Unreported : Sierra Leone’s overflowing morgues

August 25, 2017
| Report Focus News

Freetown, Sierra Leone – Walking into my hotel three days after the August 14 mudslides, I arrived to the sight of foreign news crews packing up their bags and heading for the airport.

“The story is over,” said one British journalist looking down at his phone in the hotel lobby as he exhaled huge clouds of white and thick cigarette smoke.

“There’s been a terrorist attack in Barcelona … it’s time to move on,” he said.

Fifteen would die in the Barcelona attacks.

Around 500 had died in Freetown.

As the day progressed, I visited a cemetery an hour’s drive from the capital where bodies were being dumped in mass graves.

Sierra Leone’s president gave a moving and impassioned speech to dignitaries and the foreign press, but few survivors could afford the bus fare to the memorial service with most still at the site of the landslide, searching through the rubble and calling out the names of missing loved ones.

The overflowing morgue at the cemetery took me back to the 2014 Ebola outbreak when around 4,000 people died from the virus.

And as I made my way through the capital’s muddy roads to Sugar Loaf Hill or rather what’s left of it, I saw emergency teams working through incredible debris, searching under steep cliffs of mud hanging ominously above.

Their boots were sinking knee deep as if they were walking in snow – at which point it was clear – there was no chance of finding anyone alive.

As I walked with the rescuers, I had a chance to experience first hand the magnitude of their task.

The downpour had slowed each of our steps as the mud turned into quicksand.

Climbing through the debris, I saw the remains of what life in this bustling city was once like: a copy of a child’s maths homework, a pair of flip flops, an old record, family pictures.

Emergency workers were using shovels and pickaxes, shouting across to each other when they found something.

There were no sniffer dogs, or fibre optic cameras usually used in disasters like this, rather, the emergency teams would only start digging when they smelled a decomposing body.

Meanwhile, the machines once used to build these very peoples’ homes were now being used to sift through the rubble looking for homeowners and try and salvage whatever they could.

The last time there was a landslide in Freetown was in August of 1945, and everyone has a theory for why the disaster happened again.

“A volcano is hidden inside the hill erupted,” said one person.

“A sacred snake was killed in the hills, and the disaster was revenge from the snake’s mother,” said a second.

“The residents ate the flesh of a whale beached in Freetown a few years back. The landslide is punishment from nature,” added another.

Environmental agencies have also developed a theory – they warned residents to stop building on the hill side and cutting down trees fearing there could be a mudslide just two weeks before the disaster.

Deforestation, illegal land appropriation and intense rainfalls may also be to blame.

However with 10,000 people now displaced and waiting to be housed, and more rainfall is expected to come, the fear is there could be more landslides.

Bodies are showing up in unexpected places like the drainage system and the ocean. But with the sanitation system broken and limited access to clean water, aid agencies fear this could turn into a full-blown health emergency.

Neighbouring Ghana and Nigeria have stepped in by sending food and blankets while Israel, Turkey and Qatar have also contributed help.

This landslide is a tragedy, but like everything else, the people of Sierra Leone will eventually overcome this catastrophe.

As I now leave Sierra Leone, my hotel is empty of the foreign news crews, replaced with aid workers from across the world and I sense this will not be my last visit to this country.