Congo arms depot blast victims crowd shelter sites in Brazzaville

News Stories, 12 March 2012

© UNHCR/C.Schmitt
Homeless people in Brazzaville seek shade under makeshift shelters in Nkombo market.

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of the Congo, March 12 (UNHCR) Chantal is desperate for shelter. The 43-year-old was among an estimated 14,000 people left homeless and in urgent need of assistance when an arms depot exploded on March 4 in an eastern district of Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo.

"I don't even have a piece of plastic sheeting to create some shade," the mother of five told UNHCR in the city's Nkombo covered market as she watched a family build a makeshift shelter with precious plastic sheeting. "I've been here since Monday. I'm in the sun, I have no place to stay in the covered part of the market, I cannot even cook," she said. "I wait for the evening to come and the sun to sink before I can do anything, but it is very hard."

After receiving a request for support from the government, UNHCR has started helping the most vulnerable victims of the series of massive explosions, that left more than 200 people dead by official count. The homeless have been gathering in the Nkombo market and six other main sites. UNHCR will provide support for management of these sites and for registration of the displaced.

"The registration of IDPs [internally displaced people] is essential to manage the situation and provide assistance," said Paul Ndaitouroum, UNHCR's representative in Brazzaville. "It is also an important process to establish who are the most vulnerable people and provide support to them," he added.

UNHCR has brought in experts to help coordinate and manage sites where the displaced are living. The refugee agency has also distributed shelter and other emergency aid items, including plastic sheeting, mats, blankets, mosquito nets, soap and cooking utensils to more than 1,000 people. But Ndaitouroum said much more was needed.

Achille Kodo, a psychologist and UNHCR staff welfare officer, said many people would likely need counselling. "It is essential that the psycho-social aspect is taken into account," said Kodo. "The survivors are traumatized and need help," he stressed.

In the Nkombo covered market, the stalls have been converted into beds while the aisles are covered with mattresses, plastic buckets and mats. Aid organizations are using the offices to distribute emergency aid to some 2,000 homeless people in the market. Most have lost everything in the explosion.

Chantal recalled the day that changed her life. She was on her way by bus to Sunday church, "when I heard a big boom and saw smoke. We saw people running." She said taxis were carrying away the injured from the city's Mpila neighbourhood, where a fire at a military base had triggered the explosions.

"I went home to get my children. Our plot was destroyed and the roof of the house had caved in. I took my children and we fled," she said, adding: "Since then, I have been living here [Nkombo market] in the open. I only have two mattresses for the six of us."

The market where she earns a living by selling fish was completely destroyed. Her children's school is now a pile of rubble and the family have been relying on hand-outs from the Congolese authorities and humanitarian organizations.

Jean-Bosco, a soldier, has also been living in the Nkombo market since the blast, which killed his 11-year-old daughter as she washed the dishes in their home. "After the first explosion, the roof collapsed. I was outside, but my daughter was in the house. We could not recover her body."

He and his family, including a sick daughter and Jean-Bosco's disabled wife, were sleeping on the concrete floor. "We suffer," he said.

Other displaced people have gathered at churches, sports stadiums and in front of Brazzaville's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, where Sunday's service was disrupted by the blasts. The sites are crowded and there are no latrines or showers. On Saturday, people were still turning up to register as displaced and seek receive help.

Hospitals are also overcrowded. "We lack equipment to treat patients. Even drugs are lacking. Since yesterday, we are out of compresses, "said Chantal Kunga, a nurse of 47 years who volunteered to treat victims.

By Céline Schmitt in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo

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