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‘It could have been me’: S.Leone struggles to recover from disaster

Red Cross volunteers part of the rescue team

Freetown, Sierra Leone | AFP | Gathered in a Freetown church, worshippers struggled Sunday to come to terms with the devastation wrought by the flooding and mudslide that struck the Sierra Leone capital six days ago, as the arduous search for bodies continued.

“I just close my eyes and imagine, I say, ‘It could have been me’,” says Angela Johnson, one of about 50 parishioners at St Paul’s Catholic Church in Regent, the hilltop community that bore the brunt of the catastrophe.

“When I wake up to get up from my bed, I see darkness. It could have been me buried in that rubble, oh my God.”

Outside, the hill that was once covered with trees bears the red-orange scar of the mudslide which struck last Monday after three days of rain, slamming into ramshackle homes and trapping families while they slept.

“It’s a sermon of hope and consolation that we are one family,” Father John Nat Tucker said after the mass.

“We must come together as Sierra Leoneans.”

– Relying on stray dogs –

Recovery efforts in Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, are being hampered by logistical and technical constraints, and as the search drags on, many of the bodies being dug up are too mutilated or decomposed to identify.

“The only machinery we have at the recovery site are eight excavators,” says Colonel Abu Bakarr Sidique Bah, who is leading the search, adding that the steep and muddy terrain was making it hard to operate the machines.

As a result, workers are tracking stray dogs when they try to dig up bodies to feed on, allowing them to identify areas where they can start digging.

“We do not have helicopters or sniffer dogs or trained forensic experts to do the work,” Bah said.

“We are currently making do with what is available by using our bare hands and shovels to dig up the rubble in search of dead bodies in areas the excavators are not able to operate.”

A Spanish forensics team has arrived to assist the search and recovery efforts, and a military disaster response team from Liberia arrived in Freetown on Sunday.

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