Storm-Ravaged Eastern Libya’s Unsung Hero: Medical Student Volunteers Amid Chaos

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The residents of Derna, a city located in eastern Libya, grapple with a devastating aftermath following the catastrophic flooding last week triggered by a powerful storm that resulted in the rupture of two dams located above the city. This calamity left thousands dead and entire residential blocks demolished as rushing waters charged through what was once a dried river bed—plunging the city into a chaos that still resounds a week after the incident. Notably, many corpses were washed away into the sea. The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced the death toll as an approximate 11,300- a figure that more than doubles the estimate reported by the International Organization for Migration days earlier.

Ironically, the Libyan Red Crescent—a reference used by the OCHA for the data—disassociated itself from the report. Nevertheless, OCHA stood firm in its numbers. Over one thousand victims have already found their final resting place in mass graves, a practice that has stirred a frown from aid groups. Moreover, Libyan authorities have revealed that at least 150 individuals have fallen ill due to pollution in the floodwaters.

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It is this background of devastation that medical students such as Mohamed Wanis Tajouri from Benghazi dared to volunteer their service, performing disinfection and sterilization assignments. Against the backdrop of the debris that once constituted home for many—discarded rubble and wreckage from vehicles— the residents like Hamad Awad still cling to faith while participating in the cleanup exercise and the search for missing persons. “Thank God for giving us patience,” Hamad said.

Following the flood’s destructive path, entire districts of Derna with an estimated population of at least 120,000 were either buried in mud or swept clean. City officials cited that close to 900 buildings were obliterated, speculating a possible death toll reaching 20,000 residents.

Mohamed Alnaji Bushertila, a government worker, expressed that 48 members of his extended family were unaccounted for, reflecting a sentiment shared by many residents. “We still do not know anything,” shared a resident named Wasfi, “We have no water and no resources.” Besides the concern of displaced landmines from recent conflict adding an extra degree of danger, the homeless are left to rely on temporary shelters or the hospitality of relatives or friends surviving the disaster in Derna.

Meanwhile, international aid organizations and countries have chartered aid to the city, though officials warn that the need for assistance far surpasses the supply. For instance, a French field hospital is currently being set up according to reports from Al Masar television. Efforts like these have not gone unappreciated by the survivors like Derna resident Hassan Awad, who said, “People came with aid from all over, and this made it easier on us, we felt that we are not alone.”

In conclusion, the tragic incident has drawn attention to Libya’s fragile state of government and the long-standing conflict between the internationally-backed administration in the west and the rival administration in the east. It is a challenge that begs the question—would the unifying spirit amid this disastrous moment sustain through the impending reconstruction rudiments? Only time will tell.

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Melinda Cochrane is a poet, teacher and fiction author. She is also the editor and publisher of The Inspired Heart, a collection of international writers. Melinda also runs a publishing company, Melinda Cochrane International books for aspiring writers, based out Montreal, Quebec. Her publication credits include: The art of poetic inquiry, (Backalong Books), a novella, Desperate Freedom, (Brian Wrixon Books Canada), and 2 collections of poetry; The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat, (Backalong Books), and She’s an Island Poet, Desperate Freedom was on the bestseller's list for one week, and The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat is one of hope and encouragement for all those living in the social welfare system. She’s been published in online magazines such as, (regular writer for) ‘Life as a Human’, and Shannon Grissom’s magazine.