FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – The government has begun burying the 350 people killed earlier this week in mudslides in Sierra Leone’s capital, and it warned Thursday of new danger from a large crack that has opened on a mountainside where residents were told to evacuate.
Another 600 people remained missing from the mudslides and flooding early Monday, as workers sought to recover more bodies from the thick mud and debris of smashed homes.
The government hired 600 gravediggers for the burials, which are taking place in a cemetery where victims of the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak that killed thousands in the West African nation were laid to rest.
Each person will be buried individually in a dignified manner, said Cornelius Deveaux, deputy minister of information and communications.
Dr. Owiss Koroma, the government’s chief pathologist, said the confirmed death toll from the mudslide and flooding was at least 350. A third of the victims are children. Many of the victims were too mangled and decomposed to be identified.
Thousands have lost their homes in impoverished, low-lying areas of Freetown and surrounding communities.
With more rain forecast for the coming week, further mudslides are possible. The Office of National Security said a crack has opened on the side of a mountain where residents were told to evacuate.
The main focus is getting people away from areas still under threat, Zuliatu Cooper, the deputy minister of health and sanitation, told a news agency.
“The rains are still pending and there is a possibility that we will have another incident,” he said. “We would rather have structures falling down without people in them.”
The mudslides tore apart multistory concrete homes, with their metal reinforcements tangled like threads. On the same hillsides that were stripped bare, fully intact homes stood nearby, with untouched, lush vegetation.
Workers searching for bodies picked their way through the debris that included the remnants of daily lives: stools, abandoned shoes.
Grieving survivors said they were haunted by thoughts of dead relatives.
“Last night, I could not sleep,” said Tenneh Bull, who lost a daughter. “Even now I’m still thinking of her; thoughts of her death is lingering.”
Sierra Leone has pleaded for international assistance, while Amnesty International issued a statement accusing the government of failing to learn from similar incidents.
“Due to a lack of regulation and insufficient consideration for minimum standards and environmental laws, millions of Sierra Leoneans are living in dangerously vulnerable homes,” said Makmid Kamara, the group’s deputy director of global issues.
Many poor areas around Freetown are near sea level and lack good drainage systems, which makes flooding worse during the rainy season. The capital also is plagued by unregulated construction in hilltop areas. Deforestation for firewood and charcoal is another leading contributor to flooding and mudslides.