FREETOWN (Reuters) - By Christo Johnson
Burials began on Thursday for 300 people killed in Sierra Leone’s mudslide while the search went on for hundreds of others still missing.
In a ceremony attended by President Ernest Bai Koroma, wooden coffins were lowered into hurriedly dug graves at a cemetery in Waterloo, as the country tried to begin recovering from one of Africa’s worst flood disasters in living memory.
At least 400 people were killed on Monday when a torrent of mud swept away homes on the edge of Freetown. One hundred and fifty have already been buried. In total, approximately 600 people are missing, the Red Cross has said.
“Today is another sad moment for our compatriots who have suffered a tragic death,” Koroma told mourners, hinting at the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic, which killed 4,000 people in the former British colony. Many killed by Ebola were buried in the same cemetery.
Meanwhile, the search for remaining bodies intensified at the mudslide site as aid agencies warned that corpses trapped in the mud are likely to contaminate water sources and cause outbreaks of disease.
“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.
Local construction companies have lent 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.”
Families were summoned to the central morgue on Wednesday to identify relatives, but many were unable to and officials were forced to proceed with the burial because the corpses were decomposing in the heat.
Mudslides and floods are fairly common in rainy parts of Africa, and deforestation and poor town planning often contribute to the risk.
Forty people were killed in a landslide on Thursday in a fishing village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, said Pacifique Keta, the vice governor of Ituri province, adding that a search was under way for bodies buried in mud.
The exact cause of the disaster about 80 km (50 miles) from the city of Bunia was unclear, but seismic and volcanic activity have caused a number of landslides in the region in recent years.
Amnesty International said the Freetown disaster was in part due to government housing policies that had left hundreds living in informal settlements in flood-prone areas.
“While flooding is a natural disaster, the scale of the human tragedy in Freetown is, sadly, very much man-made,” said Makmid Kamara, the rights group’s deputy director of global issues.
(This version of the story adds dropped word from lead)
Additional reporting by Patient Ligodi in Kinshasa; Writing by Edward McAllister and Nellie Peyton; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg/Jeremy Gaunt