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Poet Mustafa al-Trabelsi penned eerily prescient lines in the days before he would die in a flood in the city of Derna, on eastern Libya’s Mediterranean coast.
“The rain /Exposes the drenched streets, /the cheating contractor, /and the failed state,” he wrote after attending a public meeting dedicated to the city’s crumbling dams and the risk of a deluge, according to the Guardian. “It washes everything, /bird wings /and cats’ fur. /Reminds the poor of their fragile roofs /and ragged clothes.”
Soon after the floods in September devastated the city of poets, as Derna is known, protesters hit the battered streets against the government while law enforcement arrested Libyan officials who had failed to take action before rains triggered the collapse of the two dams, killing at least 4,000 people, reported Agence France-Presse.
Meanwhile, Derna’s fate has become a symbol of the frustration that many Libyans feel with the years of civil war, competing militias, and unstable government that the North African country has endured for more than 10 years, reported National Public Radio.
“The flood not only wiped away large parts of the city, ripping it in two with a wall of water and earth and killing thousands of its inhabitants, but it also destroyed a cradle of Libyan culture,” wrote the New York Times.
Derna traces its origins to an ancient Greek colony – the floods revealed ruins dating to this period, noted Euronews. But its modern history started when Muslims fleeing the Spanish Inquisition settled there in the late 15th century. As a result, the city’s architecture has many examples of unique grand structures resembling those in Andalusia, a Spanish region once under Moorish control.
Some of those treasures are now destroyed.
The tragedy unleashed by the flood is not over, the United Nations warned recently. More than 43,000 people, including 16,000 children, are displaced, for example. Another 9,000 people are still missing as the recovery continues.
Scientists at World Weather Attribution claimed that climate change contributed to the heavy rainfall – 50 percent more than usual – that caused the floods. The Arab News reported, moreover, that Libya was one of many examples of war-torn, developing countries suffering inordinately due to more erratic weather patterns, citing Somalia and Yemen as other examples.
Al-Seddik al-Sour, the prosecutor general who arrested the Libyan officials allegedly responsible for the dams, is part of the internationally recognized government that rules in Tripoli. Military strongman Khalifa Haftar runs the country’s flood-stricken east. Haftar announced a plan to raise money for aid and reconstruction from international donors – but has come under criticism for not cooperating with his rivals in western Libya.
Haftar was recently in Moscow to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support has been vital to him keeping power, Al Jazeera wrote.
Still, locals, who express pride in the cultural and intellectual legacy of their city, say its years-long neglect is punishment for the rebellious tradition of its inhabitants, many of whom are now considering leaving.
Mahbuba Khalifa, a poet from Derna, put that sentiment into verse: “I used to carry your great legacy in my conscience and on my shoulders, and I walked with arrogant pride and I had a certain pride that I did not deny …/But you are tired of the injustice of history and the injustice of tampering with you and your city’s legacy /So you chose to leave when the water met the water to hide in the depth of the sea, pure and pure.”