Mass Burials Begin in Sierra Leone

Mass Burials Begin in Sierra Leone

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) -- Mass burials were set to begin Thursday for the hundreds of victims of deadly mudslides in Sierra Leone's capital as the threat of more rain loomed.

Queen Elizabeth II expressed her sadness over the disaster that has killed more than 300 people. Some 600 are thought to remain missing as anguished family members and rescue workers continue to dig through tons of mud and debris, at times with their bare hands.

The monarch, in a message to President Ernest Bai Koroma, said she and Prince Philip were "deeply saddened."

The mudslides and flooding struck early Monday following torrential rains, with many victims trapped in their homes in impoverished, low-lying areas of Freetown and surrounding settlements.

A third of the dead were children. Thousands of people have lost their homes.

At the city's overwhelmed Connaught Hospital morgue, many bodies have been too mangled and decomposed to be identified. Koroma's office has said all unidentified corpses will be given a "dignified burial" in the coming days.

Some people said they lost almost all of their family members.

"Mother, father, sisters, brothers, cousins all gone. My life has been shattered. ... Please help me God," Hawa Stevens sobbed as she waited in in the pouring rain Wednesday outside the mortuary to try to identify the corpses of her loved ones. She said she lost 28 relatives.

Some in the long line wore face masks to try to ward off the smell of death. Many clutched photos of their loved ones, hoping to give them a proper burial.

The government has said contingency plans were being put in place to try to stem the outbreak of diseases such as cholera.

Sierra Leone has pleaded for international assistance as it reels from yet another disaster just a couple of years after the Ebola outbreak that left thousands in the region dead.

With rain forecast for at least the coming week, the threat of further mudslides around Freetown remained. Many poor areas are near sea level and have poor drainage systems, which makes flooding worse during the rainy season.

Freetown also is plagued by unregulated construction of large residential houses in hilltop areas. Deforestation for firewood and charcoal is another leading contributor to flooding and mudslides.

(KA)