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Hundreds still missing as waters recede, disease takes hold after Idai

In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai survivors in isolated villages in Mozambique are still homeless and starving two weeks after the storm

31 March 2019 - 00:00 By Jeff Wicks and Alaister Russell
Fatima Bernardo lost both her young children when the flood waters came, and survived herself by climbing a tree.
Fatima Bernardo lost both her young children when the flood waters came, and survived herself by climbing a tree.
Image: Alaister Russel

Editor's note: Sunday Times photojournalist Alaister Russel on Thursday, October 15 2020, won the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards in the Feature Photographs category for a series of images taken while covering the devastating aftermath of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. This piece was first published in March 2019.

Fatima Bernardo hacked at a sodden patch of earth beneath a tree in the Mozambican village of Begaja, scraping a shallow hollow in the mud.

It was there, without funeral song or rite, that she buried her four-year-old son Zacharia.

The boy and his one-year-old sister Isabel were lost to the surging brown torrent unleashed by Cyclone Idai.

"When the water came we were asleep. When I woke up I just heard screams from outside and we saw it was like we were in the river and there was nowhere for us to go," Bernardo said.

When the water rose swiftly around them in the darkness, Bernardo lost her grip on her children as they tried to flee. After Zacharia and Isabel were ripped from her arms by the current, she and her elderly mother climbed a mango tree that once provided shade for their home and spent four days clinging to its branches.

Now the women wander the main road through the village - still an impassable route for aid - looking for food.

The dirt track that once connected Begaja with surrounding villages is submerged. The wreckage of a bakkie swept from the road lies abandoned in a clearing, its windscreen caved in by the rushing water.

The storm, which the UN has called one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the southern hemisphere, drowned Mozambique's lowlands.

Begaja, like many other rural settlements along the Buzi River in Sofala province, is now cut off from the outside world. We were taken there in a helicopter being used for relief efforts by humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers.

It's a desolate scene. Mud and straw homes provided little resistance to the force of water.

This lake near Begaja was dry ground before Cyclone Idai - now the water is knee-deep in parts.
This lake near Begaja was dry ground before Cyclone Idai - now the water is knee-deep in parts.
Image: Alaister Russell


Seen from the air, pools of stagnant water surround patches of earth where homes once stood.

The preliminary death toll from the cyclone and the ensuing floods in Mozambique alone had originally been set at 446, but the devastation in neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi means the regional total could be close to twice that number.

Hundreds more people remain missing, their bodies likely never to be found.

When the water finally receded in Begaja, and Bernardo was able to climb down from her place of refuge, she found the body of her son tangled in the morass of the flood plain.

"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.

Two weeks since the cyclone hit, the women are homeless and starving.

"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."

Starvation is looming 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.

UN World Food Programme director David Beasley said the situation for farmers was dire.

"These people's lives have been devastated, they have no livelihoods now, they've lost their homes, they've lost their farms, they've lost their crops, they've lost loved ones. And they're going to need help at least for the next six to 12 months to get back on their feet," he said.

About 1.7-million people are urgently in need of food and Beasley urged the international community to respond as "lives were hanging in the balance".

In the once-productive fields of Begaja, the stench of death still hangs heavily in the air.

"We don't know if it is people or animals, but this smell is everywhere in the village," farmer Augusto Machava said. He walks with a limp after his foot was sliced open as he clambered onto the roof of his house to escape the rising waters.

He helped 47 other people climb to safety on the corrugated iron roof, which sagged under their weight.

"We had many on my roof for four days. We had a lot of children who are now orphans because their parents are gone. Entire families disappeared when the river came here," Machava said.

"When the water went I found the bodies. All of them were my neighbours. I buried three people that I knew."

With the road network destroyed and many areas isolated, villagers rushed to bury decomposing bodies to stave off the outbreak of disease.

The coastal city of Beira, which bore the brunt of the cyclone, is now the epicentre of the relief effort. Schools have been converted to shelters for refugees from the disaster while the government scrambles to restore water and electricity infrastructure.

Augusto Machava, a farmer, escaped the floods by climbing onto his corrugated iron roof, then helped nearly 50 more people from his village scramble up there with him.
Augusto Machava, a farmer, escaped the floods by climbing onto his corrugated iron roof, then helped nearly 50 more people from his village scramble up there with him.
Image: Alaister Russell


As many as 2,000 people who fled the village of Praia Nova are being housed in a primary school named after Mozambican liberation hero Eduardo Mondlane. By night, women and children huddle together in dank classrooms illuminated only by candles. They spend their days gathering branches from uprooted trees to fuel cooking fires in the playground.

The first cases of cholera were reported in Beira this week, with the UN's national director of medical assistance, Ussene Isse, warning that the disease could erupt into a second disaster for Mozambique.

Even before the crisis, World Health Organisation data suggested only the half of the country had access to safe water and only one in five used improved sanitation facilities. Sewerage systems have been among the casualties of the storm.

The UN refugee agency said the first flight carrying aid had touched down in the capital Maputo carrying tents, mosquito nets and other items, all bound for Beira.

Those co-ordinating relief operations are trying to find ways to deliver aid to the city, which is still accessible almost exclusively by air or sea.

More challenging was reaching rural communities like Begaja, still without contact with the outside world.

In the village's primary school, desks and chairs have been swept up against the classroom walls, showing the path of the floodwaters. An antiquated TV set lies upended, covered in mud.

Joaquin Jose, an English teacher who has also been left homeless, said schools in isolated villages that were still standing would be grim reminders of the death toll when they reopened.

"There is no school because people don't have homes. Everyone now is worrying about how they will survive and if there is a place for them to sleep," Jose said.

"I know that we have lost many of our pupils and I know when I stand in the classroom, there will be many empty seats in front of me."


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