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Libya floods: How the Libyan Boy Scouts rose to provide emergency assistance

In an absence of immediate support from the military and aid organisations, the scouts gathered to clear roads, help survivors and distribute medication to those affected
A member of the scouts in Libya preparing relief bags in Derna, Libya, 18 September 2023 (Malek al-Maghrebi/X)

Over a week after the tropical storm hit the city of Derna in eastern Libya, rescue teams are concluding their search for victims, and crucial aid is beginning to arrive. Amid these efforts, one dedicated group has stood out, operating silently yet tirelessly to provide support and relief to those in need.

The Libyan Boy Scouts have been at the forefront of emergency response efforts, starting work one day after Storm Daniel caused flooding, which resulted in thousands of deaths.

The flooding has also left a quarter of the buildings in Derna completely flattened, while hundreds of others are fully submerged in mud.

With their distinguishable neckerchief fastened around their neck, the boy scouts have led efforts in facilitating aid, clearing roads of debris, distributing medicine, and assisting the injured and foreign search-and-rescue teams.

Wael Habil, a volunteer and translator on the ground in Derna, praised the efforts of the scouts. 

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"They have been putting their heads down and working silently from the start, away from the cameras and the media. They are distributing medicine, clothes, food. They are all young people [both] from Derna and out of Derna," he told Middle East Eye.

"I am proud of them because they are making huge efforts in total silence. They are doing the same work as international organisations, such as the Red Crescent."

According to Habil, the majority of the scouts are between the ages of 18 and 24.

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Malek al-Maghrebi, a Libya-based journalist, said that he witnessed the scouts working firsthand from the day the disaster hit, and that scouts from around the country had gathered and rallied in Derna.

"At first, it was slightly more random, helping assist the injured and removing the dead bodies, and it was all volunteering," he told MEE.

"The scouts were used according to their expertise. When search-and-rescue teams arrived on the ground on the fifth day, the scouts took a back seat from removing the dead bodies and searching for survivors," he added.

Days later, as search-and-rescue teams and international aid organisations arrived, the scouts changed the focus of their efforts to helping the organisations by collecting, coordinating and distributing aid, as well as translating for them. 

Zuhair Azouz, the head of the scout emergency team in Derna, was responsible for coordinating their efforts, and wrote a list of aid needed in Derna, which was shared online. The list included items such as children's toys, wheelchairs, crutches, insulin shots, first aid kits and blood pressure monitors.  

Filling a gap 

According to Emadeddin Badi, an analyst on Libya with the Atlantic Council, the scouts have been instrumental in ensuring that relief is properly distributed in an efficient manner, particularly in the absence of a humanitarian response being coordinated by the military or authorities.

Badi drew parallels between the latest events and the role of the scouts following the military operation known as Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous, which successfully liberated the strategically important city of Sirte from the control of the Islamic State (IS) between May and December 2016.

'If you compare this to the authorities or the military, none of these [institutions] have the capacity or a culture of selflessness'

- Emadeddin Badi, Libya analyst

"The scouts cleared up rubble, they are recovering bodies and are volunteering in different aspects. They know how to organise because they're to a certain extent local, and their organisational capacity is key to the relief efforts," Badi told MEE.

"If you compare this to the authorities or the military, none of these [institutions] really have the capacity or a culture of selflessness... the military tends to be more repressive and the state tends to be more incompetent," he added.  

Badi believes that the scouts are one of the few institutions in Libya that have retained their integrity and values amid the political conflicts in recent years.

"The scouts have a history in Libya of being largely apolitical and have developed a culture of selflessness and volunteering. What's interesting about Libya is that even [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gadaffi wasn't able to politicise the scouts or penetrate the scouts the way he did with other institutions," he explained.

"The scouts have always managed to insulate themselves from political influence, which speaks to the culture they have been able to put into the movement."

Psychological support for children

Another key area the scouts assisted in was the psychological and mental support of young survivors.

"I have also seen them taking on the role of giving psychological support to children. In the morning they would help the aid efforts and in the night they run activities and games for the children to improve their situation," Maghrebi explained.

In videos published by AFP, the scouts are shown collecting toys and distributing them to young children who survived the floods.

Mohammed Fathi al-Agha, a scout leader, was responsible for coordinating the efforts.

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"We organised the leaders and experts in psychological aid for children and families. We then asked the young scouts and guides in Tripoli to collect gifts for the children in Derna and write letters to them," he explained.

Experts have raised concerns over the psychological toll the disaster has had on survivors, particularly as children show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The World Organisation of Scout Movement has commended the efforts of the scouts, which they said was "fueled by their unwavering duty towards helping others".

"Coordination and relief committees sprang up in Benghazi and Tripoli, while emergency response centres were established in various locations," the statement added. 

"Approximately 500 Scout Leaders, from Derna Crisis Centre and nearby commissions, are actively engaged in fieldwork. These leaders play a crucial role in drainage operations, search and recovery efforts and dignified burials." 

The scouts also took part in collecting donations, an effort that was initiated by the General Movement of Libyan Scouts and Guides.

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