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SA plane to evacuate Lagos survivors

Rescue workers stand by an excavator at the site of a collapsed building at the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos. Picture: Akintunde Akinleye

Rescue workers stand by an excavator at the site of a collapsed building at the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos. Picture: Akintunde Akinleye

Published Sep 21, 2014

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Peter Fabricius, Lebogang Seale and Toye Olori

Johannesburg - The government is to send an aircraft to Lagos, Nigeria, on Sunday to evacuate the injured South Africans in the collapse of a church guest house nine days ago that killed at least 86 churchgoers. Eighty-four are reportedly South Africans.

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Officials said on Saturday that none of the dead would be returned to South Africa on this flight as South African forensic experts were still identifying the bodies in Lagos.

This could take at least seven days because of the complexity of DNA analysis, they said, though the experts were trying to accelerate the process because of the exceptional circumstances of scores of family members still waiting for confirmation of the death of their loved ones.

Only the next-of-kin of 10 of the dead South Africans had been notified so far as these were identified by identity documents found on them when they were pulled from the rubble of the six-storey guest house of The Synagogue, Church of All Nations (Scoan) over the past week.

Meanwhile, the South African government played down reports that the tragedy and the way it was being handled by Nigerian authorities had caused a diplomatic spat.

Some of the reports said that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and his government had offended Pretoria by taking so long to express condolences to South Africa.

Clayson Monyela, spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), would only say on Saturday that Jonathan had sent a diplomatic note to Zuma on Thursday – six days after the accident – conveying his condolences.

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Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, who is head of an inter-ministerial task team in the government handling the disaster, put it slightly differently, saying that Zuma and Jonathan had spoken by phone on Thursday.

Officials said on Saturday that the aircraft, which was to leave for Lagos early on Sunday, would remain briefly on the ground while loading the injured South Africans before returning to South Africa.

Medical personnel would be on board to treat them in the air.

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About 30 South Africans are believed to be in hospital in Lagos and the government’s announcement that it will repatriate them will come as a relief to humanitarian workers who have battled to gain access to them in Lagos.

Reports have suggested that Scoan has employed guards to prevent the media and relief workers from meeting the South African patients in hospital.

On Saturday Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of disaster aid organisation Gift of the Givers, blamed unidentified people for preventing his representative, Sheik Mohammed Jamie, from visiting the church or the five hospitals where the injured survivors were being treated.

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“I spoke to Sheik Mohammed Jamie (yesterday morning) and he said: ‘It’s still difficult here, they are not co-operative.’ Generally, it’s been a disaster. It’s never happened before,” Sooliman said.

More frustrating, he said, was that repeated pleas by South Africa’s High Commissioner in Nigeria, Lulu Mnguni, had not been heeded.

“We went to speak to South Africans (at the guest house)… The ambassador (Mnguni) introduced the helpers. But they were still unco-operative and so the aid workers couldn’t go,” Sooliman said.

“It’s people from the hospital (refusing us permission), but it’s hard to say who they are. We are trying to negotiate.

“I got over 35 calls in the last hour from people wanting to know where their loved ones are. They don’t know whether they are alive, in hospital or dead,” Sooliman said.

After a slow start, which it blamed partly on the lack of co-operation mainly from the church, the South African government has now mobilised a major effort to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy.

Apart from forensic experts identifying the bodies, it has also sent in doctors to treat the injured and to ensure no infectious diseases are imported into South Africa, and welfare counsellors to help the injured and the families. Social workers were at OR Tambo International Airport to support families meeting injured relatives and at Dirco to counsel relatives looking for information on their loved ones.

In one of the few uplifting notes in an otherwise grim saga, a 4-year-old South African girl was found alive at the collapsed guest house on Thursday evening. The rescue of the girl, known only as Zama, came to light when Mohammed Jamie was searching for a woman whose daughter had contacted them for help. “She (Zama) is still at the hospital,” Sooliman said on Saturday. It was not known whether Zama’s parents had survived the collapse or not.

Meanwhile an audio file purporting to record TB Joshua, the preacher who heads Scoan, bribing Nigerian journalists on how to report the story of the collapsed church has surfaced on the internet.

And the Nigerian government seems to have made a deliberate decision to block entry to South African journalists to avoid negative publicity, South African government officials said. No South African media houses have been able to get visas for their journalists to enter Nigeria from South Africa as far as is known.

On Saturday President Goodluck Jonathan visited the collapsed guest house, promising to investigate the cause of the tragedy, rescuers said. – Additional reporting by Sapa-AFP

Sunday Independent

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