Benghazi/Al-Marj, Libya — ‘My neighbours used farm equipment to save us.’
Along the corridors of a school in the centre of Benghazi, Libya’s second most populous city, children giggle as they explore the newly painted walls and run around refurbished classrooms. Little do they know, this school is their new home.
Inside the al-Laithi school, parents stared in dismay at the few items they had managed to salvage from their homes, which were swept away by the floods that have claimed thousands of lives across Libya’s northeastern coast.
Reported death tolls vary from 5,000 to as high as 11,300 but could change, with more than 10,000 people believed to be unaccounted for.
While people across the region lost homes and saw family members killed, entire neighbourhoods in the port city of Derna – 250 kilometres east of Benghazi – were obliterated when two ageing dams collapsed and unleashed a vast torrent of water.
As rescuers try to find survivors amidst a catastrophic situation that Osama Ali, spokesperson for the Libyan Ambulance Service, described as “chaotic”, local aid groups – both organised and ad hoc – are helping other Libyans as best they can.
That includes finding shelter for the more than 38,000 people who have been forced to flee their damaged or destroyed homes.
Just days into the academic year, teaching has been suspended. The classrooms at al-Laithi and other Benghazi schools are now filled with new arrivals from across the northeast who headed to the city hoping for shelter and any help they could find.
Schools become shelters
Hajj Muhammad al-Hassi sat against the outside wall of al-Laithi school, still reeling from the events of the past week. He is more fortunate than many. His wife and three children survived. But his home and all his possessions in the eastern village of Battah have been destroyed.
“Floods flattened the village on Sunday evening after the rainstorm, which kept going for hours until torrents destroyed the homes and farms in the area,” al-Hassi told The New Humanitarian.
His face showed deep grief at losing everything he owned: his sheep, and the small farm where he grew crops to support his family. He wasn’t even able to rescue his own identification documents.
Al-Hassi survived because of the sort of solidarity Libyans have been showing each other however they can. “My neighbours used farm equipment to save us,” he explained.
A source from Libya’s Benghazi-based Ministry of Education, who preferred to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to speak to media, told The New Humanitarian that 18 schools in Benghazi are housing displaced people from hard-hit cities, towns, and villages, including Derna, al-Marj, al-Bayda, and Susa.
Jalila al-Darsi, a spokesperson for the Libyan Relief Authority, which is affiliated with the eastern Tobruk-based government – Libya has two rival administrations – said each school is hosting between 26 and 28 families, around 2,000 people in total across Benghazi and its suburbs.
Despite the lack of sufficient space – especially kitchens and bathrooms – families are doing their best to help each other, sharing scarce resources like mattresses and blankets they received from aid groups.
In the corridors of a school called Cordoba on the outskirts of Benghazi, children could be heard playing, while women glanced out from behind half-closed doors, refusing to talk about the disaster or to be filmed.
Barrels of paint lined the walls outside the premises, where maintenance ahead of the new school year had to be put on hold when the classrooms and offices were swiftly turned into shelters.
A pungent smell of disinfectant wafted out from the shared bathrooms. “We are very concerned about the hygiene of the facilities,” said al-Darsi.
‘The east and west are one’
Since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi after a NATO-led military intervention in 2011, Libya has been gripped by intermittent conflict between various militias and armed forces. The country currently has two competing governments, one based in Tripoli, the capital in the west of the country, and the second in the eastern city of Tobruk.
In a rare show of unity, relief convoys were quickly sent east from western cities like Tripoli, Gharyan, Zintan, and Kufra, bearing white flags with slogans like “Libya is united” and “The east and west are one”.
Regional authorities gathered donations from companies, tribes, individuals, and the government, and sent out the flagged cars and trucks loaded with blankets, furniture, food, clothes and medicine. Roads heading east were crowded with these vehicles, as well as with young volunteers eager to join the rescue effort.
Abdullah al-Uqeibi, the head of the High Spirit Foundation, an NGO based in the northeastern town of Suluq, said residents of his town sent 22 truckloads of food, drinkable water, sleeping mats, and other supplies to Derna.
Social media campaigns have been asking for donations as well as encouraging Libyans to open their homes to displaced families. Telecom companies have made their phone and internet services free so people can try to locate missing family members.
Wael Abu Gharara, a 42-year-old architect in the western city of Tajoura, has opened up his house since Tuesday to families who have lost their homes.
“My friends and I are hosting nine families in total in our flats and homes. We have also put together a budget for their daily spending to last around three months,” he told The New Humanitarian. “I’ve reached out to NGOs, politicians, and [other] influential [people], and together there are 50 available houses to accommodate more families,” he said by phone.
Foreign countries have also sent funding and aid, as well as search and rescue teams, while UN agencies and international NGOs are distributing supplies to survivors. The UN has released $10 million to Libya from its Central Emergency Relief Fund, and has appealed for $71.4 million to help 250,000 people over the next three months.
While help has come from both Libyans and abroad, affected communities say they still need more. “Everyone is still in shock,” said Najib ElTarhuni, a doctor at Benghazi Medical Center, the biggest hospital in the east of the country. “We still haven’t had time to process our emotions.”
ElTarhuni said people have come to his hospital – which is now open around the clock – looking for all kinds of help: “People are coming here with no clothes, with no food, with no [shelter]. We try our best to link them with people who have extra houses.”
The doctor told The New Humanitarian that people who wanted to help were being proactive, coming to the hospital and offering housing or whatever else they have, but more was needed.
“We need professionals,” he said. “We need rescue teams. We need people. There are corpses that are still stuck. People are waiting for their loved ones, who are still under buildings.”
“We are understaffed. We’re underfunded. We lack the materials. We lack the medications. We lack the equipment. Anything would help,” the doctor added.
Ali, of the Libyan Ambulance Service, said 170 paramedics are working the Mediterranean coastline, looking for victims as dead bodies continue to wash up with the tide.
“The situation is catastrophic and beyond description,” he said. “Water is still flowing from the mountains surrounding these cities, and there are still many under the rubble, waiting to be rescued.”
Not just Derna
While Derna was hit the hardest because the dams above the city collapsed, people across the northeast lost homes and loved ones. Roads, schools, and homes were destroyed by the floods in the seaside city of al-Marj, around 95 kilometres from Benghazi.
Rescue teams were continuing to try to reach trapped residents despite concerns over landslides in the area, which is also prone to earthquakes.
Al-Marj resident Safaa Bahaa al-Din, 45, lost the home she lived in with her mother and nephews at dawn on Sunday.
“The rain did not stop,” she said, recalling the night when the city was hit by the storm. “It poured continuously for 15 hours.”
Al-Din and her family were rescued by the Libyan Red Crescent and are now staying in what is left of a relative’s house on the outskirts of al-Marj. They have also spent some nights in a school.
For the al-Din family, and thousands like them, even the immediate future is unknown. They are just trying to cope with the catastrophe that came tearing through the walls of their home.
“We were sleeping when the house sank,” she said. “We tried to get out, but the gushing water was so powerful. We couldn’t leave.”
This article was produced in collaboration with Egab, which connects journalists from the Middle East and North Africa with news organisations worldwide.
Additional reporting and editing by Annie Slemrod.
Hendia Alashepy, Libyan journalist with a focus on covering the environment, women, and youth