HomeTop StoriesA barren wasteland with a lingering smell of death

A barren wasteland with a lingering smell of death

The journey to Derna now takes twice as long. As you drive along the road from Benghazi, the fields turn into rust-red lakes. As you get closer, the traffic starts to slow down. Telegraph poles that were pulled out of the ground by the water now lie haphazardly on the ground. Cars sneak around potholes in the highway, following hastily dug detours carved by diggers.

One of the bridges closest to Derna has been completely washed away. Locals stand at the rugged asphalt precipice, peering at it and taking photos.

Not far away, soldiers are handing out face masks to every car – for the driver and every passenger. Everyone driving the other way is wearing them, and you soon understand why.

The smell of death in parts of the city is almost indescribable. It fills your nostrils, part the smell of sewage, part something harder to identify.

Sometimes it’s so strong it turns your stomach, especially as you look out over the harbor where rescue teams tell me the bodies are still washing up.

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Not only people, but also buildings, property and livelihoods have been washed away in the eastern Libyan city of Derna

That morning they found three. Carried away by the tide, they become trapped in the piles of rubble that slowly rot in the seawater.

Broken wood, whole cars lifted and lowered onto scattered sea walls, tires, refrigerators – everything mixes and swirls together in the still water.

The photos and videos that emerged from Derna were graphic and shocking.

But watching it prepares you for the extent of the damage the floods have caused to this place. The line of the river now yawns like an open wound, perhaps a hundred yards wide in some places. Nothing remains on these mud piles. It’s a barren wasteland.

The destructive power of the water has been extraordinary.

Cars lie around like toys casually tipped on their side or resting upside down. One of them has been completely pushed inwards on the terrace around the characteristic Al Sahaba mosque. Another is completely off the ground, embedded in the side of a building.

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People in Derna, Libya, bring children to safety

More than 1,000 people have been buried in mass graves so far, according to a UN report

Walls of thick concrete blocks have fallen. Sturdy trees have been plucked from the ground, their roots curling into the air. However, everything else is gone.

These weren’t just thousands of people washed away, it was their homes, their belongings, their lives. Humanity has been cleansed from this part of Derna.

For the survivors, life here has changed forever. There is enormous sadness and palpable anger.

Cars on their sides and on their roofs in Derna

With many more thousands missing, the mayor of Derna has warned the total could reach 20,000.

Fairis Ghassar lost five members of his family in the rough waters.

“We were told to stay in our homes,” he cries. ‘Why? They should have told us there was a storm, and that the dam was old and crumbling.

“Some of these destroyed buildings were a hundred years old. It’s all political. There is a government in the west, a government in the east. It’s a big problem.’

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One of the dead was Faris’ ten-month-old daughter. He takes out his phone and shows me their photos. First alive, and then their bodies, carefully wrapped in blankets, their faces showing their ordeal.

As we talk, a convoy of ministers is touring the disaster area. They are from the eastern government, one of Libya’s two opposing authorities. Their fighting has decimated the country’s infrastructure.

Faris claims this proved fatal for his family.

Faris Gassar

Faris Gassar, who lost his infant daughter and four other family members, wonders why they were told to stay home

I asked Eastern Prime Minister Osama Hamad how this could happen when the dams were supposed to protect people?

“It was a very strong cyclone,” he told me. ‘Too strong for the checkers. This is nature, and this is Allah.’

There are rumors on the street about a complete evacuation of Derna.

Those left in the city battle the elements, while clean water and medical care are scarce. Nearly a week after the deadly storm, the challenges facing survivors are only increasing.

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