June 15, 2024

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A Libyan family tells how they survived the deadly floods

SUSSE, Libya – The white walls of Alam Saadawi’s house were stained red by the muddy handprints his wedding guests left behind, holding on for dear life as floodwaters rose around them.

His family had been planning the party for weeks. His father, Miloud, 70, bought silver plates for dinner and new cups for sweet tea.

They were buried on Friday in the red silt left behind by Storm Daniel when it roared down the valley and covered this town of 8,000 people in eastern Libya. The family said it took 15 men to remove layers of dirt from the marble floors. The trauma will be difficult to erase.

Groom Alam was recovering in a nearby city when Washington Post reporters visited the house. The bride was with her family. They never celebrated their wedding day.

“We are afraid of the rain now,” Allam’s brother, Nizar, said as he stood in what was left of their kitchen.

A disaster of “mythical proportions” in eastern Libya, which was devastated by floods

Up to 20,000 people could die in this war-torn country – victims of a perfect storm of extreme weather and state neglect. As rescue workers search for the missing and bury the dead, survivors carry their wounds.

When two poorly maintained dams burst on Sunday, unleashing a towering wall of water on unsuspecting towns and villages, they ruined ordinary evenings and special occasions alike.

In Derna, the most affected city, two newlyweds were found dead under their stairs, the bride in her dress and the groom in his suit. Outside the maternity hospital on Thursday, two brothers were searching for their sister and her newborn after their home was swept away.

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“It is a tragedy where climate and capacity collide,” Martin Griffiths, a UN humanitarian aid official, said during a press conference in Geneva on Friday. He added that the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs sent a disaster coordination team consisting of 15 people to Libya, and they were transferred from the earthquake zone in Morocco, where the region is suffering from two double disasters.

“In Libya, we don’t know the extent of the problem,” Griffiths said. “Floods, torrents, destroyed buildings and sludge still hide the level of destitution and death.”

Doctors Without Borders said that its representatives toured three health centers in Derna and found that one of them was out of service due to the death of almost all of its medical staff. The other two were working with volunteer doctors from Tripoli, but requested more support, “mainly mental health support for people coming to the centre,” the group said.

Learn why Libya’s floods were so deadly in maps and videos

There was a frenetic energy in downtown Derna on Friday as Washington Post reporters returned for the second day in a row. Anxious officers cleared the roads with walkie-talkies, fearing a high-ranking official was on the way. Rumors abound about who it might be.

Aid trucks were more visible than they had been the day before, the cell phone network had been restored, and Air Force officers were directing traffic. Hundreds of men in military uniforms and fluorescent coats lined the streets.

In other coastal communities, the mood was calmer, as residents continued the cleanup process and excavators combed through the rubble in search of bodies. In Sousse, 60 miles west of Derna, the Saadawi family recalled the happy, nervous energy in the house that Sunday evening, which seemed so long ago now.

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Relatives were crowded into every room, the children were excited to see their cousins ​​and the adults preparing to prepare for the feast. They slaughtered 13 sheep for the wedding, scheduled for Thursday, then lit a barbecue when evening came and ate together under the pomegranate trees in their courtyard.

Inside the house, festive lanterns glowed from the ceiling and the younger cousins ​​played musical chairs in their festive dresses. Allam’s older brother, Najm, was running his last errands in his car when it started to rain.

Heavy rain fell on the city’s flat concrete roofs and its vast green orchards. At 11:30 p.m., water poured into the valley and entered through their front gates. “It happened in seconds,” Nizar, 40, recalls.

The lights went out and the music stopped. The children froze.

By Friday evening, authorities in Sousse counted 10 dead, 50 missing, and 200 wounded. Dozens of houses slid into the sea or were torn apart, and rubble was scattered from land to shore. It appears that few relief organizations have reached the area.

Inside the El Saadawi family home, muddy handprints covered almost every wall, rising along the stairs the family climbed as the water rose higher and faster. Some of the prints were small. “We would grab the kids and throw them there,” Nizar said.

They all reached the top floor, water up to their necks. Allam said that he and the other men carried the children on top of their heads. Neighbors screamed from the rooftops as a family of six were swept away. The groom was sure then that he would die.

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Nizar said that they were rescued when the kitchen wall collapsed, and water rushed into the courtyard where they were eating. The tide slowly dried out, causing the wedding pots, pans and lanterns to rest gently on the muddy ground. A friend said it was as if a terrible spirit had left the room.

Nizar was skin-deep and in shock, hitting his head with his hands. “It seemed like a dream,” he remembers thinking.

On Friday, reminders were everywhere. A bag of bills that would have been a wedding present was drying on the bed. Crimson red chairs for guests were stacked on the deck.

In Libyan culture, the groom’s father traditionally pays for the wedding. Miloud now lives in the ruins of a day that was supposed to bring pride. He added that his children are still alive, and that is the main thing.

“These things won’t mean anything if they get hurt,” he said, looking through the broken kitchen wall at the stove in the mudflats of the courtyard.

With winter approaching, they would have to repair the house, but they didn’t know how they would be able to afford it. “We only get monthly salaries,” Najm said. “We will stay in this house as it is.”

No one in Sousse has slept much since the flood. In their nightmares, many people see rain.