Whole Families Drown in Libyan City’s Flood 

People look for survivors in Derna, Libya, Wednesday, Sept.13, 2023. (AP)
People look for survivors in Derna, Libya, Wednesday, Sept.13, 2023. (AP)
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Whole Families Drown in Libyan City’s Flood 

People look for survivors in Derna, Libya, Wednesday, Sept.13, 2023. (AP)
People look for survivors in Derna, Libya, Wednesday, Sept.13, 2023. (AP)

The wall of water several stories high smashed into apartment buildings, drowning entire families in minutes.

One man, Fadellalah, believes 13 members of his extended family died. He’s yet to hear about the fate of another 20, several days after two dams burst above the Libyan coastal city of Derna, unleashing epic floods that wiped out neighborhoods and sent some of the dead into sea.

Thousands of others like him are frantically trying to find out who survived the rain-swollen rampage.

As a powerful storm bore down on his hometown, Fadellalah, an information technology worker in Libya’s capital of Tripoli, called his family Sunday to urge them to move to higher ground.

“No one expected this,” said Fadelallah, who asked that his surname not be used because he fears reprisal from government officials and armed groups who could view his story as criticism of their efforts.

“Some of them didn’t have cars. They didn’t have a way to get out,” he said Wednesday of his family.

Torrential rainwater that gushed down steep mountainsides and into the city killed thousands. Those who survived recount nightmarish scenes, with bodies piling up quicker than authorities can count them.

Mediterranean storm Daniel caused deadly flooding in many towns of eastern Libya. But Derna, renowned for its white villas and palm trees, was the worst-hit. The city had no evacuation plans, and residents said the only warning was the explosive sound of the dams rupturing.

Location proved the difference between life and death.

Fadelallah said all 13 deceased members of his family lived in a neighborhood near the river valley. Their bodies were recovered and buried by the Red Crescent, their names inked on a list of the deceased sent to him by the medical group.

Mohammed Derna, a teacher and 34-year-old father of two, said he and his family and neighbors rushed upstairs. Outside he saw people, including women and young children, just being carried away. They spent Sunday night on the roof of their apartment block before managing to get out Monday morning.

“They were screaming, help, help,” he said over the phone from a field hospital in Derna. “It was like a Hollywood horror movie.”

Emad al-Falah, an aid worker from Benghazi who arrived in the city on Wednesday, said search and rescue teams have been combing apartment buildings for bodies and retrieving corpses turned back by the sea. A litany of social media videos and images show similar distressing scenes.

“It’s a complete disaster. Bodies are everywhere, inside houses, in the streets, at sea. Wherever you go, you find dead men, women, and children,” al-Falah said.

The startling devastation has underscored Libya’s vulnerability. The oil-rich country has been divided between rival administrations, each backed by competing armed militias, for almost a decade. It has been rocked by conflict since a NATO-backed an uprising toppled longtime ruler Moammar al-Gaddafi in 2011.

Both governments have banded together to help those affected. But progress has been slow. Key bridges, roads and other infrastructure are gone. Derna, which had a population of 90,000, largely was cut off from the world before the first aid convoys arrived late Tuesday.

As of Wednesday, at least 30,000 people were displaced by the flooding in Derna, the UN’s International Organization for Migration said. Many fled to nearby cities and towns less impacted by the storm.

One of them is Ahlam Yassin, a 30-year-old housewife, who left for the eastern city of Tobruk.

“Everything has gone,” said Yassin, who waded barefoot with her family through knee-deep water to leave her neighborhood. “The city itself has gone.”

Mahmoud al-Baseer's cousins lived lived less than kilometer -- roughly 0.6 miles -- from one of the dams. They survived, he said, by quickly escaping to the upper floors of their three-story apartment block and were lucky that the structure held its ground.

Al-Baseer, who lives in the United Kingdom, initially feared they had died. Until he reached them Tuesday evening, he struggled to watch the destruction from afar.

“I could not carry on watching those social media videos,” he said.

Fadelallah said his parents have made it to Benghazi, hoping to reunite with relatives from Derna. And he said he hopes to return soon to give his deceased relatives a proper Islamic funeral.



Bedwetting, Nightmares and Shaking. War in Gaza Takes a Mental Health Toll, Especially on Children

A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
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Bedwetting, Nightmares and Shaking. War in Gaza Takes a Mental Health Toll, Especially on Children

A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Nabila Hamada gave birth to twin boys in Gaza early in the war, in a hospital reeking of decaying bodies and full of displaced people. When Israeli forces threatened the hospital, she and her husband fled with only one of the babies, as medical staff said the other was too weak to leave. Soon after, Israeli forces raided the hospital, Gaza’s largest, and she never saw the boy again.
The trauma of losing one twin left the 40-year-old Hamada so scared of losing the other that she became frozen and ill-equipped to deal with the daily burden of survival, The Associated Press said.
“I’m unable to take care of my other, older children or give them the love they need,” she said.
She is among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians struggling with mental health after nine months of war. The trauma has been relentless. They have endured the killing of family and friends in Israeli bombardments. They have been wounded or disfigured. They have huddled in homes or tents as fighting raged and fled again and again, with no safe place to recover.
Anxiety, fear, depression, sleep deprivation, anger and aggression are prevalent, experts and practitioners told The Associated Press. Children are most vulnerable, especially because many parents can barely hold themselves together.
There are few resources to help Palestinians process what they are going through. Mental health practitioners say the turmoil and overwhelming number of traumatized people limit their ability to deliver true support. So they’re offering a form of “psychological first aid” to mitigate the worst symptoms.
“There are about 1.2 million children who are in need of mental health and psychosocial support. This basically means nearly all Gaza’s children,” said Ulrike Julia Wendt, emergency child protection coordinator with the International Rescue Committee. Wendt has been visiting Gaza since the war began.
She said simple programming, such as playtime and art classes, can make a difference: “The goal is to show them that not only bad things are happening.”
Repeated displacement compounds trauma: an estimated 1.9 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes. Most live in squalid tent camps and struggle to find food and water.
Many survivors of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in southern Israel that precipitated the war in Gaza also bear the scars of trauma, and are seeking ways to heal. Hamas killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took around 250 hostage.
Sheltering near the southern city of Khan Younis, Jehad El Hams said he lost his right eye and fingers on his right hand when he picked up what he thought was a can of food. It was an unexploded ordnance that detonated. His children were almost hit.
Since then, he experiences sleeplessness and disorientation. “I cry every time I take a look at myself and see what I’ve become,” he said.
He reached out to one of the few mental health initiatives in Gaza, run by the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA.
Fouad Hammad, an UNRWA mental health supervisor, said they typically encounter 10 to 15 adults a day at shelters in Khan Younis with eating and sleeping disorders, extreme rage and other issues.
Mahmoud Rayhan saw his family shattered. An Israeli strike killed his young son and daughter. His wife's leg was amputated. Now he isolates himself inside his tent and sleeps most of the day. He talks to almost no one.
He said he doesn’t know how to express what’s happening to him. He trembles. He sweats. “I’ve been crying and feel nothing but heaviness in my heart.”
A relative, Abdul-Rahman Rayhan, lost his father, two siblings and four cousins in a strike. Now when he hears a bombardment, he shakes and gets dizzy, his heart racing. “I feel like I’m in a nightmare, waiting for God to wake me up,” the 20-year-old said.
For children, the mental toll of war can have long-term effects on development, Wendt said. Children in Gaza are having nightmares and wetting their beds because of stress, noise, crowding and constant change, she said.
Nashwa Nabil in Deir al-Balah said her three children have lost all sense of security. Her eldest is 13 and her youngest is 10.
“They could no longer control their pee, they chew on their clothes, they scream and have become verbally and physically aggressive,” she said. “When my son Moataz hears a plane or tank, he hides in the tent.”
In the central town of Deir al-Balah, a psychosocial team with the Al Majed Association works with dozens of children, teaching them how to respond to the realities of war and giving them space to play.
“In the case of a strike, they place themselves in the fetal position and seek safety away from buildings or windows. We introduce scenarios, but anything in Gaza is possible,” said project manager Georgette Al Khateeb.
Even for those who escape Gaza, the mental toll remains high.
Mohamed Khalil, his wife and their three children were displaced seven times before they reached Egypt. His wife and children arrived in January and he joined them in March. Their 8-year-old daughter would hide in the bathroom during shelling and shooting, saying, “We are going to die.”
Their 6-year-old son could sleep only after his mother told him that dying as a martyr is an opportunity to meet God and ask for the fruits and vegetables they didn’t have in hunger-ravaged Gaza.
Khalil recalled their terror as they escaped on foot down a designated “safe corridor” with Israeli guns firing nearby.
Even after arriving in Egypt, the children are introverted and fearful, Khalil said.
They have enrolled in a new initiative in Cairo, Psychological and Academic Services for Palestinians, which offers art and play therapy sessions and math, language and physical education classes.
“We saw a need for these children who have seen more horror than any of us will ever see,” said its founder, psychologist Rima Balshe.
On a recent field trip, she recalled, 5-year-old twins from Gaza who were playing and suddenly froze when they heard helicopters.
“Is this an Israeli warplane?” they asked. She explained it was an Egyptian aircraft.
“So Egyptians like us?” they asked. “Yes,” she reassured them. They had left Gaza, but Gaza had not left them.
There is hope that children traumatized by the war can heal, but they have a long way to go, Balshe said.
“I wouldn’t say ‘recovering’ but I certainly see evidence of beginning to heal. They may not ever fully recover from the trauma they endured, but we are now working on dealing with loss and grief,” she said. “It’s a long process.”