Survivors of Sierra Leone mudslide fear for future as camps close

Aminata Kamara poses for a photo at the Old School camp for victims of Sierra Leone’s mudslide in Freetown, October 17, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nicky Milne

Thousands of people lost everything in the mudslide

By Nicky Milne

FREETOWN, Nov 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After losing her baby boy in the devastating mudslide near the Sierra Leone capital Freetown, Aminata Kamara now fears that she could also be forced out of her home city when camps for survivors of August's deadly landslide close next week.

Kamara was asleep in the early hours of Aug. 14 when three days of incessant, heavy rains sparked a mudslide on Freetown's crowded Mount Sugar Loaf, killing an estimated 500 people.

The community of Regent, on the slopes of Mount Sugar Loaf, was devastated, with locals believing the real death toll is closer to 1,000 people with hundreds still lying dead under the rubble and more than 3,000 left homeless.

"We felt the ground move and heard the trees from the hill fall," Kamara, still visibly scarred on her head and feet, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I felt the force of something push me down. I fell with my child and passed out instantly. I was covered entirely in dirt but luckily my hands were visible and that's how they found me."

But her baby, Mohamed Sesay, was consumed by the force of the earth. His body has not been found.

Kamara is one of thousands who lost everything in the mudslide and is now living in one of several camps set up by the government with the help of international aid agencies.

About 1,900 households with over 7,000 people have been registered as needing help, according to O.B. Sisay who is leading a disaster response taskforce set up the president. He led the response team after a 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Sisay said some people have wrongly claimed to be mudslide victims in the West African country that was already struggling to help all those impacted by the Ebola crisis in 2014 that killed about 3,000 and a civil war raging from 1991 until 2002.

WORRIES FOR FUTURE

With the camps due to close on Nov. 15, registered survivors are being given cash of $200 or more and food and non-food items to help them start to rebuild their lives or re-locate to the provinces.

This is being supported by Britain's International Department of International Development (DFID) with more funds for food available from the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP) to people who voluntarily resettle.

But many fear this is not enough to live in Freetown and they are worried about leaving behind jobs in a country where 70 percent of youth are unemployed or underemployed and 60 percent of people live on less than $1.25 a day.

"The relief aid the government is giving is meagre. We have no idea what will happen next," said youth leader Hassan Turay who lived in Regent for 12 years and is waiting for his wife who was injured in the mudslide to be released from hospital.

"In our home, our kids had their own room, my wife and I had a room and we had one living room. It wasn't a lot, but we were comfortable, I was content. But now it's all gone, my life has gone backwards."

A child’s shoe in the rubble at the site of Freetown’s mudslide, Sierra Leone, October 18, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nicky Milne

Freetown, initially designed by colonial-era British administrators and home to more than one million people, has been plagued by heavy rains and flooding yearly since 2008.

Its many slums and informal settlements are built high on mountain slopes, leaving tens of thousands of inhabitants vulnerable to death and displacement when the rains come.

Builders have encroached into protected forest areas on the hills behind the city, causing soil erosion - a phenomenon that contributed to the August landslide.

While there are promises of homes being built for victims of the August mudslide, so far only 57 homes have been constructed, all away from the city centre.

"The government cannot afford to build homes for all those affected and all those in disaster prone areas," Sisay told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Nowhere in the world is the government in the business of giving free homes. Whilst you would like to promise the affected people free, long-term houses, you would be lying."

For Kamara and others the future looks uncertain.

"We have nowhere to stay, our house was destroyed. Nothing was salvaged. If the government forsakes us, I don't have a Plan B," she said.

(Reporting by Nicky Milne, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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