Sierra Leone: Mudslide The Harrowing Tales Of Victims

A spot on the main highway of Hill Station, an uptown residential area in west of the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, offers a near perfect view of what has become a scar on the country's conscience.

The reddish pyramid-shaped image carved on nearby Mount Sugar Loaf, down below, was the scene of the deadly August 14 landslide in Regent, on the outskirts of the city.

Nearly every passer-by stops to have a glance at the scene of what has become Sierra Leone's Ground Zero, where hundreds of houses and an unknown number of people were buried by boulders and trees that moved down after an eruption atop the mountain.

The incident happened after a heavy downpour and flash floods that affected about a dozen other communities across Freetown.

But it is the landslide that has kept the whole world talking, partly due to the sheer loss of lives from it, and partly because it rekindled debate over the uncharted issue of a perennial housing crisis facing the West African nation.

Morteme, the small community at the foot of Mount Sugar Loaf, is now a bare piece of land covered by red earth.

Mariama, one of the few survivors, lost her husband, three children and two sisters there. The young mother is alive because she had been admitted to a hospital in another part of town.

Mariama breaks into tears as she explains how she learnt of the incident from her hospital bed. She and her new born baby are now homeless, sharing a space in an unfinished building, alongside about half a dozen other affected families.

The stories of these men and women are both dreadful and sad. They speak of an explosion at the top of the mountain and gushing water with boulders and trees falling down with speed and devastation.

"It was like the sound of thunder," recalls Joseph, a young man who lost 11 family members. Joseph was lucky to survive because he had moved out of their house to a neighbour's, down the hill. Moments after he left the friend's house, it was crushed.

Makeshift structures

According to people familiar with Morteme, the community was largely composed of makeshift structures like corrugated houses, commonly referred to as Pan Bodi. But it also had solid modern buildings.

In fact, among the houses buried were said to be two storied buildings, one of which reportedly belonged to a Cabinet minister.

There was also a church and an orphanage. Survivors say the church had an all-night prayer session the previous day, meaning most, if not all, of its congregation would have perished in the landslide.

Kumba Marrah, a mother of one, was out early on the day, frying cake, which she sold at a nearby street. Her neighbour, another early riser, had realized some unusual activity up the hill when he called her attention.

"We saw a movement of stones and trees. And then there was an explosion. Brown water was gushing up and down and we saw the trees and stones falling," she explained.

Zainab, seven months pregnant, lost her husband, mother, father and other extended family members totalling 13. She only survived because she had gone out to buy bread at a nearby shop.

Zainab was able to identify the remains of only her mother-in-law at Freetown's main mortuary, Connaught, a day before the government conducted mass burial for over 200 bodies on August 17.

Death toll

Official figures, as of the end of last week, put the death toll at 499 due to both the landslide and the flood. Over 90 per cent of them were attributed to the landslide.

The number of deaths, say analysts, could be higher when body parts discovered at various places are put into consideration.

When the landslide occurred in that early Monday morning, many people would have still been in bed. Boulders and trees from the mountain, with the aid of flood water, rolled several kilometres further down along a valley, destroying every other structure on the way in the communities of Pentagon, Kamayama, Engine and Kaningo.

Bodies of victims were discovered several kilometres from where they were first hit.

The crushing effect of the boulders and other objects, coupled with the long distances the bodies moved, left many of the victims unidentifiable, say rescue workers.

Body parts were discovered in ditches and a nearby beach. Many families, like that of Sheku Kargbo of Pentagon, never identified the remains of their loved ones.

Kargbo's sister, niece and six other family members died in the incident. He listed the names of his neighbours who also perished, some of them whole families.

Mohamed Jalloh is still searching for his brother and his (brother's) pregnant fiancé. She had just visited them from the northern city of Makeni, against the wishes of her parents, who were opposed to the relationship.

The part of the Pentagon community, situated in the valley, used to be a busy community. Today it is a bare strip of land, dotted with rocks and trees nearby residents say were brought by the flood.

Only two buildings survived in the affected part of Pentagon. One of them was under construction, at foundation level. The other, a one storied building, had its ground floor seriously damaged by a massive tree trapped within.

Community youths who have been volunteering as rescue workers believe several bodes washed down were trapped inside the building.

Search operation

Over two weeks now since the incident, search operation was still on, with most of the focus on Morteme, the epicentre of the landslide, where volunteers with shovels, aided by a single bulldozer, offered by a construction company, were digging frantically.

Officials say some of the rocks there were as big as storied buildings and doubt that there was any chance of recovering all the bodies.

"We are not expecting to retrieve any survivor from this place. We just want to make sure if there are any bodies here they get proper resting," says Gibrilla Bangura, one of the volunteers.

The Government estimates that at least 800 people were still missing. And officials have hinted at plans to cease the search.

Reports also say the government intends to declare Morteme a memorial area.

Concern, however, was rife over the risk of disease outbreak amidst all the rotting bodies and the unrelenting rains.

Occasionally, a body or two is discovered in a destroyed building, a ditch or the beach. The government has therefore warned residents against touching dead bodies discovered and to instead call on the relevant authorities.

Earlier in the week, the head of the tourism agency warned visitors against swimming on Freetown's beaches, which were feared contaminated by several dead bodies and debris.

Amidst an outpouring of international and local aid, the government has announced plans to undertake massive relocation of people from disaster-prone areas.

Freetown is made up of a highly mountainous terrain. And overpopulation over the last 10 years, fuelled largely by rural-urban migration, the legacy of the [1991-2002] civil war, coupled with the lack of housing regulation, which analysts say has occasioned exploitation in the housing sector, has forced many people to live in dangerous places like mountain tops, valleys and even under bridges.

The view from the spot at Hill Station gives a perfect idea of the situation, with houses, some of them expensive storied buildings, seen scattered across various mountains along the peninsula.

Vice-President Victor Bockarie Foh, at a donation presentation ceremony last week, called for private sector involvement to provide "permanent solution" to the problem.

"We want to build affordable houses so that Sierra Leoneans will be better housed... ," he said.

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