For Victims Of Morocco And Libya Disasters, Devastation Goes Beyond The Death Toll

“When people meet each other, they meet each other with condolences. The first question they asked is not who died, but who survived.”

Loay Elmagri began to panic when he didn’t hear back from his relatives in Derna, Libya. The 36-year-old Libyan architect in Washington, D.C., knew floods destroyed a quarter of the city earlier last week.

His maternal aunt was home when storms began early Sunday morning and floodwater gushed into her room. The water levels began to rapidly rise, at one point with her head hitting the ceiling, before she was pulled out of a window.

An elderly woman in her early 80s, she told Elmagri that once she was rescued from the home, she had no choice but to walk. She traveled for miles, barefoot in the mud, looking for shelter. Random people on the street gave her towels for warmth.

While Elmagri’s family survived, he said, they were among the lucky ones.

“When people meet each other, they meet each other with condolences,” said Elmagri. “The first question they asked is not who died, but who survived.”

Over the last month, two natural disasters struck Libya and Morocco, killing thousands.

In Libya, nearly 20,000 people are feared dead after torrents of water ripped through the eastern part of the country last week. Heavy rain caused by tropical storm Daniel overtook two dams causing them to collapse, sending huge waves of water and sweeping out entire neighborhoods into the Mediterranean Sea.

People inspect the damage caused by the earthquake in the village of Tafeghaghte, near Marrakech, Morocco, on Sept. 11, 2023.
People inspect the damage caused by the earthquake in the village of Tafeghaghte, near Marrakech, Morocco, on Sept. 11, 2023./VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

In nearby Morocco, more than 2,900 people were killed and tens of thousands more are homeless after a 6.8 earthquake struck the country on Sept. 8, wiping out rural towns in the southwest.

Both North African countries are reeling from the natural disasters, pleading for international aid and search and rescue teams as the number of dead continues to rise. Across the globe, families in the U.S. are frantically trying to reach their relatives and loved ones in hopes that they have survived.

Jowhar Ali, a Libyan journalist from Derna currently based in Istanbul, told HuffPost that dozens of bodies are being found daily.

“Our city is the city of culture. The city of poets. The city of theater. The city of art. That’s what’s known about the city. That’s the picture that I want to transmit to the world,” said Ali. “Imagine 10 years from now, whenever you Google the name of our city you will see floods. You will see dead bodies.”

Ali’s brother and his sons, age 9 and 10, ventured into the city to see the damage and instead found themselves covering corpses with whatever sheets they could find.

This picture shows destruction in the aftermath of flash flooding caused by Storm Daniel in Libya's eastern port city of Derna on Sept. 17.
This picture shows destruction in the aftermath of flash flooding caused by Storm Daniel in Libya’s eastern port city of Derna on Sept. 17.KARIM SAHIB VIA GETTY IMAGES

“Imagine you’re living in a city like New York, and in a glimpse, in just a few hours, the city is gone. Entire neighborhoods are gone and you can’t connect the two parts of the city back together,” said Ali. “Imagine that you are told again after the disaster that the city cannot be inhabited again. Imagine that the house that you have lived all your life in will not be inhabitable.”

President Joe Biden sent his “deepest condolences” in a statement on Tuesday, noting that the U.S. was sending emergency relief to the country.

“We join the Libyan people in grieving the loss of too many lives cut short, and send our hope to all those missing loved ones,” said Biden.

Ciaran Donnelly, senior vice president for crisis response recovery and developments at the International Rescue Committee, told HuffPost that the challenges to relief efforts are compounded by Libya’s poor infrastructure, political instability and rapid climate change.

“It’s really important to look past the numbers. Think about the people behind the numbers and the people behind the stories,” said Donnelly.

“Every one of those individuals affected behind those numbers of 34,000 people displaced and 5,000 people who’ve been killed, at least. Those are family members who are grieving. Those are parents, those are children and those are people who on a daily basis are doing their best to survive and provide for themselves and care for each other and are now in dire need of support,” he added.

Meanwhile in Morocco, dozens of countries have offered assistance — including the U.S. — but the Moroccan government has been slow to allow international aid to enter the country. Moroccan citizens are frustrated by the government’s response, with natives inside and outside the country coordinating their own efforts to assist those affected by the quake.

The Moroccan American Recreational and Organizational Council (MAROC), a cultural organization based in New Jersey that provides social services and community events for Moroccan Americans, has partnered with local mosques and charitable organizations to raise funds for those impacted by the earthquake.

MAROC’s President Yassine Elkaryani, who was born and raised in Morocco, said his family back in Sale felt the earthquake nearly 300 miles away from the epicenter. Terrified, his parents, his sister and her daughter ran out of the house in fear it would collapse. When they returned, they couldn’t sleep, worried about a second earthquake.

“The trauma is there, but that trauma has given everybody the energy to show solidarity to do what everybody can do to help the victims,” he said. “What makes Morocco and Moroccans unique is the people. Individuals, despite the fact that they don’t have money and they don’t have much, they are exceptionally generous with other people.”

Nashwa Lina Khan, a Moroccan American Ph.D. student at York University in Canada who focuses on social reproductive health justice for Moroccan women, says the earthquake has heightened the risks of trafficking and exploitation for girls and vulnerable groups.

“They’ve always been neglected, and this situation compounds the risk factors in their lives and the marginalization and the poverty and the desperation,” said Khan.

The Atlas mountains, primarily inhabited by Morocco’s indigenous Amazigh population, were some of the hardest-hit areas, wiping out entire villages and communities. Khan said women and girls in these areas face unique challenges accessing resources, seeking shelter and relocating to safety outside of the mountainous regions.

While government-issued tents and makeshift hospitals have sprung up in larger times, the Amazigh living in remote areas rely on donations left on the side of the road, furthering issues of isolation and neglect.

“Morocco is a really unique place because it lives in people’s minds as a vacation destination,” said Khan. “Morocco has a mixed population of people who do have means but then there’s a population who is precarious and in these moments are very vulnerable.”

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