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Rival governments in Libya impact the recovery from devastating floods

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Libyans are still dealing with the aftermath of catastrophic floods that killed thousands of people last month when two dams burst. Floodwaters gushed through a city in the country's east, wiping out entire high-rise buildings, bridges and roads. The country is divided, ruled by rival governments, and that has also impacted the recovery. NPR's Aya Batrawy is in eastern Libya. She joins us now. Start off by just telling us what it looks like where you are and what people are telling you.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Yeah. Hi. Good morning. Yeah. So the city of Derna had a population of about 100,000 people before the floods. And the heart of the city sort of just lies at the end of a slope leading into the Mediterranean Sea. It's hard to imagine what happened here and how people must have felt the night of the storm.

But one of the first things I saw when I entered the city are the pillars of bridges that are now washed out and completely gone. There's debris everywhere. Stores are still gutted and caked in this brown mud and clay. And at the center of the city, it's just 360 degrees of rubble. All the buildings, these high-rise apartment buildings, are completely gone - just washed out to sea.

I met a young Libyan man in his 20s, Ayman Ighraybeel. He's a volunteer with the Libyan Red Crescent. And among the thousands dead are his mother and two of her grandchildren, who she was holding the night of the floods. He even saw his friend get washed out to sea. Let's listen to what he said.

AYMAN IGHRAYBEEL: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says, you know, he will never leave the city of Derna. He has family that lives in other eastern cities of Libya. But he says he's going to stay here. He wants to see the city rebuilt, and he wants to see it thriving.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Considering what he's gone through, that's amazing that he can still have that - you know, that attitude. On the point of rebuilding, let's zoom out a bit here. What does Libya look like right now, more than a decade after the Arab Spring and all the turmoil and chaos that's happened since?

BATRAWY: So I've seen a slither of the eastern part of this North African country. But what I've seen just driving back and forth to Derna and going through smaller towns is a country that feels really isolated and cut off from much of the rest of the world. Like, there's no public transport. There's no buses or taxis. There's no cars ferrying goods. Most cars don't even have license plates. And I think that just really underscores the lack of authority or functioning government here.

I also don't see women out and about, and that's also because this is a very conservative part of the country. There are fears of sleeper cells. This city was under Islamic State rule for four to five years until 2018 after the longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was toppled with backing from NATO airstrikes in 2011. And ever since then, it's just been chaos here. And now there are two rival governments in Libya, and that has definitely hindered relief efforts.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So that's - you know, real fears around accountability there. Libyan authorities say they've arrested some officials, including the city's mayor, for negligence in the dam collapses. What about the international support for Libya right now?

BATRAWY: There's aid coming in. I came in on an Emirati aid flight from the United Arab Emirates that was carrying, like, sugar, rice, cooking oil, other basic essentials. And the UAE does have resources and incentives to step in. Egypt is also here with over a thousand military personnel. They're digging up roads. They're trying to rebuild. They're trying to go through the rubble.

And the UAE and Egypt both want to see a stable eastern Libya and they support the military strongman here, who actually was just in Russia last week meeting with Vladimir Putin. Russia also sees an opening here. The U.S. has been providing some aid as well but doesn't have a visible presence.

But I think the idea here is that reconstruction is going to take time and international backing, but these competing interests could hinder that. And this is all happening while tens of thousands of survivors are still looking for bodies to bury and answers.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Aya Batrawy in eastern Libya. Thank you very much for your reporting.

BATRAWY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.