Darna, Libya after dams collapsed in the wake of storm Daniel. (Phot: AP/Jamal Alkomaty)
The U.S./NATO destruction of the Libyan state in 2011 was followed unilateral coercive measures, sanctions, which rendered that nation unable to maintain dams which failed during a recent storm. Thousands of deaths resulted from this ongoing crime perpetrated by the collective west.
In early September 2023, Storm Daniel was wreaking havoc in Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. This coincided with heavy rains in western Libya that drowned much of the capital, Tripoli, and nearby cities for several days. There were minimal warnings of heavy rains to hit eastern Libya’s mountainous region, but the warnings were not officially mandated, just social media postings brought attention to the impending peril that would strike eastern Libya.
On the 11th of September, small towns and cities in eastern Libya (Sousa, Baida, and Batta) experienced heavy rains and flooding, leading to some infrastructural and material damage. However, the big catastrophe was in the city of Darna which houses more than 100,000 inhabitants and is located by a valley leading directly from the mountains. The two dams that control the flow of the water that seeps through the city’s valley collapsed at around 2:00 a.m., leading to a complete blackout and mass flooding. Cars, 10-story apartments, and houses were washed away with their residents, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe with more than 10,000 dead and 11,000 missing.
The city of Darna has a history of floods given its geographic location (coastal and surrounded by mountains). In 1959, a major flood struck the city leading to 15 deaths. The former government, in power from 1969 to 2011, contracted with Yugoslavian companies in the 1970s to construct two dams to prevent such humanitarian losses. These dams were due to be repaired once international sanctions on Libya were lifted in 2003. In 2008, Libya contracted a Turkish company, Arsel, to carry out the repairs in 2011, but NATO’s destructive, militaristic intervention on the one hand, and economic sanctions on the other, prevented foreign companies from continuing their developmental projects in the country. The equipment of the Turkish company was stolen in 2011 by NATO-backed rebels.
Imperialism and Liberal Ahistoricism
Much of the reporting on the calamity regurgitates ahistorical talking points about Libya being a failed state, without proper government, and controlled by militias. Due to the lack of proper governance, as the UN official said on Thursday, most of the casualties could have been avoided. Libyans are suffering from the aftermath of a nation that was destroyed by NATO and its regional functionaries in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The destruction of Libya in 2011, by militaristic and economic means, alongside parachuting consecutive governments allied with the West as opposed to allying with the people, while installing puppets as heads of militias and so-called military, is the very cause of this catastrophe that the world witnessed in Darna. It is these ahistorical narratives that allow for the reproduction of chaos in Libya because no one wants to explain why Libya was so unprepared to deal with the disaster, nor why the country is divided.
These narratives play in favor of imperialism. The liberal Libyan diaspora went on social media to call for the lifting of “restrictions” on international financial transactions, or that the transactions are “stuck”. These coercive economic measures, which some have dubbed as economic warfare, have been imposed on Libya since 2011 to stall its development project that was based on multipolarity and South-South solidarity, which the work of Julian Assange on WikiLeaks has documented so well. Just as in the case of the Syrian earthquakes in February 2023, when sanctions prevented humanitarian aid from reaching major platforms which are controlled by the US Office of Foreign Asset Control, liberals described the efforts to lift Syrian sanctions as genocide apologists or Syrian regime mouthpieces, yet these are the very same sanctions that are imposed on Libya. This should be clear evidence that sanctions are a tool to stall development and inflict collective punishment on the people of a nation, even in dire situations such as earthquakes and flooding.
Lest we forget, Libya is a rich country. It has the largest oil reserves in Africa, an abundance of underground water, and numerous resources. It has more than $100 billion in frozen assets. Though Libyans need any aid they can get right now, the unfreezing of these assets will ease the delivery of aid for the needy and commence the reconstruction of not only the cities destroyed by the flooding but also cities that have been demolished by NATO’s 2011 intervention.
Rescue, Aid, and Accountability
Following the destructive flooding, an academic journal article published in February 2022 by Abdelwanees Ashour resurfaced and was frequently shared on social media. Ashour examined the conditions of the dams and warned in the article that if officials neglected to repair them, the results would be catastrophic for the people residing in Darna’s valley. However, no one in power, be it the internationally recognized Government of National Unity in Tripoli, or eastern Libya’s government, paid attention to these warnings. What added insult to injury is that the police municipality of Darna announced a curfew, so people do not leave their houses, assuming that the storm’s impact will not be as tremendous. Lastly, the Attorney General, Saddiq Alsoor, noted that in the 2021 budget, a sum of 51 million Libyan Dinars (roughly $10 million) was dedicated to repair the two dams. However, government officials pocketed the money. All of these actors are responsible for all the lives lost.
At this juncture, Libyans across the country are working hand-in-hand collecting and providing aid and housing for the injured and the displaced, organizing collectively to ease the colossal damage that has been inflicted on their country. This genuine passion for yielding a helping hand to compatriots is what is needed for Libya to move forward from the abyss of destruction and division that have plagued the country since 2011. It took the catastrophe in Darna for Libyans to realize that the politicians have no role in serving the people and that a unified national government must be formed so that a genuine national construction for the people of Libya takes place. Otherwise, such catastrophes will happen again.
Essam Elkorghli is a Libyan PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He researches Libya’s modern political history and contemporary imperialism in education. He is a labor organizer with the Graduate Employees’ Organization, assistant editor for Middle East Critique Journal, and a member of the Global Pan African Movement.