Libya’s ‘City of Poets’ Pays a Heavy Price in Floods

In the days after much of the coastal city of Derna, Libya, was washed away by devastating floods, Mahbuba Khalifa wrote a poem to honor her hometown, known by Libyans as the “city of poets.”

For Ms. Khalifa, a Libyan writer and poet, it was the most poignant way to mourn a city with a history as an intellectual and cultural hub — and a long tradition of rebellion against occupation and authoritarian powers.

Like the aging dams on Derna’s outskirts that burst on Sept. 11, sending a torrent of storm water into the city and sweeping entire neighborhoods into the sea, the city had been neglected by the Libyan authorities for decades, residents and experts said.

That treatment was punishment from the various authorities who have controlled the area for the penchant of residents to resist control, they said.

The flood not only wiped away large parts of the city, ripping it in two with a wall of water and earth and killing thousands of its inhabitants, but it also destroyed a cradle of Libyan culture.

A damaged mosque earlier this week in Derna. The city was the site of Libya’s first theater and was known for its cultural centers, cafes for discussions and debate, and bookshops.Credit…Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

Derna, a once-lush seaside town on Libya’s northeastern coast, was built on the ruins of an ancient Greek colony in the late 15th century by Muslims fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. They brought with them the culture and architecture of Al-Andalus Spain, and the city became a place for different religions and nationalities to mix.

It was the site of Libya’s first theater and included cultural centers, cafes for discussions and debate, and bookshops, keeping the intellectual streak alive even in difficult times.

But the flood destroyed many of the cultural and religious buildings that represented those traditions — like a cultural center where residents debated issues of the day, as well as mosques, churches and a synagogue, residents said.

Islam Azouz, an aid worker from Derna, lamented the destruction of what he called the Derna legacy. “The Old City, its streets, its churches, its houses of worship, its mosques,” he said, “all of it has gone in the flood.”

Ms. Khalifa said the intellectual and cultural traditions of the city, reflecting the rebellious nature of its inhabitants, had survived repeated crackdowns by the authorities — until the flood washed many of them away.

“Because Derna people were always rebellious, they don’t accept what is wrong,” she said. “And one of the things that leaders have done was to crack down on Derna.”

That tradition of speaking out was on display Monday when hundreds of Derna residents gathered for a protest in the devastated city, demanding the removal of those responsible for the collapse of the dams.

People gathered Monday at the Al Sahaba mosque in Derna, seeking the removal of those responsible for the collapse of the dams that led to the flooding.Credit…Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Many stood on the muddy, rocky earth that the floods carried through the city center, while others perched on the roof of a mosque that was still standing. Some appeared to be part of relief and rescue efforts, dressed in white biohazard suits and reflective vests.

“Aguila, out, out,” they yelled, referring to Aguila Saleh, the speaker of Libya’s Parliament, who has deflected blame for the disaster even though Libyans have said the catastrophe and its enormous scale were rooted in government neglect and mismanagement. And then, “Libya, Libya,” they chanted.

In the wake of the protest, communications to the city were cut off for many hours, and the authorities arrested protesters and activists who were demanding accountability.

“The city, whatever its condition, it always rejected oppression,” said Jawhar Ali, 28, a Derna native who lives in Turkey.

During the 32-year Italian occupation of Libya that ended in 1943, the Green Mountains above Derna were a haven for armed resisters, said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of the book “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya.”

Decades later in the 1990s, some in the city took up arms against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s dictatorial rule, using the same mountains as a base. Colonel el-Qaddafi’s government responded with even more heavy-handed repression against the city and its people, Mr. Wehrey said.

In the 2000s, some young men from Derna went to Iraq to join the insurgency against the American military occupation there.

When the Arab Spring revolution came to Libya in February 2011, Derna was one of the first cities to join and came out strongly for the removal of Colonel el-Qaddafi.

Soldiers distributing aid in Derna on Wednesday. Experts and residents say the city was deliberately neglected over the years for its rebellious stance against authority.Credit…Abu Bakr Al-Soussi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Years of control by various armed groups followed Colonel el-Qaddafi’s ouster by rebels in 2011, aided by a NATO-led military intervention.

In 2015, local fighters defeated and expelled a local branch of the Islamic State terrorist group in Derna.

For a while, Derna remained the only city in eastern Libya that was not under the control of Khalifa Hifter, the renegade commander and former C.I.A. asset.

Under the guise of fighting the Islamic State, Mr. Hifter tried to defeat the forces that controlled Derna, laying siege to the city and pummeling it with artillery and airstrikes. After years of battle, Mr. Hifter’s Libyan National Army seized it in 2018.

Stephanie Williams, the former United Nations acting special envoy, said she remembered visiting Derna afterward. She said what she saw reminded her of the destruction she had seen in the Iraqi city of Mosul, parts of which were left in ruin in 2017 after a nearly nine-month campaign to defeat the Islamic State there.

Since then, Mr. Hifter has sought to punish Derna for its resistance. His army has kept a tight grip on the city, appointing a mayor who is the nephew of Mr. Saleh, the Parliament speaker.

Ms. Khalifa, the writer from Derna, remembers how as a child the city’s identities as a place of culture and resistance intertwined.

In the 1960s she attended a play at the city’s theater with prominent female actresses, she said. The proceeds of the play went to support the Algerian resistance to the French occupation.

That theater was demolished by the attacks of Mr. Hifter’s forces, she said.

Just days before the floods, Mostafa Trablsi, a poet from Derna, attended a meeting at the Derna Cultural House, a hub for intellectual debates and the arts, about the dams looming outside the city, their neglect and the risk of collapse.

On Sept. 10, he posted a poem on his Facebook page titled “The Rain” that appeared to emphasize his fears about the dam and warning of an “alarm.”

Mr. Trablsi died in the flood that surged through the city a day later.

The Derna Cultural House was destroyed.

“The city is not called the city of poets for nothing,” said Mr. Ali, the former resident who lives in Turkey, referring to the verses Mr. Trablsi posted on Facebook. “Even in our catastrophe, poetry played a role.”

Volunteers searching for bodies amid rubble and mud in Derna on Wednesday. Thousands in the city were killed, officials say.Credit…Ricardo Garcia Vilanova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As the search for flood victims continues under the rubble and in the sea, some residents say that culture will rise again in a city that has survived so much.

Ms. Khalifa said she planned to write a book about notable people from Derna, including intellectual and cultural luminaries, but that must wait until this mourning period is over. Each day brings news of more friends and family whom she has lost.

At least 49 relatives died in the flood, including several cousins and their families, she said. On Wednesday she found out that two of her teachers had died.

Her poem reflects her deep sorrow. It ends:

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