Disaster in Sierra Leone Puts Politics Forefront

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Sierra Leone mudslide August, 2017
A family receives relief materials including clothes, food and a mattress

“Lets talk about the disaster, elections will come,” Health Minister cautions

The mudslide that claimed hundreds of lives in Sierra Leone during the early morning of August 14 has left an overwhelming gloom across the country. Additionally, the smell of death due to the hundreds of corpses retrieved from the epicenter of the disaster, Regent, on the outskirts of Freetown, has overwhelmed the people. There is fear among surviving family members, who are not sure if the disaster is over. The epicenter of the mudslide, Sugarcane Mountain, once a lofty symbol of beauty and protection in the community of Regent, is now defaced with mud and debris.

The Minister of Health and Sanitation, Abu Bakarr Fofanah, during a recent interview at the Connaught Hospital, where many injured survivors and the dead recovered from the mudslide were taken, assured Sierra Leoneans that the tragedy would not obstruct the holding of the country’s next elections. “We are not under the elections mode, we are in a disaster. Let’s talk about disasters, elections will come,” he stated.

Sierra Leone mudslide August, 2017
Road along the hill leading to the mudslide pit; people being evacuated finally from the houses in the area

Before the disaster, Sierra Leoneans were in high political gear, profiling likely aspirants to take the helm of the diamond-rich country in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for March 7, 2018. But with this turn of events, and with USAID and the United Nations coming in with relief, many are complaining that the relief is not reaching the right people.

Another concern is the ongoing digging through the debris for the dead. “Why is the government still digging for the dead?” is the question being asked, while some families are claiming they have not been allowed to identify their dead who are being buried by the government.

Sierra Leone mudslide August, 2017
Women survivors of the mudslide line up to get help

But according to a security personnel, Joseph Kamara, “The first thing we are to do is protect everyone’s property and protect the lives of those who are injured. During the incident, we used ambulances to take those who were injured, and called on our partners, because this is a very big catastrophe. We can’t handle it alone, so we have called our partners, the national security, the military and Red Cross, and we began digging; ready to take who we need to take, but unfortunately, we were not able to take anyone alive. We are still hopeful, that is why we are still on the ground and continue to stay on the ground permanently, and have sealed off the site and equipped people; and the rescue effort continues.”

Sierra Leone mudslide August, 2017
Sierra Leone presidential aspirant, Mohammed Mansaray

A few political aspirants, like Mohammed Komarainba Mansaray, leader of the Alliance Democratic Party, have been supporting the victims and relatives of those affected through counseling and advocacy. Mansaray has described the scene of the tragedy as unsafe, “yet the government allowed citizens to build there,” an allegation the government has not addressed. “It’s a natural disaster. The people affected were living in slums, places like Caningo Community, around the site; living in bad areas and they were not supposed to live there. The Ministry of Lands and the Environment gave them permits to build in these areas, knowing they were not supposed to build there… In some kind of way it was the administration’s failure. I hope we Sierra Leoneans will come together, as we have done before in tragedy, and know we will overcome. We have to overcome this and see the bigger picture; and the bigger picture really is, we need to put in place preventive measures in case of similar situations.”

Another aspirant from the United Democratic Movement added that no one is to be blamed for the catastrophe, but that people should make sure that next time, the country is led by a leader who will make the right decisions. “What we saw over the weekend was hundreds of people that we lost in Sierra Leone. I think that is worrisome. This is not the time to blame others but it is clear that the government must be decisive in making decisions. They have the right to protect life and property as a nation, they should know disaster prone areas; they should have prevented the situation; they should have told the people to leave the area because they knew that it was a disaster-prone place,” he said.

Meanwhile, community dwellers in the disaster area say they are no longer able to weep for their dead. Hundreds of men, women, and children gathered in unfinished houses near the disaster area. There are children roaming about begging for food. Many of the people sleep on lappas, exposed to the rain. Food is distributed to those who have registered. The Sierra Leonean government has started reaching out to its partners and neighbors, including Liberia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, for help.

Sierra Leone mudslide August, 2017
Religious leaders conduct service at mass burial of mudslide victims

Health Minister Fofanah has also appealed for support. “Even though we are mourning, you don’t want to force people to talk, but we need to talk to one another. Let no situation cause you to forget that the time will come when every one of us here will be buried; as long as you are born, you are bound to die. We pray continuously, but no matter how you fast or pray it will not solve our disasters. But let us continue to pray. This disaster is beyond what you can think. In disaster management, we need food, we need water, a lot of things that you can think a human being should have; therefore, we are in the position to say to the Liberian government, that is what we need; and whatever they can give, we will accept.

“We are not going to press the country but we appreciate every little help from every individual. It’s not just for help outside of the country, most of the help we have received is from the country because you have the youth going there digging with their bare hands before the shovels, wheelbarrows, pix axes could come. Also, the country awaits further relief as the one already on the ground has not reached a third of those affected, because it is not enough,” he said. “I have also called on President Koroma and his government to give a minimum of 100 million Leones to each family that has been affected by this crisis here. Families that are displaced say they walk about the community all day because there is nowhere to go or a place to stay.”

Sierra Leone mudslide August, 2017
This survivor, who saved four of his relatives, was unable to save his young son

A witness to the disaster say it was “around 4 am on August 14 when the ground exploded and rumbled and then the heavy water began gushing down and the mountain. I ran inside the house and tried to save my family, I was able to save four, but one of my sons, I couldn’t get to him,” a survivor said. “I was hurt trying to save my family. I was discharged four days later and now I just walk around to pass the day because there is nowhere for me to go anymore,” he added.

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