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Western media is one-eyed when it comes to the Derna tragedy

September 21, 2023 at 8:30 am

A general view of a street after the Storm Daniel ravaged the region in Derna, Libya on September 18, 2023 [Aydoğan Kalabalık/Anadolu Agency]

Before reaching Libya on Sunday, 10 September, Storm Daniel passed through Bulgaria, Greece and Turkiye, leaving behind a trail of destruction and death. However, in all three countries the total number of people who perished was less than 20.

The obvious question is what was so particular about Libya for the otherwise natural weather occurrence that made it so destructive, killing thousands of people who were drowned in their homes and cars while they tried to flee to higher ground? Why was Daniel so savage in Libya and, in less than one day, it caused such widespread destruction?

The more critical question, rather, is this: why was Libya so badly equipped to deal with what would have been a routine emergency in any other country?

Indeed, climate change is a factor, as such storms are unusual in the Mediterranean region, but this alone does not explain what happened.

This is precisely what the Western media has avoided mentioning while covering the tragedy in Derna, by repeatedly calling Libya “dysfunctional, chaotic, ungovernable, failed state”, without explaining to their audiences why Libya is such a chaotic country? Leading some to think, perhaps, that something is wrong with Libyans and Arabs, in general, that makes them unable to properly manage their own affairs. Not a single mainstream Western media ever shed light on this matter while reporting what happened in Derna.

Libya floods: ‘Everything swept away in the blink of an eye’

Today, Libya has two governments, one in Tripoli recognised by the United Nations, with a parallel one recognised by no other country. This has been the case for the last nine years, yet both administrations have been, repeatedly, failing to serve Libyans in any meaningful manner and by any standards.

But before 2011, and the Western “Humanitarian intervention”, Libya had a highly functional government with a distinguished reputation for stability and security, spending its oil revenues lavishly to provide free education, medical care, housing and even helping its citizens obtain easy credit to buy cars and other luxury items. Its citizens used to travel the vast country in complete security and travel the world with ease. Today, they lack security and hardly manage to visit neighbouring countries, simply because they cannot afford it. They are poorer than they were, 12 years before.

Before the UN Security Council adopted its ill-advised resolution 1973 in March 2011, allowing NATO and others to illegally destroy Muammar Gaddafi’s government, Libya scored high on the UN Human Development index and its per capita income was the highest in Africa. It used its respect and money to conduct an Africa-focused foreign policy, pursuing such great Pan-African projects, including the African Union, which was created by Libya investing in development projects across the continent and pushing towards a United States of Africa, with common defence and security policies. Regionally the country led a Palestine-centred foreign policy in which Palestinian rights and independence are highly prioritised, ever rejecting any idea of normalisation with Israel.

All this was destroyed by NATO when the military alliance launched its military aggression under the false pretext of “Responsibility to Protect” – literally making a mockery of the highly noble principle.

What followed the so called “Arab Spring” of 12 years ago is a fragmented, divided, corrupt, chaotic and failed Libya, just as was the case with Iraq after the United States and United Kingdom invaded and occupied it in 2003, under a heap of lies that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, none of which has ever been found so far.

One of the ironies in the Derna tragedy is that the Turkish company called Arsel İnsaat Bolu contracted to maintain Derna dams, including the bigger one called Bu Mansour Dam whose collapse flooded Derna in a few minutes, until recently claimed on its website that the work was done and finished, just fine, in 2012. The post was only removed a week after the dam collapsed, washing nearly half of Derna into the sea.

READ: Parliament-appointed government in Libya sacks all members of Derna municipal council after floods

Before Daniel made its destructive landfall on eastern Libya starting on 10 September, Libya failed to grasp the severity of the storm and this failure was the common factor, from the local government all the way to the very top. The World Meteorological Organisation observed that Libya’s National Centre of Meteorology issued a warning, but failed to address “the risk posed by the ageing dams” when they receive such an unprecedented amount of downpour, measured at 414 millimetres in 24 hours.  Even Derna’s meteorological office, which spent nearly $100,000 on its maintenance last year, failed to issue a proper warning.

Derna’s Municipal Council was even more confused and chaotic in failing to issue any serious warnings to the people. For instance, on its Facebook page on 9 September, a day before the storm hit,  the Council ordered a curfew to keep “people safe”  while, in earlier messages, it ordered evacuation without any details as to how this was to be organised and what preparations were in place for the evacuees and where they could go.

11 days have passed since the disaster in Derna and not a single government official knows how many people have died and how many have been injured. Victims’ figures come from different sources with little coordination between them, and most of them are untrustworthy simply because they lack coordination and proper documentation, including the lack of proper logging of the number of bodies recovered from the sea. While the UN puts the number of dead at 11,300, many estimate the number anywhere between 15,000 and 23,000, while the number of displaced is estimated to be around 35,000 people. To further complicate the situation, rescue teams have buried nearly 3,000 unidentified bodies in mass graves, fearing the spread of an epidemic among the survivors. For any credible investigation, all will have to be exhumed and reburied.

On 18 September, public anger burst out into a demonstration, calling for a new municipal council selected from Derna’s residents, an international investigation and proper accountability.

Libya’s Prosecutor General toured the ravaged city a few days after much of it was washed into the sea and promised a detailed investigation and accountability for any negligence or corruption, particularly related to the dams’ maintenance. However, many Libyans, judging by previous investigations, doubt if any high ranking official who may be implicated will ever be held accountable. The word accountability does not exist in the political elite’s lexicon, unfortunately.

It is doubtful if the world will ever know how many people have died in Derna, or the precise details of what really transpired on 10 September, 2023, simply because Libya remains the broken jar nobody is claiming, since it was first broken by NATO in 2011.

READ: UN warns of spread of disease in Libya’s storm-hit Derna

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.