13 September 2017: Sierra Leoneans will not forget August 14, 2017. Flash floods and a mudslide left an estimated 500 people dead and caused widespread destruction. The stakes for conflict are high as citizens seek answers to questions of better urban housing facilities and functional land policies. As Insight on Conflict’s Abdul Brima reports from the capital, the situation remains dire for survivors.
They say history exists to teach the past and guide the future. But is this really true?
In 1945, it was the Krio settlements of Charlotte and Bathurst that were hit by a landslide. Then, on Monday August 14, 2017, it was Regent, another Krio settlement 15 miles up the mountains overlooking Freetown, that tasted this tragic devastation. Houses were buried, hundreds were killed and many more are feared dead.
The scale of this tragedy is unprecedented. The actual death toll and the destruction of property is yet to be totalled. An estimated 3,000 people are thought to have been affected, with an additional 600 still thought to be missing according to reports from the BBC.
Disbelief and horror
In 2015, torrential rains lead to serious flooding that damaged homes and properties in Freetown. 14,000 people were affected and 10 were reported dead. But did the country learn from this? Answers to this question remain elusive, yet many are convinced that Freetown in particular should have learned lessons from similar disasters in the past.
Back to the Monday August 14 chapter of flooding and landslide in Freetown. Victims of the twin disaster could hardly believe what had happened. They struggled to tell bitter stories of how their families, neighbours and other loved ones had disappeared in a short period of time.
Mohamed Turay is one of the survivors of the Regent mudslide. He lost his entire family in the disaster. Fighting back his tears, Mohamed tries to recall what happened on that fateful day: "It happened very fast. First it was a loud bang as if a plane was landing atop the mountain. The next thing I saw were rolling boulders and trees brushing down the hill, crushing everything on the way."
He survived the horror only because he had come out of the house to use the bathroom when the tragedy occurred. With injuries sustained while running for his life and the ‘electric’ pace of the disaster, there was nothing Mohamed could do to save his family.
Everyone was in sheer disbelief to see a once populated and busy community turned into a total waste land with its array of houses whisked away.
Another survivor, Mabinty Fornah, in pain after sustaining injuries to her legs, said no sooner had she come out of her house to prepare breakfast for her family, than the land started "melting" with boulders and "large" trees rolling down the mountain at a high speed.
She said, "I ran for my life as fast as my legs could carry me, leaving behind my husband and three children; all of whom perished in the disaster."
There was an outburst of weeping and wailing, and a total sense of fear gripped the atmosphere as President Koroma arrived at the scene after the incident. The President could not hold back his tears at the sight of dozens of disfigured human parts and houses buried under the rubble. Many corpses were later found trapped under the mangroves along the river banks of neighbouring communities.
Survival in the aftermath
As community youths volunteered to search and rescue survivors, the terrible aftermath of the mudslides in Sierra Leone grimly illustrated the human cost of the government’s failure to implement housing and land policies, says Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Global Issues, Makmid Kamara.
The Director of Health Alert, Victor Lansana Koroma, noted that the "prevalence and scale of the tragedy simply shows how lack of action by leaders can endanger human lives", also adding that the disaster "could have been averted".
Urgent assistance is now needed for health emergencies like cholera and to mitigate for the loss of livelihoods.
Victor noted that a "lack of regulation and insufficient enforcement capacity, and the lack of political will in respecting minimum environmental rights for citizens are the reasons why tens of thousands of people continue to live in very dangerous and vulnerable communities in Freetown."
Responding to some of these issues the Mayor of Freetown, Franklyn Bode Gibson, explained on national TV that he believes in the business of urbanization, but thinks that most of what happened could be managed, except for the landslide. He went on to say: "People building in water ways, banking drainages for housing construction contributed to this problem. I am against this and appropriate actions will be taken from now on."
Mayor Gibson asserted that they (the government) had been shouting, fighting and talking about disasters for too long, but people had been defying orders. But now, he continued: "Everyone wants to blame the disaster on the government."
He called on Sierra Leoneans to work in the interest of national solidarity by consolidating efforts to rescue and provide support to survivors.
Responses from the ground
Local and international organisations have been quick to underline that Mayor Gibson is victim blaming, instead of accepting that the government is to blame for the tragedy. Victor points to a lack of enforcement of land acquisition laws and government’s ineptitude to stop deforestation as key in controlling these types of natural disasters.
Presidential Spokesman, Abdulai Bayraytay, was quick to support the Mayor: "People were warned a week before the tragedy to vacate the disaster prone areas, but nobody headed our calls," he said. He continued that even though all fingers were pointing to the government, "people also have a responsibility to protect their own lives by not staying in places that can endanger their families."
From a human rights perspective, international laws require that every home be ‘habitable,’ which includes providing protection against natural disasters. To this Victor ponders, "Sierra Leone is a signatory to many of these international conventions, but has the government really gone the extra mile to not only provide her citizens with habitable environment, but also to ensure their safety and security?"
The answer he says is no. Failures to address proper regulatory policies on land acquisition and urban planning policies are the reason why people continue to erect structures on mountains, under bridges and in water ways.
Mass burials and urgent supplies
Meanwhile, a mass burial of 300 corpses took place in Waterloo, twenty miles on the outskirts of Freetown on Thursday August 17, 2017. The country’s Chief Pathologist, Dr. Simeon Owizz Koroma, had earlier complained about mortuaries being overwhelmed by the number of bodies received.
He said in a radio interview that the bodies of those buried were people who had been identified by families or whose remains were rapidly decaying. Speaking to families of the deceased, President Koroma said during the burial that the bodies he had certified were approaching the 350 marker, but still expected more in the coming days or even up to a month.
The President called on his countrymen to unite and be strong in the face of this catastrophe.
While food, medicine, other supplies and financial aid from internal and external partners keep streaming into accounts set up for survivors of the disaster, the government thinks a permanent relocation plan is the answer to prevent a future reoccurrence of the problem. But, many would think differently.
Many think differently. Clearing slums, imposing rigid housing standards including proper community planning are critical. There should also be a commitment to addressing poverty, economic inequality and corruption, which are among several reasons why people live in risky urban settlements, observes Sierra Leone’s Co-Director of Urban Research Center, Joseph McCarthy.
Joseph further notes that the "government must commit both financially and politically to address the challenges of waste management, spatial planning and deforestation, which are blighting not only Sierra Leone, but other African cities."
The way forward?
So where does the country move to from here? International observers and local civil society organisations know that much action was not taken after the 2015 episode of flooding, despite millions of dollars in international aid poured into the country.
There were millions of Leones and local supplies of food and medicine donated to the victims but many have doubts about how the government managed these resources.
The flood victims of 2015 ended up spending months at the national stadium receiving treatment and support from international and local agencies. The government finally relocated about 10,000 people to a makeshift community in Mile 6 just outside Freetown.
Many of the people had since returned to their disaster-prone communities as they could not stand the challenges of living in the community without education for their children, health, food, water and electricity supply.
Yes, the disaster took away precious lives of men, women and innocent children, but the questions on the lips of many right now are, how do we ensure that human lives are protected in the face of natural disasters plaguing the country? Will the government feel for the pitiable plight of the victims and be more accountable in spending donations and other international assistance? Only time will tell.
About the author
Abdul Brima is Insight on Conflict's Local Correspondent in Sierra Leone. A radio producer and presenter on BBC Media Action Sierra Leone, he has worked with rural communities on conflict and development issues in Sierra Leone and Liberia.