Where the echoes of helpless cries linger amid the ruins of Derna in eastern Libya, its citizens are living a nightmare brought about by the callousness of successive rulers and the unbridled cruelty of military elites. Two dams, remnants of a bygone era under Moammar Gadhafi’s rule, had stood for decades as neglected sentries, guarding a coastal city deliberately left vulnerable to climate-induced changes. As the dams eventually broke under the weight of Mediterranean Storm Daniel’s heavy rains earlier this month, flash floods literally cleaved Derna in two, instantly killing thousands of its residents and washing many out to sea.
It won’t just be nature’s fury that will haunt Derna’s residents, though, but the storm of negligence, manipulation and repression that preceded and followed this tragedy.
Derna’s suffering mirrors in many ways the tragic fate of Libya. Considered a cradle of opposition to Gadhafi during his rule, the city was renowned for its artists, poets and cultural scene. It was deliberately marginalized by the dictator for these very reasons. Post-Gadhafi, the country’s transitional authorities didn’t treat it any better, swapping their promises of new beginnings with disarray and plunder. Derna’s security deteriorated in the margins, becoming a site for competing Islamist factions, including the Islamic State. By 2017, an internationally supported military general who had served in Gadhafi’s regime, Khalifa Haftar, laid siege to Derna under the guise of countering terrorism—despite the Islamic State already having been defeated by Derna’s own local, Islamist-led coalition. In a Pyrrhic victory in 2019, Haftar’s militia—the self-proclaimed Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) —conquered it at the cost of killing, displacing and imprisoning a quarter of its residents. [Continue reading…]