In the days after large parts of the coastal city of Derna, Libya, were swept away by devastating floods, Mahbuba Khalifa wrote a poem to honor her town, known to Libyans as the “city of poets.”
I used to carry your great legacy on my conscience and on my shoulders, and I walked with proud pride and I have a certain pride that I do not deny.
Anyone who sees me and sees the radiance of light that I have as a sign of my attributes should know — without asking where I came from — that I am your son.
For Ms. Khalifa, a Libyan writer and poet, it’s the most poignant way to mourn a city with a history as an intellectual and cultural center — and a long tradition of rebellion against occupation and authoritarian powers.
Like the aging dams outside Derna that burst on Sept. 11, sending torrents of stormwater into the city and sweeping entire neighborhoods into the sea, the city has been neglected by Libyan authorities for decades, said the residents and experts.
That treatment is punishment from the various authorities that control the area for residents’ tendency to resist control, they said.
The flood not only wiped out large parts of the city, cutting it into two walls of water and land and killing thousands of its inhabitants, but it also destroyed a cradle of Libyan culture.
Derna, a once lush seaside town on Libya’s northeastern coast, was built on the ruins of an ancient Greek colony in the late 15th century by Muslims fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. They brought the culture and architecture of Al-Andalus Spain, and the city became a place for different religions and nationalities to mix.
It is the site of Libya’s first theater and includes cultural centers, cafes for discussions and debates, and bookstores, keeping the intellectual streak alive even in difficult times.
But the flood destroyed many of the cultural and religious buildings that represent those traditions – such as a cultural center where residents debate the issues of the day, as well as mosques, churches and a synagogue, said of residents.
Islam Azouz, an aid worker from Derna, lamented the destruction of what he called the Derna legacy. “The Old City, its streets, its churches, its houses of worship, its mosques,” he said, “all of it went under the flood.”
said Ms. Khalifa that the city’s intellectual and cultural traditions, reflecting the rebellious nature of its inhabitants, survived repeated crackdowns by the authorities — until floods swept away many of them.
“Because the Dernas are always rebels, they don’t accept what’s wrong,” he said. “And one of the things the leaders did was suppress Derna.”
That tradition of speech was on display on Monday when hundreds of Derna residents gathered for a protest in the devastated city, demanding the removal of those responsible for the collapse of the dams.
Many were standing on the muddy and rocky ground that the flood had carried into the center of the city, while others were perched on the roof of a mosque that still stood. Some appeared to be part of relief and rescue efforts, wearing white biohazard suits and reflective vests.
“Aguila, out, out,” they shouted, referring to Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Libyan Parliament, who denied blame for the disaster even though Libyans said the disaster and its massive scale were rooted in negligence. and government mismanagement. And then, “Libya, Libya,” they chanted.
At the end of the protest, communications in the city were cut for hours, and authorities arrested protesters and activists demanding accountability.
“The city, whatever its condition, it has always rejected oppression,” said Jawhar Ali, 28, a native of Derna who lives in Turkey.
During the 32-year Italian occupation of Libya that ended in 1943, the Green Mountains above Derna were a haven for armed fighters, said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. and the author of the book “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya.”
Decades later in the 1990s, some in the city took up arms against the dictatorial rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, using the same mountains as a base. Colonel el-Qaddafi’s government has responded with more severe repression against the city and its people, Mr. Wehrey said.
In the 2000s, several young men from Derna went to Iraq to join the insurgency against the American military occupation there.
When the Arab Spring revolution came to Libya in February 2011, Derna was one of the first cities to join and come out strongly for the removal of Colonel el-Qaddafi.
Years of control by various armed groups followed the ouster of Colonel el-Qaddafi by rebels in 2011, aided by a NATO-led military intervention.
In 2015, the local fighters a local was defeated and expelled branch of the Islamic State terrorist group in Derna.
For a while, Derna remained the only city in eastern Libya not under the control of Khalifa Hifter, the renegade commander and former CIA asset.
Under the guise of fighting the Islamic State, Mr. Hifter tried to defeat the forces controlling Derna, besieging the city and pounding it with artillery and airstrikes. After years of fighting, the Libyan National Army seized Mr. Hifter this in 2018.
Stephanie Williams, the former United Nations acting special envoy, said she remembered visiting Derna afterward. He said what he saw reminded him of the devastation he saw in the Iraqi city of Mosul, parts of which were left in ruins in 2017 after a nearly nine-month campaign to defeat the Islamic State there.
Since then, Mr. Hifter to punish Derna for its resistance. His army has kept a tight grip on the city, appointing a mayor who is the nephew of Mr. Saleh, the speaker of Parliament.
Ms. remembers Khalifa, the writer from Derna, how as a child the city’s identity as a place of culture and resistance were intertwined.
In the 1960s she attended a play at the city theater with prominent female actors, she said. Proceeds from the play went to support Algeria’s resistance to French occupation.
That theater was demolished by the attacks of the forces of Mr. Hifter, he said.
Just a few days before the flood, Mostafa Trablsi, a poet from Derna, attended a meeting at the Derna Cultural House, a center for intellectual debates and art, about the dams looming outside the city, the their neglect and the risk of falling.
On September 10, he posted a poem on his Facebook page titled “The Rain” seems to emphasize his fears about the dam and warns of an “alarm.”
Exposure to wet roads;
And the fraudulent contractor;
And the failed state.
Mr. Trablsi died in the flood that hit the city a day later.
The Derna Cultural House was destroyed.
“The city is not called the city of poets for nothing,” said Mr. Ali, the former resident who lives in Turkey, referring to verses posted by Mr. Trablsi on Facebook. “Even in our disaster, poetry plays a role.”
As the search for flood victims continues under the rubble and in the sea, some residents say culture is resurfacing in a city that has largely survived.
said Ms. Khalifa that he plans to write a book about prominent people from Derna, including intellectual and cultural luminaries, but it must wait until this period of mourning is over. Each day brought news of more friends and family he had lost.
At least 49 relatives died in the flood, including several cousins and their families, he said. On Wednesday he learned that two of his teachers had died.
His poetry reflects his deep sadness. It concludes:
“But you are tired of the injustice of history and the injustice of interfering with you and your city’s heritage,
So you chose to leave when water met water to hide in the depths of the sea, pure and pure.”