The judgement of Derna

Ahlam experienced war and ISIL, but living through Libya's deadly flood was her most harrowing experience yet.

Damaged home in Derna
Ahlam experienced war and ISIL, but living through Libya's deadly flood was her most harrowing experience yet. [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]
Ahlam experienced war and ISIL, but living through Libya's deadly flood was her most harrowing experience yet. [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

“The only thing I could see was water, a huge sea sweeping away everything in the neighbourhood."

"Our street, our neighbours, our house, my mother and father, people's voices, crying children, mobile phone screens fading with their owners as they drowned."

"Do you know what is worse than hearing screams? The silence that comes after it. It's this creepy peace that haunts me today."

Ahlam al-Zenni describes the catastrophic inundation of the eastern Libyan city of Derna as if she's in a trance, repeating herself.

"The silence that comes after it."

The 39-year-old lived with her son, her parents and her two brothers in their two-story house in Derna, where they went through what people in the city call Judgement Day.

"Local channels and social media had news of the storm, but we weren't paying much attention. We kept saying it was a storm, that it would pass. The worst thing we thought would happen was wet carpets or damaged furniture. We never thought things would be more serious."

'What's worse than the screams? The silence.'

Cars were flung around like toys by the raging waters [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]
Cars were flung around like toys by the raging waters [FIle: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

"About half an hour before we went to bed, we heard sirens, so we figured there was an emergency. Looking out of the balcony, we saw security forces arresting a group of young men hanging around who had gotten into an argument with officers."

"It was quite dark, flashes of lightning appeared between the clouds from time to time, but there was nothing ominous in the matter, so we went to our rooms. I lay down next to my young son, who slept beside me ever since my husband was killed by ISIL (ISIS) in 2013 and I came back to my parents' house."

"It was a night like any other night, and it wasn't. About half an hour later, the sound of an explosion boomed, jolting me out of bed. I went downstairs and saw that the metal back gate had been ripped from its frame by pounding water."

"I ran up to my brothers’ rooms so they could help me, shouting their names to wake them up. Even then, I still thought it was just a flood and was more worried about our furniture than I was for our lives."

A tree trunk fell through the roof of a building during the deluge [File: Amr Alfiky/Reuters]

"Everyone woke up, my brothers, my mother and my father, and we gathered downstairs in the living room. Then another explosion rang out and we realised that the front gate, also made of iron, had also been torn off. Imagine the force of the water."

Ahlam sighed softly as if she was gathering the strength to keep talking.

“Then the flood removed the last barrier between us, tearing away the third gate. Imagine, the first things that washed into the yard were some cars the torrent pushed towards us. Within minutes, the water had pushed us too."

As water poured into the house, the family were thrown around like dolls, Ahlam's parents were pushed into one of the rooms while Ahlam and her brothers were pushed further into the living room.

"We couldn't get out, the rooms filled with cold water and the thing I remember is that the water was sweet, not seawater. They had said on the news that the danger would come from the sea and evacuated people living by it."

"Nobody realised that death would come from the south, not the north - that it would be the dams that would throw everyone into the sea. The water was so majestic and so terrible as it flowed into the house, filling up the rooms."

"My brothers and I clung to the chandelier, our screams mixing with the screams of our neighbours who were pleading for salvation. But after a while, their voices faded away. And what's worse than the screams? The silence."

'I submitted my body to the flood'


“The water reached our faces, and then all that remained of us were the tips of our noses, trying to breathe. I said the tashahhud prayer [reciting the Islamic declaration of faith], and my brother Mounir did too."

"But my younger brother Issam was completely silent. I screamed when I looked around and found him floating on the water, I thought he was dead."

"Mounir pulled him over and found that he had been knocked unconscious by the water which was almost unimaginably cold. We managed to put him on one of the sofas that were floating around us, a desperate attempt."

"Then I realised suddenly that my son was still asleep in my room upstairs. I started banging on the ceiling hysterically, trying to wake him up. There was no answer, no matter how hard I pounded."

"My hands were frozen, and my body felt lighter. It was the end, I was sure, so I said the tashahhud again, and submitted my body in obedience to what the flood wanted.”

Search teams combed streets, wrecked buildings, and even the sea to find bodies [File: Yousef Murad/AP Photo]

Ahlam stared into nothingness and repeated: “It was like a dream."

"I thought it was the end, but it wasn't. The water receded after an hour, not a lot but enough that we were able to swim. How weird, to say I swam around the house, but that's what we did."

"We swam to the other rooms to check on the rest of the family, leaving Issam unconscious on the sofa - Mounir went to check on our parents while I went upstairs where my son was. The door to the room was very hard to force open and when I finally managed, a huge gush of water poured out, nearly pushing me down the stairs."

"In the room, I found my son on top of the wardrobe, trembling and crying. He said: 'Mama, why did you leave me here?'"

"I rushed over and brought him down, hugging him tightly then running out of the room with him."

So many people lost their entire families family members in Derna [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

By then, Ahlam's neighbours had knocked through the connecting wall between their houses, desperately trying to reach them. Together, the group went up further, trying to get to the rooftop but as they struggled through still-swirling water, the naked body of a little girl no more than 11 washed up against them.

Nobody recognised her and they concluded that she must be from another neighbourhood, but one of the men carried her body with them to the rooftop.

"A few minutes later Mounir joined us, and Issam, who had woken up."

"But then...” Ahlam paused, her voice strained.

Calm, even in death


“My mother..." she said, starting to cry. "She was as calm as I have always known her to be even in death. And my father, we don't know his fate still because he was swept away by the water to we don't know where."

"That was the worst time in my life. I've been through so much in this city. I've been through wars, ISIL, the assassination of my husband... but this? This? No, this was like nothing before, it was like a nightmare."

The destruction of the deluge was unspeakable [File: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters]

"Our street, our neighbours, our homes, my mother and father, gone in the blink of an eye. It was like Judgement Day. A neighbour brought out his wife and daughter, dead. The Kroush family, an entire house, four bodies that floated out in front of us, dead. Khaled al-Hasadi, him, his wife and his children, gone. Nearly 40 people died in just our neighbourhood."

"Bodies were crashing into our house, like our neighbour Khaled, thrown by the torrents onto a balcony, lifeless. We spent the night and the next day watching everything we know being swept away, the bodies of my mother, our neighbour and the little girl no one knew next to us."

"They brought a bulldozer to get us off the roof. My mother’s body slid off the scoop three times! Shameful, miserable, shocking."

“The world has to know what happened in Derna, and those responsible for this disaster, those who brought about Derna's day of judgement, they have to be identified and held accountable.”

The world has to know what happened

In Derna, the Mediterranean breeze mixes with the stench of human remains buried under the rubble [File: Amanda Mouawad/AFP]
In Derna, the Mediterranean breeze mixes with the stench of human remains buried under the rubble [File: Amanda Mouawad/AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera