The long road to recovery from a night of horror
UNICEF, working with UN in South Africa, supports Government-led response to assist children and families affected by the devastating Johannesburg fire.
Bed sheets still hang precariously from broken windows down the side of the gutted building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg. They tell the story of people’s desperate attempts to escape the fire that engulfed the building in the early hours of 31 August 2023.
Andile* is 7-months pregnant and while she made it out her partner died in the fire. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen now and can only focus her energy on giving birth in two months, after the horror that she’s lived through.
“There’s a 7-year-old who just cut herself off, she doesn’t want to talk, people were just crying, feeling helpless,” says Pretty from the NGO, Action for Conflict Transformation (ACT). “There is some improvement now, I try to remind them who they are as individuals, as people,” explains Pretty, as young children run around behind her in the shelter that hosts around one third of some 458 people displaced by the fire.
Thabile* from North-West province was living on the fourth floor of 80 Albert Street and managed to escape with her 4-month-old child and partner when the fire broke out. She was working as a food vendor in the streets around her home, scraping by to make ends meet for her youngest child and her 7- and 10-year-old who live with their grandmother back in her home province.
“I just want to get back to hustling and making some money,” says Thabile. “So, I can at least go home to see my other children,” she adds.
One week on from that tragic night, what really happened is still sinking in for the women, children and everyone affected. The lost lives and livelihoods will remain forever etched in the minds of those who lived through that night and the physical and mental recovery is only just beginning.
The City of Johannesburg local authorities have been coordinating the response, working with Government departments and NGOs to help provide access to essential items and services for people who have lost everything. A mobile health clinic has provided medical support, while hygiene packs, blankets and mattresses were quickly distributed.
UNICEF South Africa is working with ACT, as part of the UN assistance on the disaster response, including providing immediate and more sustained psychosocial support to children and people affected. The aim is to help people cope with what they lived through and support the recovery process for families who were already living precarious lives.
“We will follow-up with families and help them as much as we can going forward, wherever they end up living,” says Pretty, as lunch arrives at the shelter.
UNICEF South Africa’s support to children and people affected by the horrific fire is possible thanks to flexible funding that can quickly be distributed in the event of emergencies to help improve the wellbeing and protect the rights of the most vulnerable children across the country.