BATA, Equatorial Guinea: On the afternoon of March 7, 2021, Sisto Asumu’s life was changed in an instant. An enormous blast shook a military camp just a hundred meters from the house where the 26-year-old was living with his uncle and aunt on the outskirts of Bata, Equatorial Guinea’s economic capital. Stocks of explosives in the camp had accidentally detonated, obliterating neighboring residential areas, killing 107 people and injuring 615 others. “I was sleeping and suddenly the roof just caved in on me,” Asumu recalls, wincing. “Even thunder frightens me now.”
But like countless others who survived the blast, three weeks later Asumu and his family are wondering how they will contend with hunger and homelessness. “We sleep in the church because our house is destroyed.” Other victims seek refuge with relatives in other villages, stay with friends or pile into makeshift shelters. All are hoping for some kind of aid.
A chain of explosions reduced the military camp and surrounding area to piles of rubble that stretch for kilometers. Bulldozers are still clearing wreckage nearly three weeks later. On an empty lot, the shells of wrecked cars are piled on top of each other. A team of explosives experts from the United States is on site working to defuse any unexploded ordnance. In the disaster’s aftermath President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, whose 42-year reign makes him Africa’s longest-serving leader, blamed local farmers for allowing stubble-burning to go out of control, soldiers at the camp for “negligence” in storing the explosives.
Soraya, 27, was housed at Nkoa Ntoma with her soldier husband and children when the explosion happened. “I don’t know what happened-I just heard ‘BOOM’, the roof fell and the walls collapsed,” she says. “I didn’t even know where my three children were-other people took care of them and, thank God, none of them one died.” Although the official toll of 107 does not specify ages, witnesses tell AFP that many children were among the casualties.
Upon returning to the ruins of her house, Soraya and found that someone had stolen her savings. “I had 190,000 CFA francs (285 euros),” she laments, “and there was nothing left.” Bata is home to around 800,000 of the 1.4 million total population in Equatorial Guinea, a state that enjoys oil and gas wealth but where most people live below the poverty line. The government says it has released 10 billion CFA francs-about 15 million euros-to help the victims. “I was given 500,000 francs and a mattress,” reports Florencia Mbang happily. But many others have seen no sign of help yet, like Luisa Ada, 33. “My name is not on the lists even though my neighborhood officer came and marked us down, my six children and myself,” says the widow, “I’ve had no help and my house is destroyed.”
‘What about tomorrow?’
The government transformed schools into temporary shelters for those whose homes were destroyed, but witnesses say they were ill-equipped and most empty. In the end it has been solidarity between family members-a hallmark of Equatorial Guinea’s culture-on which victims have relied, piling into whatever homes are still standing in the city or returning to villages farther away. “I lost both my homes,” laments Teresa Nchama, 50, “I was living with my four grandsons.” Joaquina Efua, 35, who makes a living selling lemons, is frustrated with having to shelter with relatives.
“I had to go live with my sister-in-law,” sighs the young mother, six months pregnant with her fifth child. “We are nine people in a house made of wooden boards and only three bedrooms.” It has also been difficult to find food. “I gave my kids 500 CFA francs (about 75 cents of euros) to buy some rice, I bought some beignets for 100 francs,” whispers Efua, “I barely have 100 francs left. And yesterday the neighbor gave us two packets of pasta. What about tomorrow?” “Only God knows,” she says. — AFP