For 30 years, Werknesh lived in a house built at the Koshe landfill and trash dump site in Addis Ababa. That ended Saturday night, when she returned from a funeral to find her home buried under a landslide of earth and garbage.
A total of six people who lived with her, including her pregnant daughter and three grandchildren, were killed.
“Our children are covered under the soil,” she told VOA’s Amharic Service in a phone interview. “It sounded like an explosion, and then covered everyone with soil. There are bodies that have not been found until now.”
Workers slowly located those bodies this week as they dug into the Koshe site in a desperate but mostly futile search for survivors. More than 100 people have been killed in the landslide.
By all accounts, dozens of women and children were among the dead.
Werknesh – who spoke on condition that her last name not be published — has recovered the bodies of her family and is preparing them for a funeral.
She criticized the government for what she calls its slow response. “The government didn’t even order an excavator. I had to pay for an excavator out of my own pocket,” she said.
Working to save lives
Before Saturday’s disaster, the 53-year-old landfill on the outskirts of Addis was home to more than 300 people, some of whom lived in makeshift cardboard and plastic shelters near its edges.
Hundreds more climb the mounds of trash each day, looking for items they can use or sell as vultures circle overhead. There is always more trash to inspect, as the city adds about 300,000 tons of waste to the dump each year.
So far, officials have sidestepped questions about what caused the landslide. Addis Mayor Diriba Kuma said his administration is focused on helping people avoid additional loss. “We are making sure that they settle in places far away from the area, and we are also providing humanitarian assistance,” he said.
“The government is exerting maximum efforts to save lives, and the cause and reason have yet to be investigated,” said Information Minister Lencho, speaking in Amharic.
Lencho did offer a theory, saying the landfill is susceptible to slight disturbances. “The garbage is not made out of concrete or is not made out of natural rock,” he said. “We will give details when all things are investigated and the cause is known, and it could also be that, because the background isn’t strong, it can fall apart on its own.”
Several survivors who spoke to VOA blamed the government for destabilizing the garbage by pushing it to one side.
Others pointed to a biogas plant under construction, which connects to the landfill via pipes and wells. The U.N. Development Program is working with local authorities and Addis Ababa University to capture methane produced by decomposing organic matter at Koshe.
Through the project, the city will receive revenue from the sale of carbon credits.
Whatever the cause, the chairman of the All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP), Adane Tilahun, told VOA that the government and the city administration should take responsibility for what happened due to years of negligence.
“The Addis Ababa administration that has been dumping trash has also been witnessing that people lived there,” he said. “Instead of moving the residents to a better space for living, the administration didn’t do that, and people who don’t have shelter have been victimized as a result. They should be held to account.”
Symptom of greater troubles
For city administrators, helping victims of the landslide is not the only challenge. Despite unprecedented economic growth across the country, many residents in Ethiopia’s capital and largest city struggle to find employment and receive basic services.
Over a quarter of households have an unemployed adult, and 22 percent of the city’s population live below the poverty line. Less than half of residents have reliable access to clean water, and under 30 percent have sewerage services, according to figures compiled by the World Bank in 2015.
A booming population means city officials will be further challenged to meet the needs of all inhabitants. Addis Ababa has nearly doubled in size since the 1990s, and the World Bank projects its population will reach 10 million — more than twice the current size — over the next two decades.
For the moment, residents of Koshe simply want the government to prevent future disasters at the landfill.
One resident who compared Saturday’s landslide to the apocalypse said it could easily happen again.
“What you see from this point on is dangerous. As you can see, it’s all hanging,” he said, gesturing to a rubbish pile.
In a tent set up near the site to mourn the dead, local resident Aberash Aleneh said people want both answers and assistance.
“The problem is not over,” she said. “There are people on the brink of life and death with their homes still hanging as the ground moves. What is the government thinking about doing for them? We are scared and we are spending day and night outside because of that. We have no idea what to do.”
Tizita Belachew, Meleskachew Amiha, Eskinder Firew, and Tsion Girma contributed to this report