Libyans from across the fragmented country have driven through old front lines regardless of bitter enmities to deliver aid to flood-stricken Derna this week, putting aside years of conflict between their divided leaders.
Inside Derna, where a torrent washed away whole districts on Sunday night after two dams collapsed under storm floods, volunteers from Misrata, Tripoli and Benghazi were distributing clothes and food packages on Wednesday and Thursday.
Thousands were killed in the disaster and many thousands more are missing, though estimates of the toll have varied widely, and large numbers of Derna residents have lost their homes and belongings.
“We said to ourselves there would surely be a shortage of working hands to load, unload, drive or do anything else,” said Elias al-Khabouli, a volunteer from the western city of Zawiya and a member of the Biltrees activist group.
Biltrees hired buses and vans to bring more than 100 volunteers from western parts of Libya to the far eastern city of Derna early on Monday, embarking on a 15-hour drive even before the full scale of the disaster was clear.
Conflict since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising has ripped apart many communities in Libya, pitted cities against each other and divided the entire country after 2014 between rival governments in the east and west.
Despite a 2020 ceasefire that ended most major warfare, allowing roads and flights to reopen between the main opposing areas, territory remains controlled by rival armed factions and there is no unified authority governing the whole country.
The two rival administrations have – tentatively – coordinated on some issues. Ministers from the Tripoli-based government visited the eastern city of Benghazi on Thursday.
“There’s a somewhat larger willingness to cooperate than I have ever seen in the last decade,” said Tim Eaton of Chatham House.
Some aid has flowed from Libya’s internationally recognised government in Tripoli, which is not recognised by eastern factions and is aligned with armed forces that have battled against the powerful eastern military leader Khalifa Haftar.
However suspicions remain: there is no indication that the shared national grief over Derna will loosen the political gridlock that has gripped Libya for more than a year, making national elections impossible.
A humanitarian source involved in the relief effort said eastern authorities had barred foreign aid flowing to Derna through the internationally recognised Tripoli government, whose legitimacy the eastern administration rejects.
A source in the eastern administration denied this, saying it had not rejected aid being channelled via Tripoli.
Analysts caution that political leaders may be seeking to tap into a national mood of unity while positioning themselves to benefit from any longer-term development funds. Conflict in Libya has often focused on access to state finances.
“When you start to talk about the issues of reconstruction and financial support, this will aggravate all the faultlines in Libya,” Eaton said.
However, the long line of trucks queuing to get into Derna on Thursday showed donations arriving from around the country in what the United Nations emergency agency OCHA called “a wave of nationwide support” that “has swept across Libya”.
Relief operations in Derna have been directed by Haftar’s LNA, the military coalition that controls eastern Libya and was for years in open conflict with western factions.
Haftar mounted a 14-month campaign to capture the capital Tripoli from 2019-20, an offensive that destroyed swathes of the city and was resisted by western armed factions.
Photographs on social media, which Reuters could not immediately identify, appeared to show vehicles from Tripoli’s 444 Brigade, whose leader was part of the coalition battling Haftar, arriving with aid in eastern Libya late on Wednesday.
The internal coordination was matched by donations from abroad. Even foreign governments mistrustful of Haftar have put aside political misgivings or fears over Libya’s rampant corruption, to directly engage in a region he controls.
Turkey, long the main supporter of the Tripoli government, rapidly sent an aid team to Derna through Benghazi, the LNA-controlled capital of eastern regions.