Desperate choice of Ethiopia landslide survivor: run or die

Chris STEIN
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People survey the damage done to dwellings built near the main landfill of Addis Ababa on the outskirts of the city on March 12, 2017

One minute, Zemed Derib stood negotiating with her precocious siblings who had locked themselves inside their uncle's home as a prank.

The next, the playful scene gave way to horror as the hillside of the rubbish dump above them collapsed.

With terrified screams of neighbours filling the air, Zemed abandoned her doomed sisters and took to her heels, outrunning the torrent of fetid dirt that swallowed homes and killed at least 113 people in Africa's second most-populous country, Ethiopia.

"I ran away, but finally, when I turn my face, nothing was there. Everything changed into black," Zemed said as she sat clutching a portrait of her mother Yeshi Beyene, one of the victims of the disaster at Koshe, the country's largest rubbish dump situated on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa.

On Saturday, a week after the tragedy, men in face masks and rubber aprons waited for excavators to move aside the waste to carry out their search for the dead.

Zemed, wearing all black, is mourning the loss of seven relatives, including her three younger sisters and a baby girl born days earlier who had not yet been named.

Zemed's family lived among a community of hundreds who had built homes on the side of Koshe's main slope and spent their days scavenging for valuable rubbish trucked in from neighbourhoods around this city of about four million people.

- Accident waiting to happen? -

The settlement is now buried under a wall of black muck and the landslide left a jagged, crescent-shaped cut in the side of the landfill's rise.

Friends and relatives gathered under the watchful eyes of dozens of police officers, who harassed AFP journalists conducting interviews with victims' family members in a private home and forced them to delete photos and videos they had taken.

Koshe residents say their status at the dump has long been contentious. The government last year tried to move the dump to a different site, only to back down in the face of protests from people living near the proposed new location.

Meanwhile, bulldozers have flattened parts of the landfill to make way for a biogas plant, one of many infrastructure projects the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has pointed to as evidence of its efforts to develop Ethiopia, where poverty is rampant despite years of rapid economic growth.

While some residents have speculated that the plant's construction destabilised the hillside, communications minister Negeri Lencho said investigators from the United States and Ethiopia will have the final say on what caused the disaster.

The government has promised to find accommodation for people who lost their homes in the calamity, but Zemed said her surviving relatives have nowhere to stay and have lost everything they own.

"It's changed into mud," she said. "Everything is changed into mud."

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