Patrick Wintour | Diplomatic editor
‘An alarm bell’: Libyan poet warned of flood risk in Derna before dying in storms
Mustafa al-Trabelsi attended a meeting about state of the dams days before Storm Daniel hit city
In Derna, and indeed across Libya, everyone is sharing a poem called The Rain, written by a poet from the city, Mustafa al-Trabelsi, who died in the floods. On 6 September, days before writing the poem, he had attended a meeting at the Derna house of culture to discuss the risk of a flood in the city and the state of the dams.
The poem is short but pertinent. It reads:
Exposes the drenched streets,
the cheating contractor,
and the failed state.
It washes everything,
and cats’ fur.
Reminds the poor
of their fragile roofs
and ragged clothes.
It awakens the valleys,
shakes off their yawning dust
and dry crusts.
a sign of goodness,
a promise of help,
an alarm bell.
It was an alarm bell that the appointed officials of Derna chose not to hear. So now, residents say, the city resounds to a different sound – one of anguish as mothers talk about the loss of their children.
In the streets there are shouts of excitement when signs of life are discovered, but more often the painful search through the ruins ends only with discovery of corpses in the mud, or nothing, and silence.
By the sea, where many victims were dispatched by the raging river, Turkish rescue workers wearing scuba suits pick through the floating detritus of a destroyed town in search of bodies.
Officials said 300 survivors, including 13 children, had been rescued. The news brought some joy, but a doctor broke down in tears as he was pressed by a TV crew to say whether more than 10,000 were dead – a question to which he could not know the answer.
In an attempt to give a sense that the response was being well managed, it was briefed that Brig Gen Saddam Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army operations room and son of the ageing Gen Khalifa Hafter, was overseeing rescue and recovery efforts.
Haftar was said to be working closely with specialised teams who were searching the shoreline for people swept out to sea by the floods. He was said to be “assessing the needs of rescue crews and ensuring they have the necessary capabilities and resources to conduct operations safely and efficiently”.
But with entire neighbourhoods flattened after apartment buildings and homes collapsed, in many cases sweeping away sleeping residents inside, the sense of safety and efficiency was far away.
In the Shiha district of Derna, witnesses described bodies being lined up in corridors waiting for identification as the morgue was full.
About 230 Sudanese were killed as the flood swept through the area where they lived. The secretary general of the Sudanese community in the city of Tobruk, Bashir al-Dhai, told the Sudan Tribune: “The initial toll of Sudanese victims from the flood has so far reached 231 dead.”
Gilles Carbonnier, the vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Al Jazeera that three members of the Libyan Red Crescent were killed while helping the afflicted.
Footage on social media showed the terror of late Sunday night as children and women scrambled in the darkness with phone torchlights to climb stairs to higher floors away from the raging water.
One man described how the foundations of buildings seven floors high were uprooted within seconds as if a tornado had hit them, sending them into the sea.
The city can now be reached by just two of the seven routes that used to exist.
Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan writer who translated Mustafa’s poem, said the response and the generosity across Libya had been “heartbreaking”: people in Misrata offering apartments, a mechanic in Sebha offering free tyres and repairs for those heading to help in Derna, a woman offering to adopt babies, recent mothers offering to breastfeed foundlings and orphans. All incredible acts of generosity, but, he said, ultimately all futile.
“I want to cry out: ‘This is why we need civil society and freedom of the press,’ and I tell myself don’t politicise this. But wasn’t it politics that led to this, the marginalisation, the neglect layer upon layer, and the corruption like gangrene spread over the body politic?” he said.
On the night of the storm, at 7.44pm, Mustafa wrote on his Facebook page: “The scenes are scary, and things may escalate to a disaster, and we are under the rule of a corrupt tyrant who has nothing but data, claiming to be prepared and, in fact, does not have any equipment, and rescue teams are only few.
“May God protect the Scouts, the Red Crescent and volunteers who prove that in every crisis our country goes through, they are true voluntary organisations, and the absence of a failed state. May God help the families all over our beloved country.”
At 9.37pm, he wrote: “We have only one [an]other in this difficult situation. Let’s stand together until we drown.”
The Guardian | Thu 14 Sep 2023 16.35 BST