WATCH | 'I buried my son, I've given up finding my daughter' — Cyclone Idai, one year on

20 May 2020 - 07:00 By Emile Bosch and Alaister Russell

Cyclone Idai decimated parts of Mozambique in 2019, leaving over 1,000 people dead and over 1 million affected. TimesLIVE went back to visit the worst affected areas one year later to see how the country and its people have recovered. This is the tragic story of Fatima Bernardo, a Begaja community member. Video by Emile Bosch.

“When the water came, we were asleep. When I woke up, I just heard screams from outside. We saw it was like we were in the river. There was nowhere for us to go,” said Fatima Bernardo shortly after the tragedy happened.

In March 2019, she stood under a tree in the Mozambican village of Begaja, hacking at a waterlogged piece of ground to bury the body of her four-year-old son Zacharia.

Zacharia and his one-year-old sister were lost in the deadly flooding that followed Cyclone Idai in March 2019.

At the time, the sounds of screams carried over the pitch-black village as the Buzi River — on which the community relies to survive — flooded its banks and the ever-rising water threatened the lives of Begaja's people.

Like many other villagers, Bernardo gathered her family and climbed a tree. She watched helplessly as members of her family fell one by one into the floodwater below.

After Zacharia and Isabel were ripped from her arms by the turbulent current, she and her elderly mother climbed a mango tree that once provided shade for their home.

“The river took them. I could only find Zacharia. I don't know where my daughter is. I don't know if I will ever see her again,” she said at the time.

They would spend four days clinging to the tree's branches under the blazing sun while anxiously waiting to be rescued.

Once the floodwater subsided, the women desperately wandered about the desolate floodplains in search for food and clean drinking water. Bernardo was able to find the body of Zacharia, entangled in the slough the Buzi River's water left in its wake.

The big challenges are the lack of hospital and drinking water. We are going through difficult times.
Fatima Bernardo

Isabel had been swept away by floodwater, never to be seen again.

In total, six of her family members died on March 16.

“Six people from my family fell in my sight. It will be very difficult to forget what happened that day,” she said at the time.

One year later, she lives in a small makeshift house insulated from the elements by plastic sheeting, with her three other children who survived the flood.

Seated on a chair, centimetres from the entrance to her house — a tarp-covered structure that stands no more than a metre each way — the mother of three recounts the anguish of losing her two other children the previous year.

“After what happened, I’ve said of dying while imagining what happened the year before,” she says.

The previous year's scars still haunt the divorced mother. However, her grief is giving way to the necessity to care for her remaining three children.

Two weeks after 2019's flooding, Bernardo and her family were homeless and had to overcome the fear of starvation on a daily basis.

“All we had to eat since the rain is three cups of maize meal, which some people gave us. We have nothing. All I have here now is my son's grave,” she said at the time.

A year later, the mother still carries those same fears.

“After the floods, things are changing little. We are trying to recover our huts to hide from the sun and rain. The big challenges are the lack of hospital and drinking water. We are going through difficult times ... We need more support. I live with my three children and I have no husband — I am divorced,” she says.

Starvation loomed as a major threat in the aftermath of the cyclone, which laid waste to 500,000ha of productive land — much of it planted to the staple food crop, maize. Livestock was also lost.

A year later, with farming grounds proving to be infertile, the village having one viable source of clean water and the closest medical facility being 5km away, Bernardo and other residents of Begaja face several daunting challenges ahead.

Like many other residents, she relies on food deliveries by NPOs. But these happen infrequently and seldom cater for large families, she says.

Sadly, Bernardo's story is not unique. Similar tales of loss and sorrow are littered across central Mozambique's effected areas.

This article is a part of a bigger feature that details life, one year after the flood in Begaja, a small village in Mozambique.

FULL FEATURE: Tales from Begaja - a year after Cyclone Idai

Additional reporting by Jeff Wicks