Rescue personnel have discovered 499 dead bodies since last week's devastating landslide near the Sierra Leone capital Freetown, the city's chief coroner confirmed, while humanitarian groups say that over 600 people remain missing.
The worst flood-related tragedy Africa has seen in years occurred when the side of Mount Sugar Loaf collapsed on Monday following heavy rain, burying parts of the mountainous suburbs of Regent town and overwhelming relief efforts in one of the world's poorest countries.
Meanwhile, authorities have told residents living on a nearby hillside in Freetown to leave after a large crack developed.
Critics have blamed the disaster on the unplanned and haphazard development of the area, which is located in the Western Area Forest Reserve, as well as the country's former colonial rulers and years of corruption by local political elites.
The lush rainforests that once covered the mountain were cleared by British colonial authorities seeking exclusive housing developments for Europeans during the turn of the 20th century. Since then, the area has been covered in pavement and housing as the country's elites, as well as refugees from the civil war of the 1990s, populated the area, degrading the environment as authorities ignored urgent warnings from conservationists to return the mountain to its original state.
“The once-exclusive area is now home to rich and poor alike, oppressor and oppressed: a mesh of shacks, occupied by the poor and dispossessed, alongside grotesque mansions and perennially unfinished brick houses, their owners mostly politicians out of favor, their expensive follies creating an odd impression of blight or ruin,” wrote author Lansana Gberie in the New York Times. “Since some of the Sierra Leone’s most powerful political figures were culpable in the degradation, the dire warnings by the country’s environmentalists were guaranteed to go unheeded by the government.”
Authorities buried 461 bodies this week in hastily-dug graves in the nearby Waterloo Cemetery, near the site of a mass burial for victims of the Ebola crisis that killed 4,000 people in the former British colony between 2014 and 2016. Emergency personnel claim that many of the bodies were found decomposed under collapsed buildings or in drainage and families were not allowed to identify them prior to their burial.
Thirty-eight more bodies were found on Sunday, said chief coroner Seneh Dumbuya, bringing the official death toll to 499. They were being sent for immediate burial, he said.
The expectation that survivors would be found grew more remote Sunday as authorities and emergency personnel continued their search across the steep hillside.
“The only machinery we have at the recovery site are eight excavators,” said Colonel Abu Bakarr Sidique Bah, who is leading the search, adding that the steep and muddy terrain was making it hard to operate the machines. As a result, workers are tracking stray dogs when they try to dig up bodies to feed on, allowing them to identify areas where they can start digging.
“We do not have helicopters or sniffer dogs or trained forensic experts to do the work,” Bah said. “We are currently making do with what is available by using our bare hands and shovels to dig up the rubble in search of dead bodies in areas the excavators are not able to operate.”
Authorities are concentrating on recovering bodies to prevent the fluids of contaminated corpses from seeping down from the wet mud into the water supply and spreading disease throughout the area of Freetown, which 1.2 million residents call home.
"We are doing all we can to ensure cholera does not break out," said Samuel Turay, an official at the Health Ministry.
The threat of deadly landslides is growing in west and central Africa as rainfall, deforestation rise along with unplanned development and rapid population growth, experts say. Flooding is an annual threat in Sierra Leone, where rickety homes are regularly swept away by seasonal rains.
On Thursday, a landslide in remote eastern Congo crushed the mud houses of a lakeside fishing village, potentially killing over 200 people, a local official told Reuters.
Britain, the former colonial overlord of Sierra Leone, has only pledged US$6.5 million in aid, while China has pledged US$1 million and Togo US$500,000. International aid has started to trickle in: A plane from Ghana has arrived to supply blankets, mattresses and clothing, followed by a plane from Morocco.