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Democratic Republic of the Congo: Red Cross volunteers help victims in Sange

03-08-2010 Feature

On 2 July, 260 people were killed when a tanker truck exploded in Sange, a village in Uvira Territory in South Kivu Province. Volunteers from the DRC Red Cross were immediately mobilized to evacuate the injured as well as the bodies of victims. Pascal Nepa reports.

   
©ICRC/R. Gouchaun    
 
Volunteers of the DRC Red Cross in Sange (South Kivu Province), the day after the disaster. 
     


 
©ICRC    
 
The tanker truck after it exploded in Sange on 2 July 2010. 
     


 
©ICRC/R. Gouchaun    
 
People from Sange gather in front of the ICRC truck that helped carry the dead bodies. 
      

" I've never seen such a tragic event in my whole life. Not even war kills people like that. I've lost my home. It was completely gutted by the fire. But my family are all OK, thank God, " says Baraka Noa wearily as he stands where his home was still standing a week ago. 

On that fateful Friday, the people of the quiet village of Sange were focusing on the Football World Cup, just like people in thousands of other places throughout the country. That evening it was the Uruguay v. Ghana match, Ghana being the only African team still in the tournament. Scores of people, many of them children, were gathered round the communal TV set.

But the festive mood was interrupted by the accidental explosion of a tanker truck. " It all happened so quickly. The truck drew up and stopped – there was some sort of problem. People gathered round to see what was wrong, and some went closer to try to get some fuel. We certainly weren't expecting what came next, " Baraka recalls.

What came next? A violent explosion that left chaos – lives destroyed, bodies burnt to cinders and people's minds marked indelibly. The survivors, in a state of shock, soon discovered the extent of the damage: black soot everywhere, the charred bodies of their relatives, neighbours and friends. There are two health centres in this village 95 kilometres from the provincial capital of Bukavu, and the doctors acted immediately to assist the injured.

 Emergency assistance  

    

As they c oped with whatever means were available, the news gradually spread to the surrounding villages. " We were still in shock from the news and started to get organized to respond as soon as possible, " says Désiré Yuma Machumu, President of the South Kivu provincial committee of the DRC Red Cross. The National Society and the ICRC organized emergency aid throughout the night for the victims in Sange.

" We set out in the ICRC vehicle in Uvira at 6 a.m. on 3 July to assist the victims of the fire. When we got there, we were first hit by the smell of burnt corpses. There was also a terrible silence. We found several young people from Sange, who were trying to help the injured. They looked exhausted but were determined to save those who could still be saved, " says Red Cross volunteer Alidor Kangele.

With the help of those young people Alidor and the local ICRC team organized the evacuation of the injured to the Sange health centres and the hospitals in Panzi, Uvira and Bukavu.

    

 A nightmare  

" These people had just been through a nightmare, " Alidor recalls with emotion. " For them, these first evacuations were like the beginning of a solution. 

A total of 110 DRC Red Cross volunteers (72 from the Ruzizi Plain and 38 from Uvira) were mobilized for this operation. Another even more difficult task was awaiting them amidst the chaos – that of collecting the bodies of the victims and trying to identify them where possible – a task that would take them several days to accomplish. It is still difficult for Alidor to talk about those terrible days, despite his 16 years'experience as a volunteer: " Most of the bodies were burnt to cinders and it was difficult to make out a human form. "

The ICRC supplied the volunteers and local health authorities with body bags so as to facilitate the collection of the bodies. Bukavu Hospital was supplied with drugs, dressings, and anti-tetanus vaccines for treating the injured who were transferred there – some of whom had burns affecting over 80% of their bodies. The ICRC vehicles also helped to provide transport for doctors from Uvira Hospital to the site of the explosion.

An estimated 280 people including about 60 children died in the explosion. This tragedy has also left a large number of children orphaned and scores of families without shelter. " Over 200 children have lost at least one parent and about 100 men and women have lost their spouses, " says Alidor. " The entire community has suffered tremendously. "

 A long way to go  

    

Today the fire has been extinguished in Sange and the people have buried their dead. But the effects of the tragedy will endure for a long time to come. Fourteen people are still in hospital, where they are being tended by the DRC Red Cross and ICRC teams. " Some are in hospital in Bukavu, " Alidor explains. " The ICRC has provided supplies and various items to facilitate their care, and with its support we have meals prepared for the injured and the people accompanying them. They are still very fragile and still haunted by the shock of this event. "

Alidor hopes that, despite the trauma, the images of destruction will soon be replaced by images of both material and psychological reconstruction. " The village has to be rebuilt on the ashes of the original village. The community must pull together and grow even stronger. To me, that's the essence of volunteer work: providing assistance in order to restore human dignity. "