Wednesday, March 22, 2017
As Trash Avalanche Toll Rises in Ethiopia, Survivors Ask Why - The New York Times
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — At the moment when she lost her home and family, Hanna Tsegaye was spending her Saturday night with a neighborhood friend.
Around 8 p.m. on March 11, Ms. Hanna, 16, heard a strange sound, like rushing wind, and felt the ground shake beneath her feet. She rushed outside and saw that an enormous pile of garbage at a nearby landfill had collapsed.
Her home, which had been a couple of hundred yards from the trash heap, was buried. So were her parents and two siblings.
At least 113 people, according to the latest government estimate, were killed when part of the Repi landfill, in the southwest of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, collapsed. In the days since, grieving survivors have been tormented by a pressing question: Could this tragedy have been prevented?
“We don’t know how such a thing could happen,” a weeping Ms. Hanna said. “Hopefully, someone can tell us and find a solution for the future. I hope this can be a lesson for the government, and that they remember us.”
The disaster is at odds with the image Ethiopia wants to project as a rapidly developing country. Poverty rates have decreased by more than 30 percent since 2000, according to the World Bank, and government officials have claimed economic growth in the double digits over the last decade. Addis Ababa, home to the African Union, is a bustling city where new malls, hotels and apartment buildings are constantly being built.
But that has caused large-scale displacement for the poor in the capital. The government has been constructing high-rise apartment blocks on the edges of the city to house people at subsidized rates, but critics say those efforts have been plagued by corruption. Many of the displaced have resorted to building makeshift shelters in dangerous and undesirable areas, including on and around the Repi landfill.
“The government must take responsibility for what happened and come up with a better plan for a sustainable solution for these people,” said Girma Seifu, who was the only opposition member in Parliament until a 2015 election gave the governing coalition every seat.
Ethiopia has been under a state of emergency since October, enacted after months of sometimes deadly protests by demonstrators demanding more political freedom.
Repi is now a mass grave. More than a week after the collapse, a horrible smell of trash and decomposing bodies still wafts through the neighborhood, which is crowded with survivors, mourners and volunteers. Corpses are still being pulled from the refuse.
“The idea that they died buried in dirt, just like they lived in dirt, is heartbreaking,” Mr. Girma said.
A security worker at the site, who did not want to give his name for fear of retribution, said that he thought the death toll could exceed the government’s estimate by hundreds of victims, and that many families were finding it difficult to identify the recovered bodies.
Repi, which covers more than 60 acres and whose vast heaps of waste are blanketed by a noxious haze, has been Addis Ababa’s main dumping ground for about half a century. The site is also known as Koshe, derived from the Amharic word koshasha, or dirty.
Hundreds of people used to comb through the refuse every day, looking for scraps to use or sell, even though basic landfill infrastructure for drainage, containment and odor control was essentially nonexistent.
The government had planned to shut down the site and open a new landfill outside the capital early last year. But that was in a town called Sendafa in the Oromia region, home to the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who have long complained of marginalization at the hands of the government.