Congo Brazzaville explosion, one year on: Land made safe for affected communities

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Congo-Brazzaville, March 2013. Following the explosion of several munitions depots on 4 March 2012 in Congo-Brazzaville, Handicap International immediately set about securing the surrounding area and caring for the victims of the disaster. One year on, our work is complete, laying the foundations for the construction of social housing for thousands of people made homeless by the disaster.

On 4th March 2012, the annex of a munitions depot exploded in the east of the capital Brazzaville. It set off a chain reaction that led to the explosion of several stockpiles of munitions stored in surrounding barrack buildings. Unexploded and dangerous munitions were scattered over a radius of 4 to 6 km around the point of explosion. According to the Congolese government, 220 people died and 2,300 were injured in the disaster.

20,000 people made homeless

Many homes were flattened or damaged by the explosion, windows were shattered, roofs were torn open and doors blown-in as far away as the city centre. Around 20,000 people were immediately made homeless by the incident. Damage was even reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) more than 700 metres from the point of detonation. It was the worst disaster caused by an explosion at a munitions depot in Africa for more than 10 years. The presence of unexploded bombs and munitions across the city forced the population to seek refuge in makeshift camps, where the sanitary situation deteriorated rapidly.

Handicap International launched an emergency response on 9th March 2012 to neutralise unexploded ordnance visible among the rubble. A second team was brought in to help injured people, identity them and provide them with support after they left hospital. A total of 250 people benefited from rehabilitation sessions provided by our teams, more than 650 people were referred to specific health facilities, and over 200 mobility supports (crutches, walking frames, wheelchairs, etc.) were handed out.

Handicap International also provided psychosocial support for 250 people. These activities were designed to help people talk about their traumatic experiences and to forge social ties within the camps.

Removing the hidden threat of munitions

After initially clearing munitions from the ground surface in contaminated areas, Handicap International’s teams also removed dangerous objects hidden under the rubble in the neighbourhood of Mpila. The organisation employed over 160 people to perform the long and painstaking work of carefully lifting anything that might hide unexploded munitions such as a grenade, shell or rocket. They then marked dangerous areas and destroyed the weapons and munitions identified. This second stage was completed in December 2012.

Making land safe to use

One year after the disaster, Handicap International has cleared 500,000 square metres of land, and made it safe for use. This is the equivalent of 1,000 plots of land, which can be used for the construction of new homes.

Handicap International has also trained a Congolese team to clear the remaining contaminated areas. “The worst affected areas are now ready for reconstruction. The Congolese authorities are prepared to deal with the remaining contaminated areas. Handicap International’s presence is no longer necessary,” explains Elsa Jambois, from Handicap International’s mine action division.

On 15th December 2012, during an official visit to the site by ambassadors of donor countries (France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany) and several UN bodies, the Minister at the Presidency for Defense, Charles Richard Mondjo, declared that a part of the site will be given over to the “construction of social housing”. This news marked the end of Handicap International's emergency project in Congo-Brazzaville.