to ravage other homes. I remember thinking this was the same comment that Amal made, both survivors not only witnessed the destruction of their own homes and families but saw the floods washing away the rest of their city.
“There was nothing left in my house. I am very thankful for receiving these mattresses and kitchen items, but I miss my house, my furniture, my own kitchen. I can’t believe I used to tease Mohammed about finding a new home, a better one, and buying new furniture. I would give anything to get our home back.”
Hearing the accounts and seeing the incredible dignity and strength of survivors like Amal and Ikhlas in the face of such tragedy has only increased the resolve of me and the rest of the UNHCR team in Libya to do everything we can to help them recover. This includes delivering emergency relief items and medicines to meet people’s immediate needs and providing counselling and other psychosocial support to help them recover from their trauma and shock.
One source of hope during my visits was seeing how people were coming together to help those affected and each other in the most difficult circumstances. This includes the incredible work being done by the national staff of our local partner, LibAid, many of whom were directly affected by the floods themselves. I saw first-hand how Malak, a young Libyan volunteer, was tirelessly providing on-the-spot counselling to grieving families.
I know their pain, and they know mine.
But addressing the psychological scars and destroyed lives caused by this devastating storm will be a long-term process.
UNHCR will use the additional resources it has gratefully received to set up a hotline for people to talk to a counsellor at any time, and establish together with our partners community-based services where people can access safe spaces, share their experiences, and find the help that they need. Simple set ups like support groups will make a big difference for survivors like Amal and Ikhlas – not just to access support but to help others find the same hope and faith I saw so clearly in them despite their great losses.
Our teams will continue to talk to people to understand their needs and how they are changing over time. This will ensure that their needs and wishes guide our programmes so that the assistance we provide is timely and relevant.
The flood waters may have receded in Derna, but the devastation felt by survivors like Amal and Ikhlas remains, and we cannot turn our backs on them now.
* Names changed for protection reasons.
We cannot turn our backs on them now