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In Libya, the struggle to recover from massive flooding

DAVID GURA, HOST:

To Libya now and a rare look at the struggle to recover from massive flooding there three weeks ago. In this North African country run by feuding rival governments, rescue and recovery efforts have been hindered. NPR's Aya Batrawy got into the country with a rescue and aid team from the United Arab Emirates, and she joins us now. Aya, tell us where you are and what you've been able to see so far.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi. Yeah, I'm in eastern Libya, about an hour's drive from Derna, and I went to the city this morning. This is the city that was hit by massive floods around three weeks ago, and the apocalyptic scene really starts at the gates of the city. Right when you drive in, you can see all these mangled cars everywhere that have been pulled out from the rubble. And we drove under a bridge that doesn't exist anymore. It's just the shell of a bridge. It was completely washed out in the flooding, and we saw graffiti on a building that said, Derna will not die.

But the reality is the heart of the city is gone. I stood in the valley where the floods had just rushed through, and two dams broke from this heavy rainfall, two dams that Libyan activists and others say for years there had been warning signs that they needed to be maintained and were not. And so when they rushed through, they just took everything in its path. And it was just 360 degrees of utter destruction. It's just hard to imagine that there were homes here at one point. And now we still don't know the death toll. I mean, the U.N. humanitarian office says confirmed deaths are over 4,200, and there are still around 9,000 people missing. And the fact that we don't know exactly how many people have died this far out really just shows the disarray that's happened.

GURA: We've seen reports that local and international journalists have faced growing restrictions in Derna. Were you able to speak with survivors there?

BATRAWY: Well, because I'm here with an A-team from the United Arab Emirates - and this is a country that supports the eastern government and authorities here - we weren't stopped at any checkpoints. But I didn't have unfettered access. We were, you know, surrounded in a security bubble with this Libyan rapid intervention and defense force, young armed Libyan men in fatigues. But I was able to speak to a man named Idrees Abdullah. He's a father of eight and an engineer and a man who was born and raised his whole life in Derna. And he's among 40,000 people displaced now by the floods. His family survived because they were able to climb to higher floors of the building, and his building was not washed away to the sea. But, you know, here's what he basically said.

IDREES ABDULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: So he - you know, without pause, he said, look, I'm not talking about the West or anything else. I'm just saying what Derna needs now is international support, U.N. support needed to rebuild the city on international standards.

GURA: Is aid getting there and making any kind of impact?

BATRAWY: There is aid definitely coming in. Look. Like, you know, Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates certainly had the biggest presence here at one point. Egypt and UAE are still here on the ground. And they're not only rushing in to support the people affected by these floods, but they're coming in here to stabilize Libya, the eastern part of Libya, and also to support its leadership, run by a military strongman who actually just met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week. And the U.S., for example, I haven't seen them have a visible presence on the ground, and that's for security reasons. You'll recall that the U.S. ambassador was killed in Benghazi in 2012 here, but the U.S. special envoy to Libya has met with officials in Tripoli and Benghazi since the floods and there has been some U.S. aid coming in as well.

GURA: You mentioned the complaints about the integrity of these dams before they collapsed, and I wonder how much of this catastrophe was caused by climate change or this was the result of government failure.

BATRAWY: This was a perfect storm of not only more intense weather likely caused by climate change but also what happens when extreme weather hits a country that's mired in chaos with, you know, a failed government, corrupt government. And this country's been in conflict ever since the Arab Spring of 2011 when Muammar Gaddafi was ousted.

GURA: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy in eastern Libya. Aya, thanks.

BATRAWY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.