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Rubble, reconstruction and the Haftar dynasty: back in the Libyan city of Derna



That night when it rained so much, Monther Alawami braved the weather to go to the greengrocer. When he left the store, there was already water in his car. So he set off on foot for Derna, a port city in eastern Libya.

After a few meters, he found himself in front of a gigantic ditch that cut the city in two, filled with water, mud, cars and people calling for help. He called his parents, who told him: everything is fine, the water only rises to the first. A few minutes later, the line was cut.

It’s a Sunday in late April, six months after the massive flooding of September 11, 2023. Monther Alawami, 26, still has trouble talking about that fateful day. He needs a break. Then he tells us how he learned of the deaths of his sister and parents.

When a State fails in its duties

Of course, he sees that things are moving forward in the city. That the streets are being resurfaced, that the houses are being repainted white. He sees that this landscape of mud and rubble is giving way to something new. From time to time, he happens to go online to read articles about the trial brought against a dozen civil servants from the city of Derna, accused of having a share of responsibility for the disaster.

He never made the trip to the hearings. Because they are adjourned every time, he explains, and then because“There is no justice in this world that could bring (him) back (his) family, certainly not in Libya in any case”.

In September 2023, Derna was a symbol of what can happen when a state like Libya fails in its duties. When warlords and militias only pretend to control the situation, when infrastructure deteriorates and money ends up in their pockets instead of being used to rebuild a dam.

Four thousand five hundred and fifty-three people were killed and 4,150 are still missing after the huge dam upstream of the city collapsed under the effect of masses of water caused by torrential rains, taking with it another smaller dam.

A week after the disaster, hundreds of residents took to the streets to denounce the leaders, whom they held responsible for the catastrophe. Some protesters were thrown in jail. Foreign journalists were expelled from the country by the strongman, General Khalifa Haftar, and were banned from returning for more than six months. Derna was forgotten.

For a short week, the South German newspaper was able to travel to eastern Libya, to meet survivors whose eyes fill with tears as they describe the day of the great flood. Some are sometimes filled with optimism even though they have lost many relatives and friends. Others no longer see a future in Libya.

And we will meet Belgacem Haftar, the son of the military leader in power in the east of the country, who will speak to us, from his new office, about a new country, the one he wants to build. With oil money, of course.

Amidst the rubble, the illusion of “brand new”

A World Bank report concludes that the equivalent of two years of rainfall fell on the day of the flood. Fifty years after the old dam was built, the climate poses new and unprecedented challenges that governments failed to address in the years leading up to the disaster, in a country struggling to govern itself after more than a decade of civil war. Libyan experts had warned that the dam was a risk, but no one acted. Even today, there is no real plan to rebuild the dam.

When we descend from the mountain towards Derna, from the site of the ancient work, following the path taken by the

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