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Struggling to cope one month on from devastating Sierra Leone landslide

I wake up on my first morning in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, to the sound of torrential rain outside. 

I know that this sound must strike fear in people from Matome on the outskirts of Freetown. There was torrential rain right through the night and into the early morning of Monday 14 August when disaster struck their community.

The steep hill on which their houses were built collapsed under the weight of the rain. 

The eye witnesses I spoke to describe hearing a loud rumble and seeing the earth and rocks “rushing down the slope like water”. One woman told me “It was like the end of the world”. 

One month on I am looking at that same hill and there is nothing left of the houses. They were either destroyed by huge rocks tearing through them or completely buried by the tonnes of mud that came down the hill. 

Hundreds of people lost their lives in a matter of minutes. Many were in bed as the disaster struck before 7am. 

The official estimate puts the number of dead at 500 which includes 122 children, but local people fear that many hundreds more bodies lie buried in the mud and will never be recovered. 

The survivors count themselves lucky to be alive but they have faced incredibly difficult challenges since the disaster and continue to face these every day. 

One father I met told me of his family’s miraculous escape. 

He had left the house early to check on his brother who lived further down the valley as the rain was so bad: “The hill came down in two stages very close together,” he told me. 

“The first slide woke my wife and she grabbed our four children and ran. My wife and children turned left when they got outside and ran for the trees. Our neighbours turned right. The second slide wiped them out. My family was lucky to make it. My youngest daughter, who is only five years old, was injured by the falling debris – that’s how close it was.”

The family have lost everything but at least they are alive.

Many other families are still in mourning for lost loved ones. 

I met Fatu Kanu (50) who lost her husband in the landslide. She had been visiting her sick mother in the country and her three children were staying with relatives. 

Her house was completely destroyed and her husband killed. The first she heard of it was when she received a call from a friend.

“My husband’s body hasn’t been recovered and I don’t think it ever will be,” she says. 

“I think about him every day. I don’t know what the future holds. We have lost everything and I am worried for my children.” 

The family are currently staying at one of the emergency camps set up by the government in the area where the disaster struck. Facilities are very basic. Fatu tells me it is cold and with many families staying together in large tents there is no privacy.

Trócaire is providing trauma counselling and psycho-social support for people affected by the landslide.

Trócaire is providing trauma counselling and psycho-social support for people affected by the landslide.

The needs of the 7,300 survivors, both physical and psychological, are enormous. 

Trócaire has been responding at the scene of the disaster with food, hygiene kits and psycho-social support. 

This support has been a lifeline for many as they struggle to come to terms with their grief.

Other help that is being rolled out includes school kits – schoolbags, books, pens and other items that have been lost – so that children can return to school and support for people as they try to earn a living and get back to some kind of normality.

It will be a long road to recovery for the people of Matome and 14 August 2017 is a date that will never be forgotten here.   

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