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Harrowing tale by victims after Sierra Leone mudslide tragedy

FREETOWN, Wednesday

Nearly every passer-by stops to have a glance at the scene of what has become Sierra Leone’s Ground Zero, where hundreds of houses and an unknown number of people were buried by boulders and trees that moved down after an eruption atop the mountain.

The incident happened after a heavy downpour and flash floods that affected about a dozen other communities across Freetown.

Morteme, the small community at the foot of Mount Sugar Loaf, is now a bare piece of land covered by red earth.

Mariama, one of the few survivors, lost her husband, three children and two sisters there.

LUCKY TO SURVIVE

The young mother is alive because she had been admitted to a hospital in another part of town.

Mariama breaks into tears as she explains how she learnt of the incident from her hospital bed.

She and her new born baby were now homeless, sharing a space in an unfinished building, alongside about half a dozen other affected families.

“It was like the sound of thunder,” recalls Joseph, a young man who lost 11 family members.

Joseph was lucky to survive because he had moved out of their house to a neighbour’s, down the hill.

Moments after he left the friend’s house, it was crushed.

MAKESHIFT STRUCTURES

According to people familiar with Morteme, the community was largely composed of makeshift structures like corrugated houses, commonly referred to as Pan Bodi.

But it also had solid modern buildings.

In fact, among the houses buried were said to be two storied buildings, one of which reportedly belonged to a Cabinet minister.

There was also a church and an orphanage.

Survivors say the church had an all-night prayer session the previous day, meaning most, if not all, of its congregation would have perished in the landslide.

UNUSUAL ACTIVITY

Kumba Marrah, a mother of one, was out early on the day, frying cake, which she sold at a nearby street.

Her neighbour, another early riser, had realised some unusual activity up the hill when he called her attention.

“We saw a movement of stones and trees. And then there was an explosion. Brown water was gushing up and down and we saw the trees and stones falling,” she said.

Zainab, seven months pregnant, lost her husband, mother, father and other extended family members totalling 13.

She only survived because she had gone out to buy bread at a nearby shop.

DEATH TOLL

Zainab was able to identify the remains of only her mother-in-law at Freetown’s main mortuary, Connaught, a day before the government conducted mass burial for over 200 bodies on August 17.

Official figures, as of the end of last week, put the death toll at 499 due to both the landslide and the flood.

Over 90 per cent of them were attributed to the landslide.

The number of deaths, say analysts, could be higher when body parts discovered at various places are put into consideration.

When the landslide occurred in that early Monday morning, many people would have still been in bed.

UNIDENTIFIABLE

Boulders and trees from the mountain, with the aid of flood water, rolled several kilometres further down along a valley, destroying every other structure on the way in the communities of Pentagon, Kamayama, Engine and Kaningo.

Bodies of victims were discovered several kilometres from where they were first hit.

The crushing effect of the boulders and other objects, coupled with the long distances the bodies moved, left many of the victims unidentifiable.

Body parts were discovered in ditches and a nearby beach.

Many families, like that of Sheku Kargbo of Pentagon, never identified the remains of their loved ones.

Kargbo’s sister, niece and six other family members died in the incident.

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