If Ebola was an emergency based around a tiny virus that often killed before it was discovered, the deep brown gash on a Freetown hillside is a sign of a disaster of a very different nature.
Like Rio de Janiero on the other side of the Atlantic, Sierra Leone’s capital is built on spectacular coastal hills, and is overshadowed by a mountain with a shared name – Sugar Loaf. We drive through that shadow every time we leave the city. It was home to a mix of makeshift homes and impressive villas on the city’s outskirts. In a few terrifying seconds a wave of topsoil and muddy water erased a whole part of that community.
Walking down towards the site several hours later, the sound of wailing and tears is the most striking experience. The emotion is raw. Relatives who’ve come to seek out family — survivors who saw their siblings and children swept away. I arrived with one of our water and sanitation specialists and a team from the Sierra Leone Water Company coming to understand the scale of the problem. As we watch, diggers try to rescue someone under the rubble of a half-collapsed home. He’s calling on his phone, but has run out of credit, so someone’s run off to buy a top-up. He says he can hear the diggers close by. He says that beside him in the rubble is a pregnant woman who hasn’t survived.
The muddy slopes are still a risk, especially with the continuing rain. At times during that first day the hillside is enveloped in cloud and mist, leaving an eerie landscape of red earth and smoke. A shout goes up lower down the slopes where another mechanical digger is at work. It’s another dead body – one of several hundred that will be unearthed. It’s covered, placed on a stretcher, and transported up the hill to a waiting ambulance. The Red Cross workers wear full-body protective suits, face masks and thick gloves – a sight that took me straight back to the Ebola outbreak, and something I thought I’d never see again.
Almost everyone in the city knows someone affected by this disaster. And the graphic images and videos that circulated within hours of the flooding bring the tragedy directly to our phones. At the mortuary, around a third of bodies so far have been children – 109 as of Tuesday afternoon.
We’re used to working together on emergencies in Sierra Leone. And the people of Freetown – though in shock – are helping to look after those who’ve lost their homes, at least 3,000 according to the government. Schools, churches and mosques have been offering shelter, while many have made spontaneous donations. UNICEF is on the ground, working with the government and partners to help affected children and families. Many have lost their homes, and UNICEF is there, providing shelter, supplies, clean water and sanitation.
UNICEF and partners are working with the local authorities to reunite children that may have become separated from their families, and make sure that children can get the support they need to deal with the traumatic events they may have experienced. The nation has entered seven days of national mourning and the government-organized funerals for the dead are due to start on Thursday.
Meanwhile, for the living, the key concern is that the waters don’t cause any more deaths, this time through water-borne diseases. Water supplies, storage tanks, soap, buckets and purification tablets are being delivered to those displaced, while communities are being educated about the importance of hand-washing, good hygiene and the warning signs of disease. But the rainy season is far from over.
John James is a Communications Specialist with UNICEF Sierra Leone