It was another sad chapter in Sierra Leone’s long history of major disasters which, though preventable, seem bereft of any logic.
The landslide took as many lives in just a few minutes as Ebola could achieve in a whole week in Sierra Leone – over 400 declared dead, with several identified only as body parts. Over 600 people are still unaccounted for.
The post mortem and analysis has begun, but the wound and anguish being felt by the entire nation is raw and will take a long time to begin to heal – if ever.
The mass burial took place in Waterloo – the outskirts of the capital Freetown, where president Koroma accompanied by Liberia’s president Helen Sirleaf and other dignitaries converged for a multi-faith memorial service to say goodbye to citizens whose lives have been lost needlessly.
People – thousands of them, should never have been allowed to build their houses on the Freetown mountain, an ecological system that keeps the city alive. Successive government failure, gerrymandering, naked corruption of government officials are being blamed.
But worse of all is the failure of government to implement and enforce its own laws, which many believe is the main reason why Sierra Leone has become one of the most lawless nations in the world today, despite being ironically rated as one of the most peaceful in Africa.
Sierra Leone is peaceful not because people and those in authority are law abiding. Sierra Leone appears peaceful because the country is war beaten. And those feeling the strain of marginalisation and dis-empowerment – who have lost their lands, are quietly going about their lawful business with a feeling of rejection and dejection. This is not sustainable peace by any standards.
Two years ago – on the 24th of November 2014, the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the National Protected Area Authority published this joint statement warning people to stop their illegal activities on conserved and protected lands, but no one took any notice and the government did not bother to enforce its own warnings:
“The Government of Sierra Leone through the National Protected Area Authority will be embarking on a demolition and clearing exercise of all buildings, structures, materials and any other structure or activities undertaken in or on any of the above-mentioned Protected Areas inconsistent with the Authority’s statutory objective of protecting and conserving the said Protected Areas particularly within the Western Area Peninsular National Park including but not limited to designated and demarcated Protected Areas in Lumley/Kamayama, Goderich, Adonkia, Moku Hills, Angola Town, Ogoo Farm, Lakka, Hamilton, Mambo, Mile 13, Bango Farm, Sussex, Baw Baw, No. 2 River, Tokeh, Black Johnson, York, John Obey, Bureh Town, Kent, Bonga Wharf, Mammah Beach, Tombo, Waterloo, Hastings, Kossoh Town, Mount Sugar Loaf, Leicester Peak, the whole length of the Regent-Grafton-Jui Highway, the Sierra Leone River Estuary including the Aberdeen Creek and Lumley Swamps together with their respective wetlands, beach land, streams, lakes etc. “
Fast forward to Thursday, 17th of August 2017, over 300 of the country’s citizens were buried by the state that turned a blind eye and as many would say – a state that should be held responsible for the death of so many.
Speaking at the mass burial site, this is what president Koroma had to say:
“My fellow compatriots, we have come here together in grief to pay our last respects to our loved ones, our neighbours, our friends and to our colleagues. We have come to comfort and to reassure the bereaved families that they are not alone in this difficult moment. We have come together to share the agony inflicted upon our nation by those pitiless floods and ferocious mudslides.
“This is another painful episode in our nation’s history; hundreds of our unsuspecting compatriots were swept away from their sleep onto untimely deaths. They all had their plans for the next day; they had their hopes and aspirations for a bright future like the six innocent children who went to study in the home of one of their brightest colleagues; like the young man who was due to get married tomorrow; like the husband who had worked so hard to get his family a new home and had just moved them in.
“These heart breaking accounts and many more are as painful as they can get and have badly shaken our beloved nation.
“We will bury our loved ones but we will not bury our hopes. We will not bury our resolve because we believe our Lord God is on our side and will give us the strength to accept this loss. And like the resilient people we always are, we will rise above this tragedy and begin once again the process of moving our great nation forward.
“As we mourn, let me assure you that we will do all we can to support the bereaved families and the injured; we will continue to stand by you and share in your grief and help you to cope with this trauma and depression.
“May God have mercy on the souls departed and may He grant them eternal rest.”
But will anyone be held to account for this preventable and avoidable disaster? Will a commission of enquiry be held to make sure that lessons are learnt and that major changes are implemented? Will charges be brought against any public official found to be negligent or whose corrupt behaviour contributed to this disaster?
Will the millions of dollars collected by the government for victims of the disaster be dispensed for this purpose?