Hear Me

The caterpillar dug and came up with human parts

Saloome Veronica Kanukin, on life after the mudslide
By Suphian Bangura
13 July 2021
Saloome Veronica, Mortomeh

When we came home from church, my husband wanted to go watch a football game at the community cinema. I needed help with our eight-month-old baby, so I left for my mother’s house.

That was the night before the incident, and it was already raining quite hard. On his way home that night, my husband stopped by at my mother’s place. But we didn’t meet because I’d gone to dispose of some trash. I called him later to check if he had reached home. We couldn’t talk long because my phone ran out of credit.

In the early hours of 14 August, I felt the ground shaking and vibrating. I held my baby close, and told my mother I was afraid the house would fall on us. By the time we got to the door and opened it, the vibration had stopped. A thick mist was covering the area. We could not really see what was happening outside. Then, a man came running in our direction, screaming, “Lives have been lost!” I immediately gave my baby to my mother and ran to look for my husband.

When I reached there, I started crying: there was nothing but big rocks and mud where our house used to be. I remember there being an electric current going through the mud because there were damaged electricity poles and wires on the ground. I was still there, weeping, when I saw another torrent of mud and rocks gushing down the hill. I ran back to my mother’s house and told her the world was ending.

I grabbed my baby and ran in the rain. I didn't know where I was going or what I should do. But there were iron rods in the debris, which injured my legs.

I went to Regent Community Hospital, where one of the nurses was a family friend. They asked me what had happened, and I told them that stones and mud had covered and killed my husband. They asked if I was sure of what I was saying. I was still in shock, crying, but I went back to the SS Camp area that's close to the same Regent community. There, I saw some friends and pleaded with them to help remove my husband from the mud.

People were shocked when they saw me because they’d assumed I’d been sleeping in the same house. My husband, his brother, his brother’s wife, and their three children all perished in the house on that day.

It was the Grace of God that saved me, as the mud and rocks came into my mother’s house too. I did not notice it at first because I was in shock. But when I went there later, I saw that the debris had come all the way up to my bed.

I think the caterpillar machines that arrived to rescue people killed some people who were trapped alive in the mud. The company that came with those machines did not ask us where the houses were located before the incident. We tried to talk to them, but they did not listen to us. They were just digging and riding everywhere, which I think led to the death of some people. There were situations where the caterpillar dug through the mud and came up with human parts… it was devastating.

I was present when they removed my husband’s brother. His flesh had been ripped off and skin peeled off, but all his body parts were intact. I asked the machine operators to look for my husband at the same spot, but they refused.

Even today, I sometimes experience the same shock that I did on the day of the mudslide. When the shock attacks me, I can’t move or say anything and my back hurts severely. If I’m sleeping and a heavy truck passes nearby, I wake up and the memories of that day come back.

The incident changed my life and my daughter’s forever. My husband and I had plans to expand our kiosk into a big shop, but this dream died with him. We were so independent and asked no one for anything. Whenever I think of my baby growing up without her father, it brings me to tears.

After the incident, I went to the camp that was set up at Six Mile on the outskirts of Freetown. It was so difficult there for my daughter and me. Whenever we needed food, they told us to write letters to request it, even though the food was meant for us mudslide survivors. I had to use my own personal money from the kiosk to eat.

My challenge now is accommodation. The house I reside in now has some serious leakages, which I discovered this rainy season.

My message to the government is that they lack consistency. Whenever incidents happen, they pay attention for the first few weeks and then they abandon victims. Another issue is discrimination by community stakeholders. Many people who felt the pain and lost loved ones in the mudslide did not get any benefits from the authorities or aid agencies. Some people who did get benefits were not directly affected by the mudslide.

The public should learn from the August mudslide. People should avoid building on hilltops, and the government and the media should raise awareness and prevent people from living in disaster-prone areas.

Photo: Suphian Bangura. Graphic: Sunil Krishnan