ROME – Pope Francis said Wednesday in a telegram that he’s “deeply saddened” by the devastation caused by a mudslide and flooding in the outskirts of Freetown in Sierra Leone, where already nearly 400 people have died and hundreds are still missing, according to government officials.
“His Holiness Pope Francis assures those who have lost loved ones of his closeness at this difficult time. He prays for all who have died, and upon their grieving families and friends he invokes the divine blessings of strength and consolation,” reads the telegram, dated August 16, that the pope sent through the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to the Archbishop of Freetown, Charles Edward Tamba.
“It’s really a caress from the pope to those who are suffering greatly,” said the Emeritus Archbishop of Makeni in Sierra Leone, Giorgio Biguzzi, in an interview with Vatican Radio.
“It’s like a balm every time he intervenes. It will have a great importance and resonance in the heart and morale of people in Sierra Leone,” he said. “The pope is a very, very respected and well-known figure, even in public institutions.”
In the message, Pope Francis also expressed his “prayerful solidarity” to the many rescue workers who have been involved in offering aid and support to the victims of the natural disaster.
A member of the international aid group Save the Children was reported missing by the organization on Tuesday, along with young children who were with him. The landslide delivered a heavy hit to the rescue worker’s house near Freetown.
Caritas has also been active in the area helping the families, orphans and survivors of the catastrophe. “Some even came almost without clothes, because it (the flood) happened by night and they ran away,” Biguzzi said. “It will be necessary to have food, medicines and make a plan for the next days.”
Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, has asked the international community for “urgent support,” and told reporters “entire communities have been wiped out.” The president could hardly hold back tears on Monday as he visited the Regent area, where a large part of the devastation took place.
The recent flooding has tried the small and poor West-African country, which has also been plagued in the past by a decade-long civil war and the Ebola disease, which claimed thousand of lives and was only declared over by the World Health Organization in March 2016.
According to the Red Cross, at least 3,000 people were left homeless after a river of mud dragged down their homes and livelihoods, with numbers rising. Koroma has decided to call for a week-long mourning period in the country (August 16 to 22) to remember the men, women and children who died, with flags flown at half-mast.
According to Biguzzi careless resource extraction and construction are to blame for the damages caused by the floods, which occur regularly in this season. “At this point housing development and deforestation without any control are such to have rendered the whole area fragile, hence the tragedy,” he said.