A Libyan Family Recounts How They Survived the Deadly Floods

Photo for The Washington Post by Alice Martins
Muddy handprints left by wedding guests on the walls of Alaam Sadaawi’s house in Soussa, Libya.

SOUSSA, Libya – The white walls of Alaam Sadaawi’s house are stained red with the muddy handprints that his wedding guests left behind, holding on for dear life as the floodwaters rose around them.

His family had been planning the party for weeks. His father, Mayloud, 70, bought silver platters for the food and new cups for sweet tea.

On Friday, they were buried in the red silt that Storm Daniel left behind as it thundered down the valley and covered this town of 8,000 people in eastern Libya. It took 15 men to clear the layers of dirt from the marble floors, the family said. The trauma will be harder to erase.

Alaam, the groom, was recovering in a nearby city when Washington Post reporters visited the house. The bride was with her family. They never had their wedding day.

“We’re afraid of the rains now,” said Nizar, Alaam’s brother, standing in what remained of their kitchen.

Up to 20,000 people could be dead in this war-divided country – victims of a perfect storm of extreme weather and state neglect. As rescue workers search for the missing and bury the dead, survivors carry their own wounds.

When two poorly maintained dams burst Sunday, unleashing a towering wall of water on unsuspecting towns and villages, they shattered ordinary evenings and special occasions alike.

In Derna, the worst-hit city, two newlyweds were found dead beneath their staircase, the bride in her dress and the groom in his suit. Outside an obstetrics hospital Thursday, two brothers were searching for their sister and her newborn after their home was washed away.

“This is a tragedy in which climate and capacity has collided,” U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said during a briefing in Geneva on Friday. The U.N. humanitarian office had sent a disaster coordination team of 15 people to Libya, he said, redeployed from the earthquake zone in Morocco, as the region reeled from twin catastrophes.

“In Libya, we don’t know the extent of the problem,” Griffiths said. “The floods and the torrents and the destroyed buildings and the sludge still conceal the level of need and death.”

Doctors Without Borders said its representatives had toured three health centers in Derna and found one out of service because almost all of its medical staff had died. The other two were operating with volunteer doctors from Tripoli but were asking for more support, the group said, “mainly for mental health to support people coming to the center.”

There was a frenetic energy in central Derna on Friday as Post reporters returned for a second consecutive day. Anxious officers with walkie-talkies cleared the roads, fretting that a high-level official was on the way. Rumors abounded over who it might be.

Aid trucks were more visible than the day before, the cellphone network had been restored, and air force officers directed traffic. Hundreds of men in military fatigues and fluorescent coats lined the boulevards in formation.

In other coastal communities, the mood was more muted, as residents got on with cleanup and excavators combed the rubble for bodies. In Soussa, 60 miles west of Derna, the Sadaawi family recalled the happy, nervous energy in the house that Sunday evening, which seemed so long ago now.

Relatives were packed into every room, the children excited to see their cousins and the adults ready to prepare the feast. They slaughtered 13 sheep for the wedding, scheduled for Thursday, then lit the barbecue when evening fell and ate together beneath the pomegranate trees in their yard.

Inside the house, festive lanterns glowed from the ceiling and the youngest cousins played musical chairs in their party dresses. Alaam’s oldest brother, Najm, was running final errands in his car when the rains began.

The downpour pummeled the town’s flat concrete roofs and wide green orchards. At 11:30 p.m., the water came crashing down the valley and through their front gates. “It happened in seconds,” Nizar, 40, recalled.

The lights cut, and the music stopped. The children froze.

By Friday evening, authorities in Soussa had counted 10 dead, 50 missing and 200 injured. Dozens of homes had slipped out to sea or been torn apart, the rubble strewn from land to shore. Few aid groups appeared to have reached the area.

Inside the Sadaawi family home, muddy handprints covered almost every wall, rising with the stairs the family had scrambled up as the waters rose higher and faster. Some of the prints were small. “We were just grabbing the kids and throwing them up there,” Nizar said.

They all made it to the upper floor, the water up to their necks. Alaam said he and the other men held the children above their heads. Neighbors shouted from the rooftops as a family of six was washed away. The groom was sure then that he would die.

They were saved when the kitchen wall collapsed, Nizar said, the water rushing into the yard where they had been eating. The tide drained slowly, bringing wedding pots and pans and lanterns to rest gently on the muddy ground. It was like a terrible spirit had left the room, a friend said.

Soaked to the skin and deep in shock, Nizar banged his head with his hands. “It felt like a dream,” he remembers thinking.

On Friday, the reminders were everywhere. A briefcase of bank notes that would have been the wedding gift was drying on a bed. Scarlet-red chairs for the guests were stacked on the roof.

In Libyan culture, the groom’s father traditionally pays for the wedding. Mayloud now lives in the ruins of a day that was meant to bring pride. But his children were alive, he said, and that was the main thing.

“This stuff would mean nothing if they were injured,” he said, glancing out through the broken kitchen wall at the stove, nestled in the yard’s mud flats.

With winter approaching, they would have to repair the house, but they didn’t know how they would afford it. “We only receive monthly salaries,” Najm said. “We will stay in this house the way it is.”

No one in Soussa has slept much since the flood. In their nightmares, many see rain.

Photo for The Washington Post by Alice Martins
Alaam Sadaawi’s kitchen, where the wall was shattered by floodwater, in Soussa, Libya, on Friday.