Uganda: spirit of voluntarism brings succour to the needy

10-05-2010 Feature

Red Cross volunteers Jeremiah Asire and Peter Weboya were among dozens of humanitarian workers trying to restore hope to the mudslide-affected population of Bududa district in eastern Uganda. The ICRC's Media Officer in Kampala, Walter Akwat, talked to them about their experience.

©ICRC/W. Akwat 
Mbale town, eastern Uganda. Dr Fatah Labib (right) shows Red Cross volunteers how to use a body bag during an ICRC-organized training on ''Proper Identification of Dead Bodies'. 

Jeremiah Asire will never forget that sunny morning of 1 March, when life suddenly took a tragic turn for the inhabitants of three villages in eastern Uganda. The villages were engulfed by mudslides, leaving about 100 people dead and more than 250 missing, devastating families and those who survived. Jeremiah immediately decided to help. The 19-year-old high school student from neighbouring Mbale township joined dozens of Uganda Red Cross Society (URCS) volunteers in distributing relief items.

 Immeasurable destruction  

The mudslides not only took lives but also did incalculable damage to the economic livelihood of the villagers, with scores of domestic animals – as well as property – destroyed. To make matters worse, heavy rains have continued to pound the mountainous area, causing the Manafwa River to burst its banks and flood the adjacent Butaleja district.

The URCS has put the number of people displaced by the mudslides at over 5,500 and those displaced by the floods in Butaleja at 6,600. The number of displaced is expected to rise, following a warning by government officials and geologists that the region may witness further landslides, following the discovery of huge cracks on the mountain slopes.

 Challenging tasks  

In response to the dire needs of the many internally displaced people (IDP), the ICRC provided 1,500 essential household kits – as well as 100 body bags – for emergency distribution by the URCS. As well as being responsible for the distribution of relief items and food, the URCS manages the IDP camps and runs the family reunification desk for children who have lost contact with relatives. Tracing missing people with the aim of reuniting them with their families is one of the core activities carried out by the ICRC and its Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement partners.

One of the most challenging tasks for the humanitarian workers was to retrieve the bodies buried in the mudslide. " The chances of finding any survivors was slim, " said Jeremiah, " but what kept us going through a difficult task was the thought of the families and knowing that they could only mourn once the bodies of their missing loved ones had been found. "

 Learning how to cope with the dead  

Jeremiah's determination to carry on with the search was compelling, considering the unpleasantness of the work involved. To support him and his fellow humanitarian workers the ICRC organized a one-day training course on ‘Proper Identification of Dead Bodies’.

" The large number of missing people reported after the mudslides made the training indispensable, " explained Dr Fatah Labib, the ICRC medical doctor who conducted the training. " Many of the helpers involved did not have enough knowledge about how to facilitate the identification of a dead body.”

The training taught the volunteers how to deal with dead bodies, from the time of discovery – noting the date and place where the body was found and making sure that personal belongings remain with the body to help with identification – up to the time it is buried. It was the first time such training had been conducted by the Red Cross in Uganda.

 An agony of loss  

Unlike Jeremiah, Peter Weboya went through an agony of l oss caused by the mudslide in his home area. The 54-year-old primary school teacher woke to the terrible news that 37 of his pupils had been killed.

“We had experienced two days of heavy rain. On the eve of the disaster, the children had all been discharged. When disaster struck it was difficult to accept – and always will be – that the lives of all these innocent, happy children had been abruptly taken away in just a single day. This will remain a huge trauma in the lives of their families and their surviving friends at the school.” In all, 63 pupils perished in the landslides, according to Bududa district education officials.

 Keeping the spirit of voluntarism alive  

Peter's home was destroyed but, with great good fortune, there were no fatalities in his household of 13 children. A volunteer with the Red Cross for just under a year, for Peter the disaster was a turning point in his life, as well as for many other people.

“My family has temporarily moved to Bukalasi,” he said, in reference to a transit settlement close to the government gazetted Bulucheke camp, adding, “All our crops and animals have been destroyed and, as such, our income sources have been badly affected, especially the loss of the coffee crops.”

But despite the trauma and his family's displacement, Peter is quick to emphasize that he is not about to give up being a volunteer: “The spirit of voluntarism is too important to be forgotten just because one is in a vulnerable position.”