Early last week, Mohamed Eljabo travelled to the eastern provinces of Libya, passing through Derna, Al Bayda and Sousa, and what he saw he describes as “shock beyond comprehension”.

“I have visited these cities before and I know them well,” he says. “I expected to find these cities when I made the journey from Tripoli. I expected to see the neighbourhoods and towns. But these were gone. Erased. It was horrifying.”

Eljabo, an independent journalist from Tripoli, is one of many local reporters who have in the last week witnessed scenes they now find it hard to describe and are struggling to process. The Observer spoke to six journalists who have between them narrowly escaped death, experienced the loss of friends and loved ones and reported from places now almost wiped off the map.

“The most haunting part of the whole experience was the scar the storm has left on the living,” says Eljabo. “When I began working on a report and interacted with survivors, their faces screamed of fear. The horror was tangible in their eyes, their features. There were children crying over the graves of their families and trying to climb into the graves. I have never experienced something as harrowing as this.”

Noura Mahmoud al-Haddad, an independent journalist in the city of al-Shahat, 100km from Derna, watched from her windows as the rain came down for almost 24 hours, causing the power to go out and water to fill the streets as high as the second storey of the city’s buildings.

“It was a catastrophic night. We almost died drowning. I even posted on my Facebook page my end and bid farewell to my family before going to bed. I expected to die with my three children, whom I placed next to me in bed,” says Haddad.

The floodwaters have wreaked havoc in Derna and surrounding areas, leaving behind bodies on beaches, streets and beneath the rubble. According to the United Nations, local authorities concerned about disease spreading have hurriedly buried 1,000 people in mass graves.

The World Health Organization and others have had to warn against this rush, saying there was no additional threat of disease but that clean drinking water was a priority because the water will be contaminated.

There is also concern about the movement of undetonated explosives being shifted around by the floodwaters, having already killed 3,457 people in Libya since the civil war, according to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.

The Libyan Red Crescent has said that 11,000 people have died in Derna and more than 10,000 are missing. Rescuers are having to dig through the mud to search for more bodies while a slow evacuation of remaining residents is ongoing. While western Libya is controlled by a UN-backed government, the affected areas in eastern Libya have been ruled over for much of the past decade by the warlord Gen Khalifa Haftar.

For the journalists who lived through and reported the floods, the bloody political tussle has contributed to the degradation of the country’s services, including the lack of maintenance to the 1970s-era dams in Derna that crumbled. They, like others in the disaster zone, are angry about how a catastrophe on this scale was allowed to happen.