Hundreds of Libyans protested on Monday from the devastated eastern city of Derna, demanding the removal of those responsible a week after torrential rains burst two dams and unleashed a catastrophe that killed thousands.
Some protesters stood on the muddy, rocky earth that the floods carried through the city center on Sept. 11, washing entire neighborhoods and their inhabitants into the Mediterranean Sea. Others perched on the roof of a mosque that still stood, and a number appeared to be part of relief and rescue efforts, dressed in white biohazard suits and reflective vests.
“Aguila, out, out,” they yelled, referring to Aguila Saleh, the speaker of Libya’s Parliament, who has deflected blame for the disaster and called it “fate.” In a televised speech on Thursday night, he appeared to reject accusations that the scale of the calamity was rooted in government mismanagement and neglect, which angered many Libyans.
The cries of the protesters were part of a rising chorus of calls to hold leaders across the divided North African country accountable. Specifically, they want an international investigation into the circumstances that led to the bursting of the two dams on the edge of Derna.
Many Libyans say they don’t trust the country’s own authorities to pinpoint who was responsible. Those authorities are divided between an internationally recognized government in the west, based in Tripoli, the capital, and a region administered separately in the east, where Derna is. Mr. Saleh and the Parliament are part of the eastern Libya administration.
There are calls for mass protests in the country this Friday to demand accountability.
For more than a decade, successive governments in Libya, a nation rich in oil, have jockeyed for power at the expense of addressing the public’s needs, according to critics inside Libya and analysts who follow the country closely. That includes neglecting the maintenance of dilapidated infrastructure like the aging dams that burst.
“The focus needs to be on exactly what happened, and then we decide who needs to be held responsible,” said Elham Saudi, director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya. “But that cannot be done by Libyan authorities because they are unwilling or unable to do it.”
Her organization is gathering documents to build a case for why Libya needs an international inquiry, she said.
The official response to the disaster has been chaotic, and the full death toll is still being assessed. Some estimates have put it over 11,000.
The anger over those deaths is unifying Libyans in ways reminiscent of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Libya, Ms. Saudi said, a revolt that eventually brought down the country’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“We feel this is a moment of change,” she said. “Hopefully, this can be the legacy of this horrible disaster.”
But Mr. el-Qaddafi’s ouster by rebels, aided by a NATO-led military intervention, did not lead to the change many Libyans had hoped for in 2011, instead ushering in more than a decade of conflict, dysfunction and suffering. Successive governments took hold as armed militias gained power, and a civil war with heavy involvement from foreign powers, such as Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, split the country in two.
It was known for years that the dams protecting Derna, on Libya’s northeastern Mediterranean coast, needed maintenance or were insufficient for the storms hitting the country. But Libyan authorities in both the east and west appeared to have ignored warnings about the danger.
In a paper published last year, Abdelwanees Ashoor, a hydraulic engineer at Omar Al-Mukhtar University in Libya, warned that Derna was “extremely vulnerable to flood risk,” as the kind of storms in the area in recent decades could bring down the dams. The dams used an inadequate design and had been built by engineers who underestimated the amount of rain expected, Mr. Ashoor argued in his paper.
Government officials knew the dams needed repairs but ignored the warnings, including Mr. Ashoor’s, he said.
In 2010, a Turkish company began repair work on the dams. But months later, when the Arab Spring uprising began, the work stopped, according to Libya’s attorney general, Sadiq al-Soor.
A 2021 report by Libyan state auditors showed that more than $2.3 million allocated for maintaining the two dams was never used.
Residents and observers say the catastrophic death toll could have been prevented had the authorities given the proper warnings to residents before the storm.
While the Libyan meteorological service did issue early warnings about heavy rain and floods, it did not address the risk posed by “the aging dams,” the World Meteorological Organization, a U.N. agency, said last week. The abilities of the Libyan weather service were limited, the agency said, by “major gaps in its observing systems” as well as its information technology.
The only warnings that did come were for Derna residents living near the sea to evacuate 24 hours before the floods, said Atiya Al-Hasadi, a Derna resident and meteorologist. But for the rest of the city, much of which has since washed away, authorities enacted a curfew and told residents to stay in their homes, multiple residents said.
“We could have avoided most of the human casualties,” Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, told reporters in Geneva.
Like others, Mr. Al-Hasadi called for the international community to open an investigation. He said he and several members of his family had to climb onto a water tank on the roof of their three-story building to stay out of the floodwaters for hours. Two of his aunts died in the floods.
Tarek Megerisi, a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, compared Libyans’ reaction to the flooding to that of the people of Lebanon after the port explosion in Beirut in 2020, which prompted anger against the political powers there.
For many Libyans, their “anger initially expressed itself in ‘Everyone should resign,’ that this is such a horrendous crime against them,” he said.
“That huge budget was allocated for maintenance,” said Souad al-Qusaybi, a mother in Derna who lost dozens of members of her extended family in the flooding.
When she returned to the home she had fled from, all she found was a pile of dirt.
“Derna is gone,” she said.
Mr. al-Soor, the attorney general, has started an investigation, but the public is deeply skeptical given the country’s long history of corruption and impunity. The attorney general is one of the few government positions agreed upon by both governments, and he works with both sides.
The authorities have appointed a team of Libyan prosecutors from different parts of the country to investigate what caused the dams to collapse and determine whether maintenance measures, which had been needed for years, could have prevented the collapse of the dams.
“Everyone who made a mistake or committed neglect or fell short and caused this disaster will of course have firm measures taken against them,” Mr. al-Soor vowed at a televised news conference on Friday night.
Mr. al-Hasadi, the meteorologist, said the attorney general had conducted many investigations before but that none had led to justice.
“One of the problems with holding people accountable is this problem dates back very far,” said Matthew Brubacher, a former economic adviser to the U.N. Support Mission in Libya.
“Which of the successive governments which have come to power would you hold accountable for this,” he asked, “especially when you have fragmented governments?”
Mohammed Abdusamee contributed reporting from Tripoli, Lebanon.