Congo's capital picks up pieces after arms depot blasts

By Thomas Hubert
BBC News, Brazzaville

  • Published
Smoke rises from the debris as a fire continues to burn in a military barracks, near an underground munitions depot, in Brazzaville, Congo Monday, 5 March, 2012.Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Many areas of Brazzaville have been devastated by Sunday's explosions

On the edge of the military camp in Congo's capital, Brazzaville, where an ammunition depot exploded, the fence made of concrete blocks and reinforced concrete posts has been flattened.

Across the street from the camp, the closest houses in the Mpila neighbourhood have no roofs left. The one or two walls left standing are full of cracks.

Next to a pile of rubble that used to be her house, one woman said that when the blasts began at about 08:00 on Sunday morning her roof was hit first.

"The ceiling fell down and the children who were asleep ran away naked," she said.

"Then the shooting and rockets began to fall towards Ebina over there and it saved our lives," she said.

"When the procurement office started blowing up, it destroyed all the cars, all the houses, and killed many people in their homes."

Humanitarian challenge

The official death toll is now 180, with nearly 1,500 injured from the explosions at the arms depot, which was caused by a short-circuit that led to a fire.

But the real figures remain unknown because of the risk posed by ammunition scattered around the most damaged areas of Brazzaville.

Media caption,

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso: "I am asking to population to show courage and solidarity"

The capital's main university hospital is still admitting a steady stream of people wounded by the explosions.

Some lie under tents outside the main hospital building.

A man with a foot injury, in a room next to a young woman having both legs put in plaster, said the explosions surprised him in his sleep.

"I don't know what caused my injury. Was it shrapnel or something else?" he said.

"But since I came here I've been looked after well, I had an X-ray and a dressing, I'm OK now."

But many Mpila inhabitants have suffered more serious wounds - and Brazzaville is now facing a major humanitarian challenge.

The humanitarian affairs minister has acknowledged that the country does not have the specialist medical capacity to treat all the injured.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Specialist assistance is starting to trickle into Brazzaville

On a visit to Brazzaville on Monday, the European Union's Aid Commissioner Kristalina Giorgevia shared this opinion.

"Our focus is on mobilising immediately assistance for the Congolese Red Cross," Ms Giorgevia said.

"And then, through our civil protection authorities, to bring doctors, nurses and medical supplies, so help can be available as soon as possible," she said.

Epidemic dangers

Back near Mpila one resident was piling furniture high on a truck, saying he would move in with relatives or stay in one of three emergency camps organised by the authorities.

Image caption,
Thousands of people left homeless have been trying to salvage possessions

He said his street was littered with dead bodies on Sunday.

Assistance has begun to trickle into the government shelters opened late on Sunday night, where some 2,000 people registered the next day.

The Red Cross is helping set up the urban refugee camps.

Then its aid workers face the grim task of preventing epidemics by pulling out unknown numbers of dead bodies from the rubble near the site of the explosion, which is still too dangerous to enter.

Another worry is the amount of ammunition that was scattered by the force of the blast.

A representative for a demining charity, the Mines Advisory Group, said residents were seen collecting unexploded shells without protection and that the risk on the military base itself remained high.

He added that his group had identified risks at the depot where the accident happened during a previous inspection and alerted the authorities.

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