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Susan’s Bay fire victims face another grave challenge

August 24, 2021

By Alhaji Haruna Sani & Kweku Nelson

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March 24th 2021 was a normal working day just like any other day. The day began with beautiful morning sunshine that brought hope but the evening hours of that day filtered in rumours that appalled the Central Business District (CBD) of Freetown. Rumours were that ‘uncontrollable fire had broken out at Susan’s Bay’. Minutes later, the rumours were justified when from miles away fires and smokes were seen raising upward the sky above Susan’s Bay.

Fire fighters from the National Fire Force sprang into action determined to extinguish the fire but upon arrival poor urban planning created no access for them to reach the site, hence the blazing inferno ravaged some portion of the densely populated community undisturbed. By dawn of the next day, the extent of the fire damage was revealing about 200 homes were burnt to ruins; over 1,000 residents were left homeless. Till date, the true cause of the fire remains obscure.

Five months have gone since the incident occurred and Government through the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) is yet to come out with a proper response the survivors expect. Although government’s silence may not be deliberate, but it is provocative to survivors thus making them agitated. All accusing fingers point directly at NDMA, who survivors claimed had abandoned them.

As of now, survivors are curious, any neatly dressed individual that comes to the  community with  sheets of paper and pen in hand is mistaken either for a humanitarian aid worker or a worker from NDMA that came with relief supplies or came to registered survivors for land allocation.

As Print Journalists, we were mistaken for humanitarian aid workers, even when we explained and later displayed identity cards, yet survivors insisted that we write their names and take telephone numbers just in case. After an interview with Saidu Kamara, one of the survivors requested we take their names and contacts and the reasons for the weariness and unrest among survivors became clear.

”Medical care, food supplies and other relief items from the government and NGOs are hard to come by these days  and those that come are not distributed as they should be. Few only benefit from what is meant for all and that is not fair. It was only after two months that we were recently supplied but I and others as well did not received any. Even the water tanks that Caritas donated to us to provide clean water supply are not functioning. Now we buy water to wash, clean and take care of ourselves,” Saidu Kamara explained.

But shortage and uneven distribution of relief items are not the only underlying problems that have plunged saviours into uneasiness. Additionally, torrential rains of August have brought unrest and sleepiness nights to survivors. It has made them realized how deplorable their living conditions are and as a result many have abandoned their tents.

Saidu Kamara further explained that when it rains at night, they do not sleep because their temporal tents built by aid agencies cannot withstand the rains.

”Waters from the rains flow into our tents causing flooding, and during these nights thieves come around to steal from us. My phone was recently stolen,” he narrated.

”We do not need much from government, we just want Papa government to relocate us to a better place but if they cannot, let them give us building permit to reconstruct our homes so we could be saved from the rains.”

This predicament is not only faced by Saidu but faced by all who were affected by the March 24 fire. The conditions of survivors are worrisome. They are now afraid that they might suffer the worst from the rainy season if government does not intervene to address their immediate need (proper shelters). While some have abandon their tents to find comfort elsewhere, others remain trapped by their family size, more especially those with many kids and grandchildren, and one among such survivors is Haja Adama Kamara.

 ”I prefer living at the wharf to living at any place. I came to Susan’s Bay during 1980’s and I have been living here ever since and it will be difficult for me to move away from this place. Before the fire, I was a landlady who owned a big compound which had 21 rooms and if government relocates us to any place, they will not give an exact place as mine. Therefore, I want government to build for us here at the slums but if they cannot, let them give us the permission to rebuild our homes. I have a large family and the 2million eight hundred thousand Leones I received from government is not enough to rent a house that can accommodate my large family. I already used the money to buy concrete blocks to rebuild my place.”

The night we went to the place, Mammy  Haja went to bed with her 9 grandchildren, but their sleep was cut short by heavy rains that flooded her tent. Haja, together with her grandchildren had to bail out the waters all through the night and then waited for the floor to dry up before they could fall back to sleep on plastic mats and thin sponge sheets laid upon concrete blocks used as bed.

Those who abandoned their tents now converged themselves at Ta’al Masjid Mosque in hopes to find solace, comfort and good night sleep. The Mosque which was untouched by the fire is now haven and store house for over 50 people and their personal belongings. Though bedding facilities are not available but nights at the Mosques are far better than nights inside the tents. However, on 13 August 2021, government lifted the Covid-19 restriction on religious gatherings and that means the Mosque occupants will have to evacuate for devoted worshipers to commence the performance of Islamic rites. This will without any iota of doubt exacerbate their already awful condition.

Mohamed L Bah is the Director of Communications at National Disaster Management Agency Sierra Leone. He explained that the Agency came into existence in November 2020 with the responsibility to effectively manage and respond to disasters.

He said although the Agency was few months old when the Susan’s Bay incident occurred but it was able to respond swiftly with donations that targeted affected households.

Bah acknowledged that the welfare of survivors forms centre stage in the Agency’s relocation and recovery process because the Agency wants to adequately respond to survivors with proper actions in the interest of the people.

He revealed that the Agency set up a Committee to carry out feasibility study to assess the impact of the fire and then make necessary recommendations which Government through the Agency will use to take appropriate actions.

He added that a committee set to make recommendations on government’s next line of action is at the concluding stage of the report.

“Presently, we have engaged the Ministry of Planning and Ministry of Lands to see if we develop another plan for Susan’s Bay so our next plan of action depends on the report that will be received from the Committee”, he added.