Libyan protesters demand accountability after floods that killed thousands | ET REALITY


Hundreds of Libyans protested Monday from the devastated eastern city of Derna, demanding the removal of those responsible, a week after torrential rains burst two dams and triggered a catastrophe that killed thousands of people.

Some protesters stood on the muddy, rocky soil that floods swept through the city center on September 11, sweeping entire neighborhoods and their residents into the Mediterranean Sea. Others were perched on the roof of a still-standing mosque, and some appeared to be part of the relief and rescue efforts, dressed in white biohazard suits and reflective vests.

“Eagle, out, out,” they shouted, referring to Aguila Saleh, the speaker of Libya’s parliament, who deflected blame for the disaster and called it “destiny.” In a televised speech Thursday night, he appeared to reject accusations that the magnitude of the calamity was due to government mismanagement and negligence, angering many Libyans.

The protesters’ cries were part of a growing chorus of calls to hold leaders across the divided North African country accountable. Specifically, they want an international investigation into the circumstances that led to the failure of the two dams on the outskirts of Derna.

Many Libyans say they do not trust the country’s own authorities to determine who was responsible. Those authorities are divided between an internationally recognized government in the west, based in Tripoli, the capital, and a separately administered region in the east, where Derna is located. Saleh and the Parliament are part of the administration of eastern Libya.

There are calls for mass protests in the country this Friday to demand accountability.

For more than a decade, successive governments in oil-rich Libya have vied for power at the expense of addressing the public’s needs, according to critics inside Libya and analysts who follow the country closely. That includes neglecting the maintenance of deteriorating infrastructure, such as old dams that burst.

“The focus should be on what exactly happened, and then we will decide who should be held responsible,” said Elham Saudi, director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya. “But the Libyan authorities cannot do that because they do not want to or cannot do it.”

His organization is gathering documents to explain why Libya needs an international investigation, he said.

The official response to the disaster has been chaotic and the total death toll is still being assessed. Some estimates put it at more than 11,000.

Anger over those deaths is uniting Libyans in ways reminiscent of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Libya, Saudi said, a revolt that ultimately toppled the country’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi.

“We feel like this is a moment of change,” he said. “Hopefully, this can be the legacy of this horrible disaster.”

But the rebels’ overthrow of Gaddafi, aided by a NATO-led military intervention, did not lead to the change many Libyans hoped for in 2011, but instead marked the beginning of more than a decade of conflict, dysfunction and suffering. Successive governments gained a foothold as armed militias gained power, and a civil war with heavy involvement of foreign powers including Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey split the country in two.

It had been known for years that the dams protecting Derna, on Libya’s northeastern Mediterranean coast, needed maintenance or were insufficient for the storms ravaging the country. But Libyan authorities in both east and west appeared to have ignored warnings about the danger.

In a paper published last year, Abdelwanees Ashoor, a hydraulic engineer at Omar Al-Mukhtar University in Libya, warned that Derna was “extremely vulnerable to flood risk,” as the type of storms that have hit the area in recent decades could bring down the dams. . The dams were inadequately designed and had been built by engineers who underestimated the amount of rain expected, Ashoor argued in his article.

Government officials knew the dams needed repairs but ignored warnings, including from Mr. Ashoor, he said.

In 2010, a Turkish company began repair work on the dams. But months later, as the Arab Spring uprising began, work stopped, according to Libya’s attorney general, Sadiq al-Soor.

A 2021 report by Libyan state auditors showed that more than $2.3 million allocated for maintenance of the two dams was never used.

Residents and observers say the catastrophic death toll could have been avoided if authorities had given proper warnings to residents before the storm.

While the Libyan weather service issued early warnings of heavy rain and flooding, it did not address the risk posed by “aging dams,” the World Meteorological Organization, a U.N. agency, said last week. The Libyan meteorological service’s capabilities were limited, the agency said, by “major gaps in its observation systems” as well as its information technology.

The only warnings that came were for Derna residents who live near the sea to evacuate 24 hours before flooding, said Atiya Al-Hasadi, a Derna resident and meteorologist. But for the rest of the city, much of which has since been razed, authorities enacted a curfew and told residents to stay indoors, several residents said.

“We could have avoided most of the human casualties,” said Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization. said journalists in Geneva.

Like others, Al-Hasadi called on the international community to open an investigation. He said he and several members of his family had to climb into a water tank on the roof of their three-story building to stay away from the floodwaters for hours. Two of his aunts died in the floods.

Tarek Megerisi, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, compared Libyans’ reaction to the floods to that of the people of Lebanon after the Beirut port explosion in 2020, which sparked anger against the country’s political powers.

For many Libyans, their “anger was initially expressed in ‘Everyone should resign,’ because this is such a horrendous crime against them,” he said.

“That huge budget was allocated for maintenance,” said Souad al-Qusaybi, a mother in Derna who lost dozens of her family members in the floods.

When he returned to the house he had fled from, all he found was a pile of dirt.

“Derna is gone,” he said.

Al-Soor, the attorney general, has launched an investigation, but the public is deeply skeptical given the country’s long history of corruption and impunity. The attorney general is one of the few government positions agreed upon by both governments and works with both parties.

Authorities have appointed a team of Libyan prosecutors from different parts of the country to investigate what caused the dams to collapse and determine whether maintenance measures, which had been necessary for years, could have prevented the dams from collapsing.

“Of course, firm action will be taken against everyone who made a mistake, negligence or failed and caused this disaster,” al-Soor promised in a televised news conference Friday night.

Al-Hasadi, the meteorologist, said the attorney general had conducted many investigations before, but none had led to justice.

“One of the problems with holding people accountable is that this problem goes back a long time,” said Matthew Brubacher, former economic adviser to the U.N. Support Mission in Libya.

“Which of the successive governments that have come to power would you hold responsible for this,” he asked, “especially when there are fragmented governments?”

Mohammed Abdusamee contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya.

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