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Proactive measures by Government Officials could have saved Victims at the Regent Mudslide

By Ishmael Kindama Dumbuya

It was in the early morning hours when most of residents in the Matormeh Community were still fast asleep when the tragic incident of mudslide and flooding befell them. An area of more than 20 hectares with more than 5000 people were molded in ruins on August 14th, 2017. Other who were not severely hurt ran for their lives. A Regent Village Headwoman, Madam Elnora Metzger, said more than 1000 people perished during that disaster.

The impact was too much for a country that had just encountered the wrath of Ebola outbreak in 2014. Some statistics show that besides the death toll of over a thousand people during this mudslide with many of them being buried in the rubble during the incident, there are about 6,000 displaced people. Many of these who survived are presently struggling with livelihood and survival issues in places they are presently residing.

A leaked 2012 report on the recovery of the Babadorie Catchment area and the Western Area Peninsular Forest Reserve at Mount Sugar Loaf clearly shows how a Global Information Specialist (GIS) at the Lands Ministry was hired to carry out the re-demarcation

Located in the outskirts of Freetown and overlooking the Regent mainland and the Congo Reservoir, the Matormeh Community is strategically located Southwards in a protected Area of the Western Area National Park. The German Welthungerhilfe (WHH) in collaboration with the Government of Sierra Leone through their then Western Area Protected Area Forest Reserve (WAPFoR) project in 2010-2015 demarcated the area as a national reserve meant to be preserved and protected.

The shock and trauma of this mudslide is still echoing  in my mind whenever I reflect how this area used to be in 2012. I used to visit this place so often after getting news of encroachment for settlement from neighbours. With an imaginary reflection, I can still remember in 2013 when I was standing right in this ruined and no-more to be identified place when I received a call from the then Deputy Minister of Lands and the Environment, Mr. Ahmed Khanou discussing about the continuous deforestation taking place in this Community and how Land Encroachers were destroying the EPASL/WAPFOR’s demarcation pillars.

The then Deputy Minister of Lands Country Planning and the Environment was instructed by the then Vice President of Sierra Leone, Alhajie Abubakarr Sidikie Samuel Samsumana to invite me for discussions on the Matormeh encroachment issue after I sent him a text explaining the deteriorating conditions at the Matormeh Area.

The then Vice President had wanted a construction of Green Wall around Matormeh and other protected areas so as to salvage the continuous deforestation and encroachment from land squatters.

Former Minister of Agriculture Forestry and Food Security; Dr. Joseph Sam Sesay and the then Minister of Lands Country Planning and the Environment; Momodu Aliue Pat-sowe dedicated the Matormeh Area and other places around the Western Area Peninsular Forest as priority areas

The former Minister of Agriculture Forestry and Food Security; Dr. Joseph Sam Sesay and the then Minister of Lands Country Planning and the Environment; Momodu Aliue Pat-sowe dedicated the Matormeh Area and other places around the Western Area Peninsular Forest as priority areas which must be protected and preserved. On normal instances, they used to visit the Matormeh area so often thereby drawing the needed attention to prevent any would-be encroacher into this site. But things changed suddenly after the 2012 elections. A considerable part of the Matormeh area was allegedly sold as State Land by the Lands Ministry to some party stalwarts after applications were sent to the Ministry for those lands. 

In 2012, in the presence of a Senior Police Officer, the then Minister of Energy and Water Resources, Oluyini Robin-Coker, the then Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Dr. Sam Sesay, a  Senior representative from the Environment Protection Agency, the then National Coordinator of the German Welthungerhilfe and also Head of the WAPFoR Project, Jochen Moninger as well as other key senior government officials, contracted me to make a power pointed presentation at the Vice President’s Office. After the shocking and heart rendering presentation of the deforestation and encroachment I made, the Vice President was moved. He instructed Momodu Alliue Pat-sowe to “demolish all makeshifts structures within and around the Western Area Peninsular Forest Reserve with immediate effect” in other to preserve the Matormeh or Sugar Loaf Communities.

But the former Lands and Environment Minister was not moved by this decision. Right in the presence of the aforementioned, the former Minister of Lands denied the instruction of the former Vice President. He challenged him and said “no Mr. Vice President we have to wait. All those makeshifts structures should not be demolished until I hold a meeting with the Senior Management of my Ministry”. Everyone was shocked but could not talk. The gathering was in silence probably thinking-over the remakes of the former Lands Minister. Surprisingly, the meeting ended with the hope of getting a feedback from the Lands Ministry. At the end, nothing positive

resulted.

Gradually, it seems as if the instructions of the former Vice President had caused the land encroachment at the Sugar loaf to intensity. Even government officials who now visit this place to put a demarcation marking in these makeshift structureswas attacked. Sahr Kelly, a Forestry Officer at the Ministry of Agriculture was assaulted and nearly beaten in my presence because of educating people about the importance of the protected area. Few months later, at the end of the WAPFoR project, those Guard Posts where Forest Guards used to sit and get a time while trying to prevent any further encroachment were burnt down by unknown hired gangs. The giant billboard that used to educate people about the area was destroyed.

A leaked 2012 report on the recovery of the Babadorie Catchment area and the Western Area Peninsular Forest Reserve at Mount Sugar Loaf clearly shows how a Global Information Specialist (GIS) at the Lands Ministry was hired to carry out the re-demarcation of the Babadorie Community and clearly indicate where the catchment area is situated. Before the unfortunate mudslide, the report revealed that “plots 107, 111A and 111B falls within the catchment areas”.

On the 2nd of September 2011, a letter of offer for the lease of state land at Babadorie Phase 1 in Hill Station was given to one Alpha Kamara who resides at 32 Second Street in New England. The letter of offer from the then Minister reads “I refer to your letter of application on the above and to convey my approval to take on lease land you applied for as shown on PLOT No. 107 at Babadorie Phase 1”. The land at the phase one is within the buffer zone of the western Area Peninsular Forest Reserve at the Babadorie Community. Probably, all those who constructed structures in those plots and transferred in those houses were major victims of the August 14th mudslide.

According to the World Bank’s Damage and Loss Assessment report of the Landslide and Floods in the Western Area,  “the three August 14 landslides in the Regent area occurred in locations designated by Qualitative Landslide Hazard maps for Freetown as ‘High Hazard’”.

However, natural disasters from the results of heavy torrential downpour of rains are common in Sierra Leone. In the previous years, many were made homeless while up to 10 people were killed due to flash floods in the city.

According to the US National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, Sierra Leone recorded a 104cm of rain in last year of the months preceding the date of the mudslide. With a poorly managed and equipped Meteorological Department, Sierra Leoneans could not be alerted of any unforeseen Climate disaster occurrence to fast track any evacuations from any of the danger zones in the country due to the unprecedented three days rains following the mudslide.

When the mudslide occurred, no government official is yet to accept the fault of negligence to take action by preventing people from constructing houses at the Matormeh Community to save people from being trapped from what could be referred to as a natural disaster. A World Bank report on Loss and Damages on the mudslide states that “the exact mechanism of the Regent landslide is not known”. The report further notes that “deforestation cannot be attributed directly as the landslide trigger in this case, particularly as the main part of the slide is observed to be within the rock mass, but deforestation does not help the local environment and changes the way in which rainfall infiltrates or runs-out down slopes, as well as removing the near surface binding effects of the root systems”.

Together with WAPFoR, the former Executive Chairperson of the EPASL, Madam Jattou Jallow installing a demarcation pillar at the boundary. It was destroyed by land Encroachers

As a result of the landslide, the government of Sierra Leone established an emergency evacuation center. Those who could not survived were either buried with disfigured parts or laid bare at the Central Morgue before a dignified burial could be done for them at the outskirts of the city in Waterloo. An unofficial report of physical donations predicted that more than Seven Million United States dollars was provided by the international community including philanthropist organizations and nations to support the mudslide victims.

Few houses were constructed by private construction companies along the Freetown Masiaka highway in solidarity with the victims but not all could benefit from the housing scheme. No official report is yet to be published on the cash donations and as most of the mudslide victims are presently in disarray finding it very difficult to withstand daily occurrences.

For now, while there are signs of new constructions and relocation into these Communities, the pains of those who survived the mudslide could hardly be forgotten and wiped out from their faces.

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