Freetown, Sierra Leone | AFP | Sierra Leone began a week of mourning Wednesday as it emerged that 105 children were among more than 300 people who perished in mudslides and torrential flooding, in one of the country’s worst natural disasters.
With 600 people still missing in Freetown, President Ernest Bai Koroma described the humanitarian challenge ahead as “overwhelming”.
He said flags would fly at half-mast and called for urgent help after visiting the devastated hilltop community of Regent on Tuesday.
Aid organisations meanwhile warned that the rainy season was not yet over and that more flooding could arrive at any moment in the west African coastal city of around a million people.
Officials at Freetown’s central morgue said Wednesday that 105 of the more than 300 officially dead were children. An independent but unofficial morgue estimate put the toll at 400 dead.
The government of Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, has promised relief for what the Red Cross says is more than 3,000 people left homeless by the disaster.
The authorities have opened an emergency response centre in Regent and registration centres to count those left on the streets.
Several UN agencies have ramped up efforts in Freetown, including the World Food Programme’s (WFP) distribution of two-week rations of rice, pulses and cooking oil to 7,500 people. The first Israeli aid packages arrived and west African governments delivered cash and rice.
– Mass burials to begin –
Speaking to AFP at the mortuary at the Connaught Hospital, technician Mohamed Sinneh Kamara said his team lacked equipment to process and identify the bodies still piling up.
“We have logistical constraints including a lack of gloves, PPE (personal protective equipment) and rain boots,” he said as families gathered to identify their loved ones’ bodies.
Mabinty Sesay’s family had gone to Regent for an all-night prayer session when their church was buried in the mudslide. “I have lost 13 of my family members but was only able to identify two,” she told AFP at the morgue.
One woman collapsed after seeing her husband’s dead body among the piles of corpses, amid a powerful stench of decomposing flesh.
The Red Cross clarified that burials which took place on Tuesday were of body bags filled with missing parts of corpses. The government said mass burials of unidentified bodies still at the morgue would take place on Thursday and Friday.
“The situation with all the dead bodies now… No one is able to identify anyone. So as the president said, let the mass burials go ahead,” said Adizah Conda at the morgue after losing seven members of her extended family.
The victims will be laid to rest in graves alongside those of the country’s last humanitarian disaster, the Ebola crisis, in nearby Waterloo.