The Reporter (Addis Ababa)

Ethiopia: Inferno Hits Mercato

Disaster struck the largest open market in Africa in the middle of the week as a large fire consumed around 50 shops in the capital, Addis Ababa. The Mercato blaze injured ten people as they battled the flames.

Bekalu Obisse and Jemal Mohammed witnessed the drama unfolding, with the fire starting on Wednesday afternoon at 2pm. It was believed dormant by 9pm of the same day, yet smoke was spotted on Friday when the fire was completely extinguished. Victims and eye witnesses spoke of the time it took firefighters to arrive at the scene, by the time 50 or so shops were destroyed and many commodities ruined.

Jemal indicated that the crowded nature of the shops made it tough for the fire brigade to control the blaze, and he praised civilians and police for their efforts to stop the fire spreading to nearby neighborhoods. Perfume, air-fresheners, edible oil and flammable food items all helped the blaze cross from shop to shop. The intensity of the fire caused cracks to the roofs of many nearby buildings, some as high as eight stories. The Metro Hotel, located in the Addis Fanna building and owned by private shareholders, was one such affected by the heat. Bekalu, head of the hotel, said that the magnitude of the fire was felt when the windows started cracking.

The damage and cause of the fire are under investigation by the police, and will include allegations that some firemen accepted bribes. Victims have raised similar concerns about the behavior of the firemen to the mayor, Driba Kuma. On his visit to the affected site, victims told him that some firemen were seen accepting bribes. According to Jemal, firemen were being dragged to help by distraught shop owners who were battling to fight the flames.

The mayor promised to investigate the allegations. It is the third time in three years that fire has hit the Mercato, which is particularly vulnerable to such accidents. The market was established by the Italians during their five year occupation as a place to serve the local communities as a way of segregation. Terras are the distinct areas in Mercato, with Shema Terra, Jonia Terra, and Bomb Terra all busy places for commodity transactions. Bomb Terra is the specific part of the market that has suffered fire damage on three occasions. According to the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority, Mercato is an influential market where more than half of the country's total cash transactions take place.

In a related news, the town of Mekelle, some 800 km from the capital, experienced a serious fire incident on Monday and Tuesday this week, destroying some 22 million birr of estimated assets and destroying many shops. The fire broke out in the heart of the town's industrial zone.

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