Avoidable, Regrettable Tragedy

Survivors recount horror of disaster

Rescue workers dig through a pile of debris to look for victims inside Reppi Landfill. A week earlier, on March 11, a massive landslide ripped through the area, killing 125 people and destroying dozens of homes. This story, which recounts that tragic day, reported by Samson Berhane, Fortune Staff writer, after interviews with survivors, rescuers and friends and family of the victims.

Running outside from his small room to escape the landslide, surviving the Qoshe tragedy was nothing short of a miracle for Terefe Chebede, who lost 18 people close to him on that day.

Recounting the experience was horrifying for Terefe, who is in his 70s; five of his family members and 13 neighbours were buried under the garbage in no more than two seconds.

“The noise was awful,” Terefe explained. He froze, uncertain of what he was seeing. “Then the landslide began.”

It was around half past seven in the evening when Terefe first heard a huge object hitting the roof of his house. Thinking that it was a thief when he went out to check what was going on, he found the reality much worse.

“The government should have done an investigation. Negligence costs lives,” Wubet said angrily.

“The only choice I had left was to save my own life,” Terefe said, his voice betraying his grief. “My leg was trapped by the garbage. I managed to free it and run for my life.”

The incident late on Saturday night in the area known as Qoshe was the worst disaster the community has ever seen.

Neighbours, police and emergency personnel and volunteers pulled body after body from the debris on Monday, as the death toll from the landslides reached over 50. That number would climb to 125 in a week’s time.

The corpses were taken to a morgue, where friends and relatives broke down in tears as they identified the victims. Some had been buried, although there were dozens of unidentified bodies trapped under the landfill until the middle of the week.

Qoshe, a local name given to the official Reppi Landfill, is located in Kolfe Qeranyo District. The landfill is the largest and oldest in Addis Abeba. Located in south-western part of the city, the site has been used by the municipal administration of the city since 1964.

Reppi, covers 37 ha, the landfill receives over 8,500 tonnes of waste every day.

Near, and on the landfill, in no more than a three-metre radius, residents of about 14 registered households and 15 illegal houses were going about their day to day lives before the sudden tragedy on Saturday night. No less than 200 people were living in the area, according to sources.

“An hour before the incident, I saw the garbage approaching a small river,” says Terefe, who has lived at Qoshe for more than two decades. “Unlike other days when it is still,”.

Two years ago, the approaching pile of garbage caused flooding in 16 houses in the area by blocking off the river. The sight of the landfill moving towards the houses was not unusual. The 14 houses that experienced flooding were totally damaged by the landslide.

“This is not the first time we have experienced these problems,” said Wubet Melese, another survivor. “We appealed to Ethiopian Ombudsman some time ago to give us a permanent solution.”

Before the landslide, the city’s Water and Sewerage Authority was constructing sewerage lines beside the landfill.

Wubet believes that the flood was a sign of the current disaster.

“The government should have done an investigation. Negligence costs lives,” Wubet said angrily.

One day before the incident, some of the residents raised red flags about what they were seeing.

“I called the wereda administrator on Saturday morning to come and visit,” a resident who is a representative of the Qoshe community told Fortune. “There was, however, no response from either the wereda or the district.”

“The river was usually filled with the trash, so the administrator planned to come on Monday,” an official who works at the Wereda 01, told Fortune.

More than 350 residents have now been moved away from the site, according to official sources.

Despite being the oldest landfill, researchers says that there is still no detailed documented information about the feasibility, geological and hydrological conditions, lifespan, and possible impacts on the local environment, except very few recent studies.

Lemlem Kasu, a survivor who lost her pregnant sister and 11 tenants in her house, argues that there had to have been an internal force that pushed the dump into the residential area.

“The rubbish could not have slid so far in seconds without any external force,” Lemlem said.

She says the biogas tubes placed inside the landfill were a major factor in the disaster.

The tubes were put in place two years ago by the French government to build a green park at the dumpsite, according to residents who have lived in the area for more than two decades.

“There was an effort by the French government to construct a green park at Qoshe,” said Negeri Lencho, minster of Federal Government Communication Affairs. “But we cannot conclude the biogas was the cause for the landslide before the investigation is over.”

A team made up of professionals from different universities is set to investigate the cause of the garbage landslide.

On Wednesday, the country declared three days of national mourning for the victims of the disaster, the second time in half a year.

Emergency workers are still searching for any more buried bodies, as of Saturday; for seven consecutive days after the accident.

And now, the residents of Qoshe are demanding that the government prevents future tragedies near the landfill.

“The residents will get a land replacement,” said Dagmawit Moges, Communications Bureau Head of Addis Abeba.

The city government has disclosed that it envisages a “resettling program”, aimed at removing people who are living in and around the dump.

More than 350 residents have now been moved away from the site, according to official sources.

The government, in the meantime, has continued to dump garbage in Qoshe, as it has not yet decided to relocate the landfill to Sendafa.

Sendafa Landfill was built by VINCI Grands Projects, a French construction company, for over 337 million Br. It rests on 137ha of land. It is designed to receive the garbage of the 3.3 million residents of the capital and 195,255 residents of the Oromia special zones.

But, farmers who live near the landfill have blocked the disposal of any trash collected from the city since July 2016.

“The city government is negotiating with the farmers to relocate the dumpsite,” said a source at Solid Waste Recycling and Disposal project Office.

But for the residents of Qoshe, promises provide little comfort.

“I lost my wife, my grandchild and my child that day,” says Terefe. “The government needs to give us a response, quickly.”

By Samson Berhane
Fortune Staff writer

Published on Mar 19,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 881]



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