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WATCH | Heartbreak as search goes on for missing and dead in KZN

Communities and search and rescue units battle to cope with their emotions amid all the death and destruction

27 April 2022 - 18:51 By Orrin Singh, Emile Bosch and Sandile Ndlovu

Prayers ring out and cries of anguish are heard in Nhlungwane, Ntuzuma, north of Durban as police search and rescue units comb through a swathe of destruction and debris.

“As you are standing here, you smell the bad smell. It’s painful. People are crying everywhere. People are dying because of our sins,” prophetess Nonhlanhla Mlaba, 54, tells a crowd gathered at the edge of a stream to mourn the loss of scores of people swept up by the deadly floods in KwaZulu-Natal three weeks ago.

More than 400 people died and dozens remain unaccounted for after days of torrential rains saw mudslides and floods wash away roads and bridges and entire homes and buildings collapse, the earth swallowing people whole, burying them deep beneath, where many remain.

The pain in the eyes of Mzukiseni Ngaleka is soul-piercing as he searches for answers to why his mother, brother, niece and nephew became victims of Mother Nature’s wrath. 

A lost and broken man, Ngaleka said his mother juggled the roles of mother and father.

Ngaleka is not alone.

Countless residents in eThekwini, the hardest hit part of the province, continue to search for closure. If it is closure they find, it is often in the form of coffins being lowered into the ground. 

The sight of 11-month-old Ayabonga Makholwa’s tiny coffin being lowered into the earth hit home for many of her relatives when she was laid to rest alongside her siblings, Axolile Makholwa, 16, Kwanele Kheswa, 16, Alakhe Makholwa, 14, and sister Iminam Makholwa, 8, at the Mophela Cemetery in Hammersdale, west of Durban, last Friday afternoon.

The children were asleep about 8pm on April 11 in Mangqondo when their home collapsed, crushing them.

Those who were lucky enough to narrowly escape remain in limbo, with closure an unattainable dream. 

In Wushwini, near Hillcrest, the Gumbi family holds tightly onto faith that the bodies of three young girls will be found after they were washed into the Inanda Dam. 

Cousins Lubanzi Gumbi, 8, Slindokuhle Gumbi, 13, and Asanda Cele, 13, were flung from their home after it was wiped out by masses of rock that fell from the hill above them.

Search and recovery operations to locate the bodies of the girls have proved futile due to the unforgiving and vast landscape.

While the lives of thousands have been disrupted, having been left destitute and homeless, the catastrophic floods, which have been described as among the worst in SA’s history, have again brought climate change into sharp focus. 

Experts say they have been sounding the alarm on climate change for years, but authorities have been slow to respond.

For frontline rescuers it has been hell on Earth as they navigate treacherous terrain to locate the bodies of the many missing. 

The government’s intervention saw 48 police search and rescue (SAR) units deployed to the province from around SA, together with 67 military SAR experts to assist with  recovery operations. 

Despite the bolstered boots on the ground, their task has been challenging. 

Much like his eyes, hidden behind impenetrable sunglasses, metro police SAR  member Renardo George concealed his emotions with laughs and smiles.

The 33-year-old father of three eventually opened up to explain the emotional burden of recovering the bodies of children. 

“As an officer I know the type of scenes that will affect me. I can deal with adults and teenagers but when it comes to little kids, it does affect me but also motivates me to finish the job. The emotion will always creep in, especially with kids, because I will think of my own children. But at the same time we cannot show that emotion because we have to be pillars of strength for those who are watching, the family or relatives.”

Provincial government estimates put the cost of damage and disruption to the economy at R17bn. 

However, all the money in the world cannot attest to the suffering of those who have been left behind, the remaining people who continue to push on amid the devastation in the hope they can one day rebuild their lives. 

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