Families still sleeping outside week after Freetown’s devastating fire

Burning-down of slum in Sierra Leone leaves 7,000 homeless amid hopes of better rebuild

Abdulai Gbla (62) managed to rebuild a shelter with scrap metal and nails. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Abdulai Gbla (62) managed to rebuild a shelter with scrap metal and nails. Photograph: Sally Hayden

 

Nearly a week after a devastating fire in a slum in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, many of the more than 7,000 people rendered homeless are still sleeping outside.

The fire ripped through Susan’s Bay, one of the poorest areas of the city, on March 24th, causing families to scatter and some to even row out to sea to escape soaring flames which were visible across Freetown.

An assessment carried out by the government’s National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) found that 7,093 people in 1,597 households were affected. In the days afterwards, the vast majority, 73 per cent, were sleeping outdoors, the assessment found.

Some 140 of those affected were disabled while 497 women were pregnant or breast-feeding. Children made up 3,352 of the displaced, while there were 76 people over 65.

The site of last week’s fire at Susan’s Bay, Freetown, which displaced 7,000 people. Photograph: Sally Hayden
The site of last week’s fire at Susan’s Bay, Freetown, which displaced 7,000 people. Photograph: Sally Hayden

No one died but 409 people were injured, including 21 children.

Charities have erected some tents, but locals said progress is slow and many are still waiting. Emma Kanu (23) said she has been sleeping outside at night. “We have to go to the market to beg for survival,” she said.

Petty traders

About 60 per cent of the displaced adults were working as petty traders. Kanu, who cooks and sells food, said her stocks were destroyed in the fire. “No one promised help yet,” she said.

Many Susan’s Bay residents kept their savings in their homes as they don’t trust banks, meaning those were destroyed too. One woman said she lost 20 million leones (€1,666), which she had been storing for a friend, and worried she would have to pay it back.

Emma Kanu is still sleeping outside, days after the devastating fire. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Emma Kanu is still sleeping outside, days after the devastating fire. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Ibrahim Koroma (31) sent his three children and wife back to the village after the Susan’s Bay fire destroyed their home. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Ibrahim Koroma (31) sent his three children and wife back to the village after the Susan’s Bay fire destroyed their home. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Abdulai Gbla, a 62 year old who works in construction, had enough scrap metal and nails to rebuild a shelter for his family. “I’ve not got any help,” he echoed, though charities had given out some blankets, buckets and biscuits to other families.

Gbla has five children, and lives with his siblings and their children. “I don’t have anything now. I’m sitting back and seeing what happens. Everyone has been fighting for themselves,” he said.

Next door, Ibrahim Koroma (31) had sent his three children and wife back to their family’s village, after realising it would be slow to rebuild. “They will stay there for the moment until I can build this again and make it comfortable,” he said, gesturing at the land where his home used to stand.

Tent provision

“I’m struggling hard. There is no food, no water. Food items [brought by charities] are not enough, they run out,” Koroma said.

Nearby, Kandeh Kamara (52) sat in the entrance to a large white tent that had just been erected for his family of 20, including nine children. He said the provision of tents had been slowed by locals fighting among themselves about who should be helped first.

Kamara, who is a government worker, was still in his office when the fire began. His family took a boat out to sea, while watching their neighbourhood razed around them. “The breeze made the fire scatter,” he said. There was no guidance to follow when a fire broke out, and fire brigades could not access the area. Now, he wondered if they could rebuild in a better way.

“We need block houses,” Kamara said, referring to homes made from cement bricks. “If they help us correctly and plan correctly they could make a road.”

Kamara was born in Susan’s Bay and said he still has no plans to leave, despite the fire.

“I like here very much. I’ve been in the army, I fought for this country, I went peacekeeping in Liberia for two years eight months. I always come back,” he said. “There’s no place like home.”

Kandeh Kamara (52) has lived in Susan’s Bay all his life. Photograph: Sally Hayden.
Kandeh Kamara (52) has lived in Susan’s Bay all his life. Photograph: Sally Hayden.
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