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Derna valley was once a ‘paradise.’ Now there’s nothing left but devastation

Tarek Fahim was taking videos of the water filling behind the dam in the Derna valley in Libya late Saturday night. Up until 1:30 am, Storm Daniel was just wind and rain. When he went home an hour later, it took very little time between the moment he heard the dam burst and the gushing water flooding his street.

“The amount of water and the cars it was pushing felt like an earthquake,” he says.

He moved the family to the rooftop, and they climbed up a water tank as the water kept rising. They survived. “Maybe one percent of those who lived on ground floors survived,” he says of his neighborhood around al-Fanar street.

When the water level gradually receded, he went back down to check on his neighbors, “but there was meter-high mud on the street,” he recalls. “Just in 15 buildings around me, 33 people died,” he says. As he starts listing the names of the friends he lost, he breaks down in tears.

Across the eastern Libyan city of Derna, thousands died and thousands more are still missing after a catastrophic flood hit the city in the early hours of Sunday. A Saturday report from the United Nations estimates at least 11,300 people are dead and 10,100 are missing in the city alone.

Approximately 170 people have been killed outside of Derna due to the flooding, the UN report said.

Tarek’s bare feet are covered in mud from walking through the side streets helping neighbors go through the wreckage of their homes. The trauma and loss are visible on every face. Men sit in front of their hollowed-out houses, some silent, others sobbing.

Across the street Talal Fartas is going through what remains of his jewelry store, picking gold necklaces and bracelets from the mud. “The safe was swept away. Everything is gone,” he says.

Only few traces are left behind of what the shops lining the street used to sell. Pieces of metal dangle from the ceilings of gutted out stores. Vehicles are wedged in terraces and entrances of the low-rise buildings. A purple lunch box sits under a mangle of trees and light post. A couple of blocks up north, the rubble piled up along the sides of the road rises higher and higher until it becomes a swath of debris.

When the two dams outside the city burst, they unleashed a powerful flood that leveled residential blocks. The eastern and western parts of Derna are now separated by a wasteland of destruction that runs across the city all the way to the Mediterranean.

Rescuers go through the collapsed buildings looking for survivors with little hope. Almost all they find are dead bodies and more are believed to be under the heaps of crumbled cement.

Back at al-Fanar street, a man calls for help to dig out the bodies of four children from under the mud.

International aid and rescue missions are slowly trickling in, but they hardly match the scale of devastation. Local volunteers and emergency workers from different parts of Libya did what they could in the immediate aftermath.

Abdel Wahab Haroun, 21, says he retrieved 40 bodies from the sea on Sunday. He tied a rope around his waist connected to a line of volunteers to brave the high waves. “There were dead people everywhere, children a few months old, elderly people, pregnant women. There are families of 30-40 people all gone,” he says.

Haroun volunteers at a collection point for the city’s victims set up at an open area next to the sea. A rotten stench fills the air every time a dead body is brought in.

The remains of two people are in half-filled black bags on the ground. A pickup truck pulls up with two more bodies wrapped in blankets. “This one is too decomposed,” a volunteer shouts before putting them in white bags to load on a bigger truck. Officials try to document identities when possible ahead of mass burials at a different location. A small truck fumigates the air periodically as doctors and medics there warn of health hazards.

Derna’s waterfront has become the main staging area for delivering dead bodies and transporting them for burial, in a process that has been kept to one location due to the health hazards of decomposing bodies.

Along the damaged promenade, volunteers in hazmat suits scan the sea looking for washed up bodies. The crystal blue water has turned into a murky brown. The waves push broken furniture to the shore. Wrecked vehicles are stuck in what remains of the wave barrier further out in the sea.

“There are probably people in these cars you see in the water, but we don’t have the equipment to reach them,” says Ibrahim Hassan, head of the ambulance services in Kofra, southern Libya.

He needs heavy and more sophisticated equipment to retrieve these vehicles and search the water for the bodies of those still missing.

“This valley was a paradise full of pomegranate trees,” one volunteer says as she waits for next drop off of bodies.

“Derna is gone,” Abdel-Wahab says.

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