how rescuers work in Libya, between unexploded war debris and fear of a cholera epidemic

how rescuers work in Libya, between unexploded war debris and fear of a cholera epidemic

2023-09-21 09:30:20

Ten days after the terrible floods that hit eastern Libya following Storm Daniel, rescuers are actively working to help survivors. At least 3,800 people have died, but authorities and international humanitarian organizations fear a much higher toll due to the number of missing people, who number in the thousands.

Between diseases, war debris, insecurity and road accidents, the women and men mobilized to provide help are themselves threatened by the consequences of the flood. Frédéric Joli, head of communications at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – which has been present in Libya since 2011 – details to “Obs” the conditions in which humanitarian teams operate.

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What operations are being carried out by the Red Cross in Libya today?

Our priority is to provide the means for the living, who are grouped together in absolute precariousness. Indeed, Libya is not in an earthquake situation [comme au Maroc, NDLR], but of flooding. The victims died of drowning, so it is very unlikely to find survivors buried under rubble.

We are distributing medicine, food, first aid kits and household items to survivors. Most of the displaced people lost everything when the waters rushed into their homes, or they were not completely destroyed.

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For now, we are still in the evaluation phase. We need to be prepared for the most urgent, but we are signing up with the authorities on site over the long term. Furthermore, we must not forget that this disaster occurs in a region very weakened by twelve years of conflict between Benghazi and Tripoli. The Libyan context, beyond the disaster, is polarized, violent, with issues that can go beyond those of the flood.

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What are the major risks arising from the Libyan conflict?

The most problematic thing in a war zone like this is unexploded debris. There are many. Derna is an area particularly affected by violence for years.

Rescuers risk being exposed to munitions planted in the ground, but also cluster bombs [qui dispersent de petites munitions, NDLR] which did not explode when hitting the ground, turning into an antipersonnel mine. All of this unexploded debris was stirred up and displaced by the flood.

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The ICRC counts “weapons” specialists among its members. Their role is to establish risk areas, report mined lands, and train rescuers who intervene in places where there is a strong suspicion of unexploded war debris.

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What about the health risk?

We are not immune to the proliferation of water-borne diseases caused by the mixing of dirty water with drinking water. Drinking water supply systems were destroyed or infiltrated by the flood. We particularly fear a spread of cholera, an endemic disease in the region which is directly linked to poor water quality. Such an epidemic could spread all the more easily as the population’s organisms are weakened by fatigue, stress and years of conflict.

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One of the jobs of the humanitarian teams is sanitation. The ICRC has sanitary engineers who have extensive expertise in water management, acquired by working in prisons, in the heart of armed conflicts and with displaced people. These are nevertheless heavy operations which are similar to public works. They mobilize a lot of resources and money. For now, survivors and rescuers are being supplied with water by pallets of bottles and tanker trucks.

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Regarding the bodies found, the health danger is minor. The image of the corpse carrying disease is part of a very old perception, which probably dates from the Black Death, but which is most of the time erroneous.

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Among the other dangers that threaten rescuers is that of travel. On Sunday, five Greek rescue workers died in an accident on the road from Benghazi to Derna. How does the Red Cross organize itself to avoid these accidents?

The first days, when assessing the damage, are the most dangerous to intervene. Rescuers travel to disaster areas where roads are damaged or even destroyed, and where mines may have been moved. Today, while we are still in the evaluation phase, we took up positions in two warehouses that we emptied to direct our assistance to the populations we could reach. Rescuers are now working to establish and secure a humanitarian route to bring more supplies into Derna.

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Logistics also involves coordinating its interventions with those of local authorities and those of the Libyan Red Crescent, so that humanitarian aid is as effective and adapted as possible.

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