Brazzaville picks up the pieces after ammo depot explosion

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Many women and children have been living in the grounds of the Sacred Heart Cathedral since munitions in a Brazzaville army barracks exploded on March 4, 2012.
Image: Laudes Martial Mbon/IRIN.
The Brazzaville Arms Depot was located in Mpila.
Image: NASA.
The average number of deaths per incident of an explosion is 3, according to a six-month study conducted by Landmine Action and Medact in 2009.
Image: Crtew.
Brazzaville munitions depot explosion as of March 14, 2012. The map shows the extent of the exclusion zone, the redzone checkpoint and 1km radius from ground zero.
Image: MapAction.
Christian Sedar Ndinga, president of the Congolese Red Cross, talks about the role played by local and trained volunteers in responding to the March 4 blast in Brazzaville.
Video: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Extensive damage was caused to residential areas of Brazzaville when munitions at an army barracks blew up on March 4, 2012.
Image: Laudes Martial Mbon/IRIN.

World relief organizations are assisting the Republic of the Congo after last month's deadly explosions at the Brazzaville Arms Depot that claimed around 300 lives, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and left parts of the city looking like a war zone.

One month after the March 4 explosions and the relief efforts continue.

Bernard Metraux, who is in charge of the ICRC mission in Brazzaville, said 292 people have died and around 12 bodies were still unidentified as of Monday. On Saturday, Pierre Moussa, Minister of Defense for the Republic of Congo, released a slightly lower death toll of 282. There was no explanation for discrepancies between the government's and the relief organization's figures as the ICRC's previous statement was already higher than Moussa's figure. Moussa said the death count, however, is expected to rise higher as the relief operations continue.

Metraux also reported 75 children were still missing. The international organization has had success reuniting 42 children with their families in the aftermath and locating 23 missing children since.

Also, the World Health Organization has confirmed around 10 cases of cholera, which was supported by Alexis Elira Dokekias, the nation's director general of health.

Already in the first month of the operation, the munitions clearing teams have disposed of 16 tons of ordinance.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies expects the relief operation to last three more months.

The Brazzaville blast

To put the Brazzaville blast into perspective, the number of people killed by the depot explosion this month is almost 100 times the average number of people killed in explosive incidents, based on figures presented by Landmine Action and Medact of explosions and deaths from around the world. The average death per explosive incident was reported by Landmine Action to be 3.3 people (see infographic).

The blast on March 4, 2012, was actually three separate explosions that were caused by an electrical short circuit at the depot. The blast injured 2,500, made 14,000 homeless, and disrupted education for 20,000 students. The explosion collapsed whole buildings nearby, including a church; contaminated the area within 1 km; and destroyed windows as far away as 4 km. The force of the explosion could be felt in neighboring Kinshasa. And, most dangerous for people now, the blast spread live munitions over a perimeter that spans 6 km. The Talangaï Hospital, one of Brazzaville's medical centers, was the most critical site affected. A portion of the hospital was destroyed and unexploded ordinances were spread over the premises.

Brazzaville is the capital of the Republic of the Congo. According to the US State Department, 70 percent of the country's population lives in Brazzaville. It is the largest city there with a population of over 1.2 million, according to the CIA World Factbook. Nearly one third of the population there lives near the affected sections of the city, including Talangaï, Ouenzé, Moungali and Mfilou which were close to the depot located in the Mpila district.

The storage of arms in city centers is more common in Africa. In an interview with Wikinews, Dr. Kelechi Kalu, who is the director of the Center for African Studies at Ohio State University, said the orgins of the practice go back to the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union would arm opposite sides and would locate the arms so that the forces they supported could have access to them. After the Cold War, however, the practice was continued by governing institutions. "The institutional structure that is supposed to handle explosives such as this and dispose of them in order to keep people safe are not as developed as people would expect." Kalu referred to another armory explosion in January 27, 2002, in Lagos, Nigeria that killed over 1000 people.

The 2009 report from Landmine Action said casualities as a result of explosives happens regularly around the world and the number of incidents spreads globally within a fairly short period of time — six months of data were studied. The report said the worst cases with high death rates occurred when explosive violence took place in urban settings, like the blast from the arms depot located in the highly populated area of Brazzaville.

Moreover, the Landmine Action study reported that civilians, especially women and children, fared worse from these blasts. Congolese citizen Irène Ithos, 44, and a mother of three, told IRIN News that the blast was unprecedented in her lifetime. It is one of the Republic of the Congo's worst catastrophes since its civil war was fought between 1997 and 1999. The depot itself was a holdover from the civil war era.

The relief operation

The main thing now is to clear those areas as quickly as possible ...

—Bernard Metraux

Dealing with the unexploded munitions is urgent. "The main thing now is to clear those areas as quickly as possible so that the people who live or work there and want to go back can do so without danger," said Metraux.

The Congolese army has fenced off the 1km area around the depot so that the site can be decontaminated. The United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre is trying to dispose of the live munitions so that the Brazzaville residents can leave the camps and return to their homes. The organizations involved in ordinance disposal also include the British Mines Advisory Group, a contingent from Handicap International, and the ICRC. With so much ordinance underneath the ruins, the Congolese Red Cross is playing an important role in warning residents to call for assistance if they see ammunition.

Early on the Congolese Red Cross, as the area's first responders, provided first aid, transported crush victims from the fallen buildings and burn victims to the military and university hospitals, and provided blankets and water, said Christian Sedar Ndinga, president the country's organization. The Congolese Red Cross mobilized 200 volunteers in response to the crisis.

While the relief agencies working with the Congolese have alleviated some needs, the effort still has holes to fill. Six sites have been established to relieve the homeless, but the camps do not have enough tents. One of those sites is the Sacred Heart Cathedral and it has 20 tents that were set up by the French army, but those are not enough, and during rains, even when the church is opened, not all people can be sheltered. The Nkombo Market is the other large relief site; it is a covered market converted into a shelter. The sites, however, have allowed Doctors Without Borders to vaccinate 2,500 children from measles and the medical staff there has reported some malnutrition cases.


This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.