Failed promises – survivors of deadly mudslide left homeless by Sierra Leone government

Guardian Newspaper – Cooper Inveen in Freetown reports

21 November 2017

With little sign of promised government help, hundreds of families displaced by the disaster in August now face eviction from government shelters

The government of Sierra Leone has started closing down the emergency camps housing hundreds of families displaced by August’s deadly landslides, despite many people saying they still have nowhere to go.

After heavy rains triggered floods and a landslide in Freetown on 14 Augustkilling an estimated 1,000 people and displacing three times that number, survivors moved into temporary camps while awaiting permanent resettlement, as promised by the Sierra Leonean government.

Most of the 98 families living in the two official government camps, largely funded by UK Aid and the World Food Programme, had received financial assistance prior to the closure of the shelters on 15 November.

But nearly 500 other families were staying in four unfinished buildings that had served as an informal refuge for three months. Despite most having been approved for relocation assistance, the majority said they had yet to receive it.

As the two official camps ceased operations last week, organisers of the four informal shelters refused to evict survivors until they were taken care of.

“A government team came by … and told us to clear the camps by 15 November, but we as community elders will not force these people to leave while they still have nowhere else to stay,” said Abu Bakar Conteh, head of the community at the base of the landslide.

“After [the mudslides] people were told to abandon the areas where their homes were, so they came up here to these buildings. Since they’ve been here, no one’s been able to give them anything that could help resettle them.”

However, the government has accused those living in the informal shelters of trying to defraud the relief effort. Head of the Office of National Security (ONS), Ismail Tarawali, said: “Most of the people there were not actually affected, but are just trying to fool the system. People bring their families from up country to come and make fake claims. It makes it very difficult to conclude this exercise. Some people are just rogues.”

The majority of people in the shelters have been verified as legitimate by the UN.

Over the last two months, international organisations have gradually reduced their support to the informal shelters. Many of those living outside the two government camps weren’t registered for assistance until 11 November, nearly three months after the mudslide.

Street Child, a UK-based charity, said it would continue to provide food to people living in those camps, despite the conclusion of the wider relief effort.

“This is all about accommodation,” said Celia Mansaray, project manager for Street Child’s mudslide response. “We have genuine cases of people who lost their families who were not verified until last week, and there are others who still haven’t been … At night these buildings are jam-packed with people who have no place to go … If the camps were to actually close … what would be their fate? What kind of government doesn’t address these problems?”

Official assurances that at least 52 houses would become available to mudslide survivors by mid-October have yet to bear fruit. Officials now say the housing project was merely delayed and that once it gets off the ground again, more than 1,000 houses will be built for victims of natural disasters on the outskirts of Freetown.

Survivors across the various shelters claim to have been given no information about how much the homes will cost, when they will be built or how to apply for them.

An official from the UN children’s agency, Unicef, the main organisers of the two government camps, said they were first informed of the new housing plan on 15 November, and did not know how the government intended to fund it.

On 20 November the ONS announced that verified survivors who had not received their aid packages would be permitted to continue sleeping in the formal and informal shelters until they did.

That decision followed a police crackdown on a protest outside President Ernest Bai Koroma’s mansion by residents of one of the government camps, who claimed the ONS was forcing them on to the streets without financial support. Several people were injured, including a breastfeeding mother.

“You need to have respect for leadership, not demonstrate every small thing,” Tarawali told survivors at the same camp. “We’ve told people that to demonstrate in this country you need permission, to call the police so they can protect you from bad people who want to join in.”

Relocation funds provided by UK Aid are being sent to verified survivors through a mobile banking app. Those who lost their phones or ID cards in the mudslide have waited weeks to be issued replacements in order to access their funds, and some have been sent only small amounts of the roughly $280 (£237) they were promised.

Others have complained that even the full amount is not enough to secure housing for an entire family, let alone support them for two months, as officials said it would.

“All we ask the government is that [those of] us who are left who they’ve already verified, just give us the assistance promised so we can at least try to go live a normal life again,” said Fina Koroma, who lost her whole family apart from her infant daughter in the flooding.

“I don’t want to stay here. This place is right next to the disaster site and seeing the hillside every time I turn around makes me unhappy,” she said. “Your memory goes back to that day and what you had before and you can’t get it out of your head … You remember your brothers and sisters and how everyone used to live together, but you don’t see them any more.”

In another report on this sad story:

Jamie Hitchen, policy researcher at the Africa Research Institute, told International Business Times UK that people are being told to leave “hastily assembled camps, but the government has seemingly no plan as to where they should go”.

He said that the government had promised to build 52 houses on the outskirts of Freetown by mid-October, but that these plans have not materialised.

Hitchen said that the evictions would force people without a support network to live “in parts of the city susceptible to flooding or return to areas close to where their houses were destroyed in August.”

He added that the government’s response to the disaster has been “bereft of long-term thinking” and has failed to address “underlying challenges in urban management and deforestation that cause annual flooding in Freetown”.

Hitchen criticised the financial support offered to survivors. “Each survivor is to be given only a little over £200 to start again,” he said. “These are people who lost everything during the mudslides.”

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