An estimated 14,000 people found themselves homeless in Congo’s capital Brazzaville after an explosion at a munitions depot all but decimated the neighbourhood of M’pila last week. With nowhere else to go, the majority of them have since sought shelter in one of the government’s hastily constructed homeless centres. Our Observer visited one of the camps and found widespread devastation.

In the wake of the disaster, Brazzaville’s authorities quickly moved to provide shelter to the thousands of newly homeless by transforming the city’s expansive Nkombo market, a number of churches, such as the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of the Rosary, into makeshift housing. Several of the city’s stadiums were also commandeered for the project.

As the situation on the ground worsened, the government was forced to call on the high commission of the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) for help in managing the centres. The country’s Ministry of Social Affairs also set up a hotline for those seeking to lend a hand.

According to the latest government figures, the death toll from the explosion left more the 200 people dead and at least 2,300 more injured.  

"It’s unfortunate that there are no medical services to deal with psychological trauma, especially for the children"

Andress Hordiland Tembo is a student in Brazzaville. He went to visit one of the city’s new homeless centres while waiting to be registered as an official volunteer.

I spent Monday at the homeless centre the authorities set up at the foot of the Our Lady of the Rosary church. It’s less crowded during the day than in the evening because a lot of people continue to work whenever they can. Even some of the children take off during daylight hours to earn what money they can.

However when the camp is full, it’s clear that five tents are not enough to shelter everyone. I’ve been told that the camp’s adults are often forced to sleep outside on mats, rain or shine, because the children get to sleep inside.

"Some families have been left without a single official document to their name "

Some families were able to recover a few of their belongings from the wreckage, but many arrived at the camp empty-handed. They explained that everything they owned went up in smoke, including their identity cards. Some have been left without a single official document to their name, which complicates things.

There are a number of volunteers at the camp but also people from NGOs such as the Congolese Red Cross, the International Red Cross and UNICEF. The camp has received food aid, but distribution is problematic. It looks as though it operates on the basis of first come, first served.

The volunteers have gotten together to build toilets and showers for the camp. There is also a steady police presence to ensure everyone’s safety and security.

Some of the people have shared their stories, but the general atmosphere in the camp is fairly heavy. A lot of those who had minor injuries have been treated there instead of in hospitals. I saw a little girl with burns on her feet from stepping on the scorching-hot ruins as she fled the explosion. Although the medical services in the camp are better equipped now than they were in the beginning, it still lacks the means to deal with psychological trauma.

A lot of the children are struggling to cope with the accident. Some even refuse to eat. There’s no place for them to go – there used to be three schools in the area, but all of them were destroyed in the blaze. Now they just have to wait until space can be found for them in another institution, but that will take time”.

"The government needs to create the appropriate structures to make sure everyone's getting the assistance they need"
The authorities promised that those left homeless by the explosion would be given some sort of compensation and that public housing would be built for them in Kintélé, a district 25 km north of Brazzaville. [The Ministry of Communication has announced plans to build 5,000 homes for those left stranded by the explosion, and vowed to immediately begin efforts to restore integrally sound buildings surrounding M’pila]. Yet we have yet to see a fixed timeline or any sort of structure put in place to handle the caseloads of those who have been left homeless. It’s apparent that the centres and the NGOs aren’t enough to get us out of this crisis.
The government needs to be more effective to make sure that everyone feels they are getting the support they need and are confident that they will be relocated as soon as possible [the Congolese Observatory of Human rights has also criticised the lack of adequate assistance at Brazzaville’s centres for those left homeless by the explosion]”.