In Libya's Devastated Derna, Families Still Search for the Missing

A man dumps mud collected while cleaning his house, which was affected by fatal floods, in Derna, Libya, September 28, 2023. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
A man dumps mud collected while cleaning his house, which was affected by fatal floods, in Derna, Libya, September 28, 2023. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
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In Libya's Devastated Derna, Families Still Search for the Missing

A man dumps mud collected while cleaning his house, which was affected by fatal floods, in Derna, Libya, September 28, 2023. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
A man dumps mud collected while cleaning his house, which was affected by fatal floods, in Derna, Libya, September 28, 2023. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Since a huge flood swept away whole neighborhoods of Libya's city of Derna last month, Abdulsalam al-Kadi has been searching for his father and brother. He doesn't expect to find them alive but he wants to bury them so he has a grave to mourn over.
With friends, he has scoured mudbanks where his family's house once stood. He has asked every hospital. He has pored over many of the photographs of the 4,000 bodies recovered so far, Reuters said.
"We thought maybe the sea took them. Maybe they were in the harbor. Those were really tough days. They still are really tough days," said the 43-year-old who spent two days traveling to Derna from his new home in the United States.
Three weeks after the flashflood killed thousands of people, many survivors have yet to find their loved ones, even as Libya's rival factions squabble over who to blame for the disaster and how to rebuild the ruined city.
Many families now face the prospect that they may never find out what happened to parents, children or other relatives despite efforts to identify bodies - many buried hastily in mass graves - using photographs or DNA testing.
Kadi, who could barely recognize his hometown when he arrived, says his mother and sister still hold out hope his father and brother survived. But Kadi says he has had to come to terms with the fact that they died.
"What was difficult in the first few days was hope. People would say they saw them somewhere. For us it was as if they died again every day," he said. "It drove me crazy."
COMPLICATED RECONSTRUCTION
Derna, a coastal city in eastern Libya known as a cultural center, was built on a seasonal river that ran from a mountain range into the sea.
The city had suffered in the chaos that followed Libya's 2011 NATO-backed uprising. ISIS militants seized the city in 2015 - killing one of Kadi's two brothers - before eastern forces under commander Khalifa Haftar captured it.
The devastation now is on a different scale. Overnight, a narrow valley that ran between neat streets and buildings was turned into a wide expanse of mud, rocks and lumps of masonry.
But organizing Derna's reconstruction will be complicated, with Libya split between an internationally recognized government in Tripoli in the west and eastern regions controlled by Haftar with parallel institutions.
Aid efforts are visible on the streets, with mechanical diggers clearing debris. But residents, speaking to Reuters last week, complained that they had not received any help in repairing or rebuilding homes or businesses.
Mohamed al-Ghoeil, 49, was trying to clear mud that caked shelves of a grocery store owned by his brother.
"There is a total absence of the state to reassure citizens," he said. "We decided to lessen some of our pain by cleaning what we can to bring life back to the afflicted areas."
The government in the east, which is not internationally recognized, said on Sunday it was postponing an international reconstruction conference it had planned. The Tripoli government has also said it would hold a conference, without giving a date.
In a fractured nation, reconstruction and the coordination required could fuel another tussle for power, analysts say.
The cost of casual laborers has already shot up too high for Khaled al-Fortas, who said he could not afford the elevated wages demanded by workers to help clear his damaged home.
For Kadi, the priority remains finding his lost family members - a daunting task for him and thousands of others.
"A whole city was underwater, with people in the buildings," he said. "It is impossible to pull them out with our capabilities."



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.”