In the aftermath of the devastating mudslide that occurred in Sierra Leone early this week, CWR interviewed Fr. Paul Morana Sandi, the Secretary General of the Inter-territorial Catholic Bishops’ Conference of The Gambia and Sierra Leone. Fr. Sandi discussed the severe impact of the natural disaster, and called for the support and solidarity of the Church around the world.
CWR: Could you please describe to us what happened and the locations affected?
Fr. Sandi: First of all, let me thank Catholic World Report for granting us this interview during this difficult moment in our country.
The mudslide, as it has been widely referred to, took place around 7:15 am on Monday, August 14th, after torrential rains that resulted in flooding in most of the low lying areas of the capital Freetown, especially in the Kaningo, Juba, and Aberdeen communities and the mudslide on the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Regent. It has been well documented that human activity in most of the protected areas of the Freetown peninsula had inevitably contributed to the depletion of the ecosystem and there were warnings that it was a disaster waiting to happen. Unfortunately, we now face this catastrophe of epic proportions which has evoked in us the fears and memories of the outbreak of the  Ebola virus disease and its attendant consequences.
CWR: How many deaths have been reported so far? How many have been displaced?
Fr. Sandi: According to official sources, the death tolls now stands over 300 and the number still missing is estimated at 600. However, let me hasten to state that we may never know the exact figures. The number displaced stand at over 5,000 who are now temporarily housed in schools, halls, etc. in different parts of the city. Registration of displaced and affected persons is currently underway and the exact figures may be collated by the end of the week hopefully.
CWR: How has the Church been affected by the disaster?
Fr. Sandi: In the first place, the Catholic Church has been affected due to the fact that some of the victims and displaced persons are our parishioners. For example, I minister at St. Paul’s Catholic Church which is in the environs of the mudslide in Regent. We have received numerous reports of the deaths of entire families who were our Church members. The physical loss of lives is a sad moment for all of us and we pray that God may grant them eternal rest. Above all, the Catholic Church is gravely affected by this disaster in that we share in the pains, anguish and sorrows of our people. In moments of emergencies like these, the Church has always been a partner serving as a first responder with humanitarian aid and offering psycho-social assistance to the displaced and affected persons.
CWR: How has the government and humanitarian agencies responded to the situation?
Fr. Sandi: The efforts of the government and humanitarian agencies have been commendable. From the initial moments, the President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma and members of his government visited the affected areas and mobilized rescue and recovery teams. The Office of National Security also organized a coordinated emergency response teams to set up temporary centres to accommodate the displaced and to provide supplies for relief. Humanitarian agencies were also among the first responders offering humanitarian aid and helping with the rescue and recovery challenges. Particular mention should be made of construction companies who made their earth moving equipment available to help in the rescue mission. Our deepest respects also to those individuals who at the risk of their lives and safety volunteered to help with the rescue. It shows the true spirit of solidarity and compassion.
CWR: How is the Church supporting the relief efforts of the government?
Fr. Sandi: The Church has offered humanitarian aid and relief primarily through Caritas who has collaborated with and complemented the efforts of the government. Individual parishes have also organized appeals in order to respond to the needs of their affected persons and to offer counseling and psycho-social support. In times like these, the assistance and support from the Church is offered to communities without discrimination. Appeals for food, clothing, blankets, and medical supplies have been sent to donors and hopefully there will be a generous response. As you are already aware, these are emergency measures. In the long term, we have to grapple with the problem of permanent housing for the many displaced persons among the many other challenges. This will require serious thinking and action by all stakeholders.
CWR: Pope Francis has today expressed his closeness to those who have lost loved ones, and solidarity and support to the rescue workers. What practical support does the Church need to be able to respond effectively to those affected?
Fr. Sandi: The People of Sierra Leone thank our Holy Father, Pope Francis, for his prayers and message of solidarity. We are encouraged by his leadership and support. During the Ebola outbreak, we received a lot of support from the Vatican and his message further reinforces our hope that we are close to the heart of Pope Francis and he is praying for us. By way of practical response, we appeal to donors and people of goodwill to help us with food, clothing, blankets and medical supplies. Every little helps in moments like these.
CWR: How can other Bishops’ conferences support you to cope with the crisis?
Fr. Sandi: Our appeal to Episcopal Conferences around the world is to help us in our efforts to provide relief and comfort to our people after this tragic event in our history. Let me use this opportunity to thank all those who have stood by us in the past. We renew our need for help so that an already desperate situation may not degenerate to other far reaching consequences.
CWR: Are there any steps that the government and other authorities could take, to reduce the impact of such disasters in the future?
Fr. Sandi: I may say these are early days and we are presently focused on rescue and recovery and the provision of relief and comfort to the grieving families and affected persons. However, as a temporary measure and that we are still in the rainy season, the government has asked all those residing in low lying areas, water ways, around hills to relocate to safer places. In the long and sustainable term, it should be the effort of government and the people to enforce laws and regulations on the use of the environment and to adopt a spirit of conservation of nature. This may require political will and the cooperation of all institutions and law enforcement agencies. Honestly, there were evidences of early warning signs that were not heeded or taken seriously. This is what that depresses the human spirit and should not be allowed to happen again.
CWR: Some reports have pointed out that environmental degradation contributed to the current disaster. Would you agree with this assessment? How does this view reconcile with the encyclical letter Laudato Si’?
Fr. Sandi: I agree with the assessment that environmental degradation and the indiscriminate use of the resources of nature contributed to our current disaster. This is a fact we should humbly accept and accept that it has taught us the hard and harsh lesson. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, a prophet of our times saw it coming. The relevance of Laudato Si’ now more than ever before impels us to a true ecological conversion and to live peaceably with nature. How I hope that the message of Pope Francis will be read and adopted by my fellow compatriots. It is our duty and responsibility to care for our common home. We cannot equivocate and the time is now.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Fr. Sandi: We thank all our brothers and sisters around the world for your prayers and solidarity. If you can, kindly come to our help as we struggle to help our many displaced and affected persons.
May the faithful departed rest in the peace of God. Amen.
Pray for Sierra Leone. Thank you very much for your time.