The aftermath of an earthquake in Morocco and flooding in Libya has shown up the state of the two nationsFri 15 Sep 2023
At least 2,900 people are known to have died in the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that struck in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains a week ago, and the authorities say the death toll will rise.
Three days later, on 11 September, intense flooding in Libya led to the collapse of two dams that unleashed a torrent of mud and water into Derna, destroying large parts of the eastern city.
On Friday morning, the Libyan Red Crescent said the number of people who had died in the city had risen to 11,000 and was expected to rise further as rescue teams arrived and helped to retrieve more bodies from the mud. Officials said 30,000 people were missing.
The full scale of the disaster may be far greater, as few international aid agencies or news reporters have been able to reach the flood-hit area. This area is controlled not by the government in Tripoli but by a rival warlord.
Morocco and Libya may be geographically relatively close to each other – just a 2,000km hop across Algeria – but they could not be two more different countries. This has had a huge impact on their ability to respond to the disasters.
Peter Beaumont, a senior Guardian international reporter, has spent this week in the Atlas mountains and is a veteran of several reporting trips to Libya. He says: “Libya is a failed – or semi-failed – state that has been caught up in a protracted civil war since 2011, which has obviously had a massive impact on the country’s infrastructure and social cohesion.
“Morocco, on the other hand, is a functioning modern state. The place works – Marrakech, Tangier, Rabat are all modern cities. Ordinary people have been mobilised on a mass scale, and there is a very strong sense of nationhood.”
The difference between Libya and Morocco
Beaumont arrived in Morocco on Sunday and was able to drive directly to above the epicentre near Adassil. “Within an hour, I was at an earthquake-hit village and speaking to people affected and those providing help.”
He says it would be a totally different story if the news desk had sent him to report on the Libyan flooding. “One of the challenges of covering disasters that coincide with conflict are fractured lines of control: it’s not a question of just flying to Tripoli and getting a car. I have worked in Libya and it is an incredibly difficult place to work.”
Firstly, you need a visa. But there’s no telling if one would be granted, or how long it would take to come through. If a visa was granted, it would be for the western areas controlled by the government in Tripoli. But the flooding is in Derna, in the eastern region controlled by Gen Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army, who has been supported by Egypt and helped by Russian mercenaries from the notorious Wagner group.
“Reporting from Libya was one of the most dangerous jobs I’ve ever done,” says Beaumont, who was last in Libya to cover the toppling of its previous dictator, Col Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011.
These safety concerns, and crumbling infrastructure since the death of Gaddafi, have made it very hard for international aid agencies or reporters to get a real sense of the devastation in Derna.
“As nasty, autocratic states go, Libya under Gaddafi functioned and it had a huge amount of money from oil. It was a place that worked – in a horrible way with no rights or freedoms, but it had decent infrastructure. Not so much now.”
The World Meteorological Organization said the huge death toll could have been avoided if Libya, a failed state for more than a decade, had a functioning weather agency. “They could have issued warnings,” said Petteri Taalas, its secretary general. “The emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out evacuation of the people. And we could have avoided most of the human casualties.”
Libya’s attorney general has been asked by senior politicians to launch an urgent inquiry “to hold accountable everyone who made a mistake or neglected by abstaining or taking actions that resulted in the collapse of the city’s dams”.
Beaumont says: “We still don’t really know the scale of the disaster. Is it 20,000 dead, as the mayor of Derna says? It could be more.”
International aid only started to reach Derna on Wednesday afternoon, two days after the catastrophe. It may now be too late to save lives. The mayor, Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, said: “We actually need teams specialised in recovering bodies.”
A search team director, Lutfi al-Misrati, told Al Jazeera: “I fear that the city will be infected with an epidemic due to the large number of bodies under the rubble and in the water. We need bags for the bodies.”
Another official said the number of dead people could increase significantly as the “sea is constantly dumping dozens of bodies”.
The role of Morocco’s king
While it is much easier to get international aid to Morocco, the government has been criticised for not accepting more assistance. So far only search and rescue teams from the UK, Qatar, Spain and the United Arab Emirates have been allowed in. Offers of help from the US, Tunisia, Turkey, Taiwan and, significantly, the former colonial power France have not been accepted.
The king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, has refused support from Paris, which ruled Morocco as a colony between 1912 and 1956, after years of fraught relations. It led the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to post a video saying: “There is the possibility of supplying humanitarian aid directly. It is clearly up to his majesty the king and the Moroccan government, in a manner entirely befitting their sovereignty, to organise international aid.”
Despite the king’s apparent dislike of the French government, he spends much of the year in a 10-bedroom, €80m (£68.7m) mansion near the Eiffel Tower, complete with a swimming pool, spa and hair salon. He also owns Chateau de Betz, an 18th-century castle about 30 miles north-east of Paris.
How Morocco’s communities responded
Beaumont says the furore over Morocco rejecting aid may have been overblown, and it is unclear if Rabat needs much more international support because of the specific nature of this tragedy. Most of the houses were built of mud bricks rather than concrete, he says, so people “either died or survived”.
Moroccans have reopened most of Route Nationale 10, the main road through the High Atlas mountains, to Talat N’Yaaqoub, about 12 miles (20km) from where the earthquake struck. “It’s a pretty incredible achievement to have reopened a road where large sections had been blocked by rockfall just days earlier,” he says.
As Beaumont was coming back down route 10, thousands of ordinary Moroccans were driving aid up the mountain. Among them he met a group of 16 young men in three vans, all supporters of the Raja Casablanca football team.
“It’s taken us all day driving to get to Talat N’Yaaqoub,” Ziko, the driver of one of the vans, told him. “We have food and clothes and money we’ve collected for the victims of the earthquake. We felt we needed to do it.”
In a reversal of roles, Beaumont was stopped by a local journalist who asked to interview him. “What she really wanted to ask was: ‘Aren’t you impressed with what we’ve been able to do?’” he says.
“And I was. It was genuinely impressive to see ordinary Moroccans do this. It’s how humanity should be – not politics but the community helping the community. In a couple of years’ time, I think, when people ask me what I remember about the Morocco earthquake, it is not just going to be the sadness and devastation, it will be how ordinary people responded. That is hugely positive, and given that I cover a lot of grim stories, it says a lot.”