Hundreds still missing in Sierra Leone mudslide as search intensifies

Reuters , Thursday 17 Aug 2017

Sierra Leone
Relatives of the vicitims of the mud slide queue outside an hospital in Freetown on August 16, 2017. The first mass burials of victims of Sierra Leone's devastating floods and mudslides take place on August 17, as blame grows over government "inaction" over deforestation and poor urban planning. ( photo : APF )

 Soldiers and volunteers equipped with shovels and pickaxes dug through the perilous site of a mudslide in Sierra Leone on Thursday in search of hundreds of bodies that may still be buried days after the incident.

Approximately 600 people are missing after a torrent of mud on Monday swept away homes on the edge of the capital, Freetown, the Red Cross said, in one of Africa's worst flood disasters in living memory. Around 400 bodies have been found.

Aid agencies warned that corpses trapped in the mud are likely to contaminate water sources and cause outbreaks of disease, but continuous rain has made the search difficult and dangerous.

"The topography of this area is not easily accessible, but as military we continue to make headway," said colonel Abu Bakarr Bah, who is leading a search team near the town of Regent, where part of a mountainside collapsed.

Local construction companies have loaned excavators but many volunteers are digging with household tools and whatever else they can find, said Red Cross spokesman Abu Bakarr Tarawallie.

"We fear there are no more survivors," he said. "All yesterday no one living was found."

The government is preparing to bury 300 bodies on Thursday, said government spokesman Cornelius Deveaux. A mass burial of 150 bodies was held earlier this week, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Families were summoned to the central morgue on Wednesday to identify relatives, but many were unable to and officials were forced to proceed with burial because the corpses were decomposing in the heat.

The burial will be held at a cemetery outside Freetown that was used during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, which killed 4,000 people in the former British colony.

The scale of the disaster was in part due to poor government housing policies that left hundreds living in informal settlements in flood-prone areas, London-based human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement.

"While flooding is a natural disaster, the scale of the human tragedy in Freetown is, sadly, very much man-made," said Makmid Kamara, Amnesty's deputy director of global issues. 

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