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'Worse than war': trauma of Libya flood haunts survivors

'Maybe the city will be rebuilt but the people will never come back,' said a teenaged survivor
— Benghazi (Libya) (AFP)

Grief etched into her face, 15-year-old Ibrar struggled to find the words to describe her pain at the loss of three friends in the huge flood that shattered her Libyan hometown.

"We will never forget that day in Derna," she said, while trying hard to remember how her father managed to save her along with her mother and five siblings.

In her hospital bed, she recounted the horrors of the disaster that killed thousands of people. "The number is huge," she said. "There were corpses on the ground. The cars were piled on top of the bodies."

Torrential rains from Storm Daniel on September 10 burst two dams upstream from Derna, sending a wall of water crashing through the city centre that razed entire neighbourhoods.

The centre of Derna has been reduced to a dusty wasteland as the flood waters have receded after the massive spate that washed away whole neighbourhoods and their residents

It was the latest catastrophe to strike the oil-rich North African country that has been wracked by war and lawlessness since a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 ousted and killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Lying in her hospital bed at a medical centre in Libya's second city of Benghazi, Ibrar gazed at a comic book, trying hard to take her mind off her memories.

"It was the first time in my life I had seen anything this big," the teenager said. "Even during the war, it wasn't like this.

"I'm emotionally drained. My city totally disappeared. Maybe the city will be rebuilt but the people will never come back."

- 'Pressure inside them' -

Libyan health officials have said trauma counselling should be a priority for survivors of the Derna flood.

Dr Fadwa ElFartas, a medical officer at the Benghazi clinic, says it has taken time to get survivors to speak about their ordeal

"It's not only kids who are traumatised; the adults should see specialists too," the health minister of the eastern administration, Othman Abdeljalil told a news conference.

Fadwa Elfartas, medical officer at the Benghazi medical centre, said that, for many, "the psychological trauma is bigger than the physical trauma.

"Even the people who are not from Derna were in shock," she said.

She said nine days on from the tragedy, people are finally taking up the centre's offer of psychological support.

"At first, some people could not or would not talk, as if it was a nightmare that was already behind them," she said.

The wall of water that smashed into Derna completely destroyed 891 buildings and damaged over 600 more, according to a Libyan government report

The centre has a team of 28 mental health staff -- 26 women and two men -- to help patients come to terms with the psychological trauma.

"Once you introduce yourself as a mental health social worker, they speak," said Fatma Baayo, who has been working at the centre for the past 11 years.

"They need somebody to listen to them to relieve the pressure inside them," she said.

"They tell their stories, they all have a different story. Some say 'we heard an explosion', 'we ran', 'we found water', 'we saved our children'... Everyone has a story to tell."

- 'So many are hurting' -

Salma al-Zawi, 40, who works with women and children at the centre, said she was doing her best to put on a strong face.

"If I show weakness in front of a patient, she will collapse. I need to be strong to help her get out of this crisis," she said.

Salma al-Zawi, a mental health social worker at the hospital, says it's vital to get survivors to talk about what happened to them so that they can "cry and let out the pressure"

"We help them in every way we can -- we raise their morale, we decrease their pain, we help them talk so that they cry and let out the pressure."

After a demanding day listening to the bereaved, she says she is happy to get home and see her six children are safe and sound.

"When I get back and see my own kids are home and safe, I am grateful, because so many people in my country are hurting."

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