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Days of mourning and prayers held, after North Africa devastated by floods and earthquake

13 September 2023


Aerial view of Derna on Tuesday, after floods swept away entire neighbourhoods

Aerial view of Derna on Tuesday, after floods swept away entire neighbourhoods

THOUSANDS of people have been killed in two disasters in North Africa this week: the biggest earthquake in Morocco for a century, and devastating flooding in Libya.

News agencies have so far reported 2862 dead, and 2562 injured in Morocco, making the earthquake, which struck last Friday night, the deadliest in the country since 1960. In Libya, the latest figures suggest that there could be more than 5000 dead in the east of the country, where floods triggered by Hurricane Daniel have caused devastation since the weekend. Ten thousand people have been reported missing, and 20,000 displaced.

The town of Derna, in Libya, where two dams collapsed, has been left in ruins, with entire neighbourhoods swept away, according to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs. Access to affected areas remains difficult, owing to the destruction of key infrastructure such as bridges and roads.

The head of Libya’s unity government — recognised by the international community — Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, announced three days of national mourning, on Monday. The Red Cross has launched an emergency appeal.

“There’s not been a storm like this in the region in living memory; so it’s a great shock,” a spokesperson for the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Harris, said this week. She estimated that torrential rain affected up to 1.8 million people, and damaged and even “wiped out” some hospitals. Hurricane Daniel developed in Greece, where 18 months of rainfall fell in just 24 hours between 5 and 6 September.

On Tuesday, Pope Francis said that he was “deeply saddened to learn of the immense loss of life and destruction caused by the flooding in the eastern part of Libya”, and assured those affected of his “prayers for the souls of the deceased and all who mourn their loss”.

On Sunday, he expressed gratitude to rescue workers in Morocco: “May the concrete aid of everyone sustain the people in this tragic moment.” On the same day, the British Government confirmed that it was deploying a team of search-and-rescue specialists, including 60 people, four search dogs, and rescue equipment, as well as a medical assessment team. It was also deploying an aircraft provided by the Ministry of Defence.

The 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck on Friday night in the High Atlas Mountains, with its epicentre 45 miles south-west of Marrakesh. While many modern buildings remained standing, the earthquake flattened the “traditional mud brick houses ubiquitous in the region”, some of which are hundreds of years old, Reuters reported. “In the village of Tinmel, almost every house was pulverised, and the entire community has been left homeless.”

A military rescue worker told the agency: “It’s difficult to pull people out alive, because most of the walls and ceilings turned to earthen rubble when they fell, burying whoever was inside without leaving air spaces.” Villagers have been attempting to dig out survivors with their bare hands. Many have been sleeping outdoors since Friday night.

The 12th-century Tinmal Mosque, constructed from earth and stone, was among the buildings damaged. The UN has reported that road blockages and difficult geographical conditions have made it challenging to conduct search-and-rescue interventions.

Among the agencies that have launched appeals is Oxfam, which has been working in Morocco since 1994. It is estimated that at least 300,000 people will be directly affected by the disaster.

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment here

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