Ayat Mneina is still in shock after devastating floods hit the Libyan city of Derna this week, leaving thousands of people dead.
A Libyan Canadian and a freelance writer based in Brantford, Ont., Mneina says both of her parents are from Derna. She has extended family members there too and says it’s been difficult to obtain information about the disaster. It took all day on Monday to get details, she said.
Mneina said she lost cousins on her mother’s side and their families. Her mother and father also lost cousins.
“It’s five days out and it still feels like the very first moments when we were learning about the events unfolding on the ground. We’re at a standstill. And it’s very difficult to process what’s been happening,” Mneina told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Friday.
Mediterranean Storm Daniel hit the shores of Libya on Sunday after levelling Greece earlier this month. Derna on Libya’s eastern shore was hit particularly hard.
Two dams around the perimeter of the city collapsed, unleashing a torrent of water onto the city’s residents. The storm uprooted buildings and swept residential neighbourhoods into the sea.
“Essentially, people really did not see this coming,” Mneina said.
Mneina said she watched the news coverage from her home and couldn’t reach anyone because the flooding took out the power grid in Derna. She said it was in the middle of the night in Derna when the dams broke and the water flooded the city. Communications were down, there was no electricity and no internet for hours.
“It was a long day on Monday just trying to get through to family on the ground or anyone in the area who could give us word of what had happened.”
According to a report by Associated Press on Friday, the disaster has claimed more than 11,000 lives. Authorities warned Friday that waterborne disease and explosive ordnance that shifted during the flood could cause more deaths.
In the worst-affected areas of Derna, efforts to recover the dead and distribute aid have been plagued by confusion and a lack of resources. Libya’s two opposing governments, long divided by civil strife and war, have struggled to respond to the disaster.
Al-Jazeera reported on Wednesday that Derna Deputy Mayor Ahmed Madroud said the dams had not been maintained for more than 20 years.
Mneina added: “We could say there is a history of neglect here when it comes to regular citizens.”
She said Libyan decision-makers suffer from a lack of co-ordination, communication and willpower and that has made the disaster and its aftermath worse.
‘You don’t get to bury your loved ones’
Mneina said she is grateful that many relatives survived but is heartbroken at the loss of others. The distance between Libya and Canada makes it difficult to grieve properly, she said.
“You don’t get to bury your loved ones. You don’t get to console those that were left behind,” she said.
In an interview with CBC Toronto, Mneina said three of her aunts survived by going to the rooftops of their buildings, where they spent an entire night in the rain, waiting for the water levels to go down.
“One of my aunts attempted to get onto the rooftop and the floor collapsed. She was pulled down into the floor into the water. Her son was swept away and he spent hours in the sea and he was able to cling to something and he was able to walk back out. He walked to one of his relative’s homes. They were able to get him to hospital. But my aunt’s husband did not survive the collapse. My aunt was pulled to safety and taken to hospital.”
LISTEN | Libyan Canadian writer Ayat Mneina on the devastating Derna flooding:
Metro Morning12:39Libyan-Canadian writer on the devastating toll Storm Daniel has had on her family and the wider community within the GTA
Mneina said the Libyan Canadian community in the Greater Toronto Area has called for a collection of donations this week and have secured a container that they will fill with donated items, including blankets and clothing.
“Contributions would be life-changing at this point. We have people who have become uprooted. Their homes are no longer. Their city is no longer. The days to come will be very, very challenging,” she said. “We are all grieving as one.”
In Toronto, meanwhile, Esra Bengizi, a Libyan Canadian who has family in Derna, said she constantly checks her phone for notifications from loved ones. She has been organizing local Libyans in the GTA by gathering donations to send overseas.
Bengizi said she is feeling mixed emotions about the devastation and fears for Libya’s future.
“It’s been extremely nerve-wracking. I’ve definitely extremely anxious. I’ve just been monitoring Facebook constantly to get in touch with family, to see who has been marking themselves safe,” she said.
Bengizi said she is proud to be Libyan and that raising awareness and gathering supplies is helping her to cope, she said.
“Being Libyan entails being resilient. We’ve been suffering from one tragedy to another for the last century. We’ve had to endured Italian colonialism, we’ve had to endured 42 years of a dictator and the civil war that followed that. I hate to say that we’re used to violence, we’re used to instability,” she said.
“But this really shows the resilience of my people.”