In the early hours of Monday, August 14 last year, Samuel Senessie woke up to one of the most powerful rainstorms he had ever seen. Water cascaded down the steep slope of Sugarloaf mountain, a precipitous peak on the edge of Sierra Leone’s tropical seaside capital, Freetown, where Senessie lived in a small concrete home with his family.
He stepped outside to find his neighbors frantically barricading their houses against the floodwaters. His own house seemed to have avoided the worst of the flow, so he ran across the hillside to check on his brother, whose house was leaking heavily. It was a decision that saved his life.
Soon after Senessie reached his brother’s house, the ground beneath his feet started to tremble. Giant sinkholes opened in the deep red soil. Torrents of water began to well up from the ground and flow down the hillside. All around, people screamed out for help.
As deafening sound — “fearful, like a bomb” — rent the air, Senessie turned and ran for his life. As he fled, he saw a small girl stuck in the floodwaters and pulled her to safety. By the time he looked back, a vast section of the mountain had collapsed, entombing his home and five members of his family, along with most of his friends and neighbors.
“I felt so much pain,” Senessie told me seven months later, as he perched on a low wall outside the house of a local chief, waiting to receive a little money so he could travel to the city center to find work. “At that time I decided to die. But then I realized it was the will of God.”
Nobody knows exactly how many people died during the mudslide. More than half a year later, most of the bodies still lie beneath the rubble. But a World Bank report, released a month after the event, identified 1,141 dead or missing, making it the worst natural disaster in Sierra Leone’s history.
Like Senessie, most of the survivors I spoke to attributed the event to an act of God.
But the reality is far more complex. Both the causes and the consequences of the mudslide highlight the vulnerability of a still-fragile postwar state that lacks the capacity and political will to effectively prevent and react to crises. In Sierra Leone, rapid population growth and an increasingly volatile climate — combined with deeply entrenched corruption that frequently trumps the responsibilities of the government to its people — set the stage for a horrifying tragedy.
A Disaster Waiting To Happen
The first question many asked after the disaster is how any of these houses got built in the first place, on land so clearly vulnerable to landslides. In April 2014, one resident of Regent — the part of Freetown where Sugar Loaf is situated — penned an opinion piece for a local newspaper. He called on the government to stop the unchecked construction on, and environmental degradation of, the mountain.
“Mr President,” the man wrote, “these areas are prone to landslides, the ministry officials doesn’t [sic] give a damn, all that they care about is the money they make. When the natural disasters occur … the death toll will be unprecedented.”
He wasn’t alone in making such predictions. Over the years, local and international media, government bodies, United Nations agencies and international NGOs have all warned of the risk posed by unregulated construction on the country’s hillsides. Exactly eight years to the day before the Sugar Loaf collapse, rescue workers were scrambling to reach survivors of a mudslide that killed seven people in another part of the city. Such events, seldom reported by international media, are common here.
During the 11-year-long civil war that ripped apart the country during the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of rural Sierra Leoneans migrated to the capital. The population explosion was followed by a postwar construction boom, fueled by burgeoning iron-ore exports that created double-digit economic growth for several years. The population of the Freetown area is almost eight times larger than in 1963, according to census data.
Senessie, who comes from a poor family in the far east of Sierra Leone, moved to this hillside 11 years ago.
“Our house was over there,” he said, gesturing toward a spot on the lower right side of the rocky scar that marks the location of the mudslide. “Back then the place was full of forest. But around 2011 lots of people started moving here.”
As a construction worker, Senessie had helped build many of the homes that now lie in fragments beneath the mud. In hindsight, he says, many of them should never have been built.
“Men Are In Conflict With Nature”
Sugar Loaf Mountain sits at the edge of the Western Area Forest, a protected swath of land that runs along the spine of the Freetown peninsula and provides a home for a wide array of plant and animal species, some of them endangered. The park has existed for over a hundred years, yet many of its hillsides, once thickly forested, have been stripped bare. A few meters from the edge of the mudslide, a small wooden sign, partially obscured by undergrowth, reads “National Park — Protected Area.”
During 2015 and 2016, while the country grappled with the last few cases of a devastating outbreak of the Ebola virus, I lived at the base of one of these hills, in a village to the south of Freetown. Month by month, the change was clearly visible, as the scattered trees and shrubs slowly disappeared, destined to fuel cooking fires in a country where the supply of electricity remains inconsistent. Unlike much of the peninsula, Sugar Loaf Mountain still retained a healthy covering of trees across its upper half. But its lower reaches had been stripped of virtually all vegetation.
This deforestation has made the hills less stable, stripping away both the canopy that once protected the earth and the roots that bound the soil in place. The increasingly erratic climate — in the weeks leading up to the landslide, Sierra Leone received about three times the usual amount of rainfall — and the steady spread of concrete and and cement have made the hillsides an increasingly dangerous place to live.
“The green belt used to start at [the] State House,” said Prince Alieu, a wealthy community leader whose property narrowly escaped last year’s mudslide. “But today that is considered the city center.”
No one can say to what extent deforestation contributed to this particular mudslide. But Alieu argues that Sugar Loaf Mountain is far from unique. Across Freetown and its suburbs, hundreds of thousands of people live on the sides of steep, barren hills, where unregulated construction has been going on for decades.
“The government urgently needs to do a technical assessment of all the land in Freetown,” said Alieu, who chose not to build on the other side of the valley, which he deemed dangerous and unsuitable for construction.
The Ministry of Lands, Environment and Country Planning, which issues permits for land acquisitions, had on several occasions issued warnings over building in the area, yet the construction continued. On a recent Wednesday I visited the ministry’s offices on the third floor of a moldering 1970s tower block in central Freetown and asked a spokesman whether corruption has allowed people to build on clearly unsuitable land.
“That’s a challenge we have here,” said the spokesman, Alfred Kabia. “Some people try to connive with some officials here to acquire land. It’s been going on for a long time. But we’ve been trying to put the system under control.”
Kabia explained that when he looked into some of the land permits in Regent and cross-referenced them with internal records at the ministry, he found that many were forged or falsified. Even when the ministry does attempt to inspect properties or demolish illegally built homes, it frequently finds itself obstructed by local residents.
“Their attitude is a problem for us,” said Kabia. “They tell us they have nowhere else to go, and that fosters violence. They use stones and machetes to chase us away.” He added that one ministry official was killed during one of these clashes a few years ago.
Despite this, the ministry had previously identified several structures in Regent that were unsafe or illegal, and in need of evacuation and demolition. It presented its plan to parliament, explained Kabia, but faced stiff resistance, including from members of the community. The motion was eventually blocked.
Among the powerful figures who owned property in the area were the minister of information, a former minister of lands, several high-ranking army officers and the chair of the country’s Environmental Protection Agency.
“Men are in conflict with nature,” said Idris Turay, a government official who worked on the mudslide response. “It’s a conflict that nature will always win. And now we’ve paid dearly.”
Where’s The Money?
Back at the disaster site, Senessie continued to wait patiently under the hot sun for the chief. He took out his phone and started scrolling through photos of friends and family members who died in the mudslide. Their bodies, he explained, were never found. These blurry, pixelated photos were all that remained of his previous life.
During the frantic days after Sugar Loaf collapsed, survivors and rescue teams clad in hazmat suits left over from the recent Ebola outbreak scoured the area for survivors. Charities descended on the scene, handing out basic supplies — rice, clothes, oil. Officials visited, photographed the dead on their phones and posted them to Facebook, much to the outrage of the survivors.
On August 15, Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, made an address to the nation.
“Many of our compatriots have lost their lives, many more have been gravely injured and billions of leones worth of property destroyed in the flooding and landslides that swept across some parts of our city” he announced. “with a heavy heart, let me extend profound condolences to the bereaved families.”
To the survivors of the disaster, he promised, “We will continue to stand by you and share with you your grief and help those of you that are traumatized and depressed.”
Seven months after the mudslide, the president’s words ring hollow for Senessie and many other survivors. Senessie still hasn’t received any of the money to which he’s entitled. When he went to register as a survivor of the mudslide, he was told that he could not be verified as a resident of the area. The process of identifying survivors in need of assistance, according to many of those NPR spoke to, was hijacked by powerful local figures who ultimately decided who would receive aid and who would not.
“People started calling their brothers and their friends from other parts of the country, so that they could get more of the benefit,” complained Senessie, who lost not only his home and his family but also his possessions. After saving up for years, he’d accumulated more than five million leones ($650), which he kept under his mattress.
“I lost everything,” he told me. “My laptop is gone and all of my money. Every day I think about what I’ve lost.”
According to Prince Alieu, roughly a third of those living in his community at the base of the mudslide never received their money from the government. Others received a portion but said it was not what they had been promised.
“They gave me just two million leones ($260),” said 44-year-old Abubakar Kamara, who lost his son in the mudslide.
Kamara used to own a thriving business and a spacious home with four bedrooms. Now he’s renting a dark, cramped shack, with a hole in its roof, on a hillside across the valley. Thin mattresses lie squeezed together on the floor, next to the family’s remaining possessions.
Kamara is also looking after his now-orphaned sister-in-law, 10-year-old Adama, whom he pulled from the floodwaters before he made his escape. A Chinese charity active in the country gave the family money for Adama’s education, but it won’t last long.
“How are we supposed to survive?” he asked angrily. “The money will only cover one year’s rent.”
What Kamara doesn’t know is that ever since the mudslide, over $6 million, donated mostly by individuals and diaspora groups, has been sitting in a bank account while authorities decide what to do with it.
At a seaside restaurant in Western Freetown, where expatriates and government officials come for sundowners and grilled barracuda, I met with Idris Turay, the director of the National Social Protection Secretariat, one of the government bodies tasked with overseeing the mudslide response and the distribution of money to the survivors.
“If we gave too much, it could affect the labor market and family relations,” said Turay. “We didn’t want it to look like people were getting money for nothing—like they were on the dole. And we also didn’t want to undermine our existing cash-transfer programs [supporting various marginalized groups]. So we had to be careful with the amount of the package.”
Turay outlined a series of payments, in various installments, that should have added up to $692. He insisted that most of those who’ve registered to receive assistance have received the full amount.
“I’d give [the response] an 8 out of 10,” he said. “But the registration process was not proper. We still have people who were affected by the disaster just waiting for aid, who didn’t manage to get included in the program.”
“Lessons have been learned,” he added. “We’re going to make sure we’re not in this chaotic situation next time, and we’ll be ready.”
Turay said the government intends to create a new Agency for Disaster Response — a body that will be both preventive and reactive. But seven months after the mudslide, the agency has yet to be established.
A Young Woman’s Sorrow
Cash transfers were just one part of the promised response. High in the hills above central Freetown, another mudslide survivor is wrestling with a different challenge. Fatmata Dabo, 20, lost one of her parents during the Ebola outbreak, then the other during the landslide. On neither occasion was she able to see the bodies to say farewell.
Dabo avoids eye contact as she talks, wringing her hands constantly. “I did not receive anything at all from the government,” she said. “But for me the main challenge is trauma.”
Despite President Koroma’s promising remarks in the early days of the response, Dabo has received no counseling or mental-health care.
“When I go back to the area [of the mudslide] I cry,” she said quietly, sitting on a cheap plastic chair outside her boyfriend’s home. “It makes me remember everything. So now I can’t go back there even when there’s a distribution going on. When I sit down now I’m always lonely. In the past my mother was always there. But now she’s gone.”
Dabo was planning to use her money from the government to start a small business, buying agricultural produce from upcountry and then selling it for a small profit in Freetown. Now she spends her days lost in painful memories.
Like many of those who lost their homes to the mudslide, Dabo spent months living in a camp for displaced people in the capital. Life there wasn’t easy, but she had some shelter, food and water. The authorities had promised to provide a more permanent place for the survivors to live. But when the government forcibly emptied the camps of survivors in December, no such assistance materialized.
“The government never wanted the camps,” Turay told me. “Camps are easy to open but very difficult to close, and the advice from IOM (International Organisation for Migration) and UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] was to be very careful with the construction of camps.”
When the residents of Dabo’s camp protested their eviction, security forces reacted with violence. Several people were hospitalized. Dabos says that an officer struck her in the stomach with the butt of a rifle.
“Now when we try to complain to the Organization of National Security [another of the bodies charged with overseeing the mudslide response and the camps], they call the police to send us away,” said Dabo. “Since we left the camp they don’t even want to know about us.”
Turay acknowledged that promises of accommodation had been made and pointed out that the government still plans to create an affordable-housing project in the village of 6 Mile, outside Freetown. But “affordable” can be a relative term in Sierra Leone. The government initially said it would give the properties to the mudslide survivors for free, Turay explained. But then it backtracked.
“There’s a 230,000 housing deficit in Freetown,” said Turay, referring to the number of people in need of homes. “So how ethical is it to give these 2,000 people free housing while there are other people who are equally poor and need houses? So the government decided to use the donated money to build houses, but not give them for free. There will be a mortgage.”
By Turay’s reckoning, those mortgage payments could amount to as much as $200 a month — in a country where the average annual income is just $490, according to World Bank figures from 2016. Fifty-two houses have recently been built, using money donated by Sierra Leonean philanthropists. But they’re not being made available for free. None is currently in use.
Waiting For His Reward
Back in Regent, I asked Prince Alieu, the local community leader, what the main challenges are for the mudslide victims.
“Most of the victims are dead,” he replied simply. “For those who survived, the challenges are the same as they were before the landslide, only worse. People still need shelter, jobs and food.”
Senessie now finds himself facing an uncertain future. Since the mudslide, he’s been living with a friend, picking up work when he can and trying to deal with the loss of his family.
“When people feel pain like this, it’s the kind of pain that could bring war,” he said. “It’s the government’s fault. It’s all for the money … I’m having to start my life from scratch. But one day God will reward me.”
Tommy Trenchard is a freelance writer and photographer working mostly in Africa and the Middle East. He lived in Sierra Leone between 2012 and 2016, covering news, culture, development and the country’s fight against Ebola.