A Nation Drowns

  • Share
  • Read Later
The world woke up to the drowning of Mozambique when the pictures appeared on television, just as it had during past African nightmares involving famine, pestilence, war and genocide. This time, it was water. But whether they are natural or man-made, most disasters carry indications of deaths foretold, and in Mozambique, coming events did indeed cast their shadows before them. The writing was on the wall, some say, weeks before walls of brown water--generated by torrential seasonal rains and a cyclone called Eline--swept away hundreds of people, tens of thousands of homes and rural livelihoods, and halted--perhaps reversed--a nation's struggle to recover from years of civil war.

At the weekend, debate swirled over why it took so long for international assistance to be mobilized; why the two items deemed the most urgently needed--helicopters and boats--were so scarce; how many Mozambicans perished because of the initial low-key response to the crisis, and whether sufficient aid is forthcoming--even now--as the first large quantities of relief supplies begin to arrive at the airport in Maputo, the country's capital. As the waters recede and the rescue of stranded people winds down, attention is increasingly turning to the provision of basic care: food, potable water, sanitation, shelter and medicine. Beyond those needs, Mozambique--one the world's poorest countries, with a per capita gnp of about $140--must wait for its land to dry and the hopes for its next harvest to be assessed.

"If the governments of the world are going to help, the time is now--not tomorrow or the next day," declared Carol Bellamy, executive director of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF). "It was terrible then and circumstances since have steadily worsened," said Bellamy, who toured flooded regions of Mozambique nearly three weeks ago. "Far more people are at risk now than when this first began."

Indeed, the disaster is immense in scale, the teething troubles of the international relief effort are painful, and more rain may be on the way. Like the rain, help, too, has come from the sky, dressed in the uniform of the South African Air Force. In the past two weeks the world has watched, transfixed, as helicopter crewmen pushed themselves to exhaustion, waging--initially with just five craft--an air war against nature's darker forces, saving at least 12,000 lives so far. "They are the real heroes," says Ian MacLeod of the UNICEF operation in Maputo. Paulina Mundo would agree. For two days, she clung to tree branches above the floodwaters near Chokwe. "It was like another world--just the water beneath us and the sky above," she recalled after an Oryx, part of Pretoria's squadron of 12 helicopters and supply aircraft, descended to rescue her. On Saturday, under scorching sun on another sliver of land near the swollen Limpopo River, the South Africans were still at it, ferrying thousands more out of harm's way. "I want to get out," said Louise Biela, a teacher in Pegões, where some people were eating grasshoppers and quenching their thirst from the muddy river. "I will come back when the water is finished."

Many of the victims were children and, amid the misery of so many, one became a symbol of human resilience. Rositha was born last Wednesday, in Mondiane, near Chokwe. Giving birth to her third child, Sophia Pedro had reason to feel she was on top of the world. Moments after the delivery, South African airmen and a medic winched her to safety from the tree to which, for four days, she had clung for dear life--and in which she had given birth to Rositha. The disaster that has devastated Mozambique has left Rositha and about

1 million others homeless, while numerous governments and relief agencies scramble to provide tens of millions of dollars in aid. Mozambique is not alone, though. To a lesser degree, all of southern Africa has been hit by the weather, with South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Madagascar among the affected countries.

Despite its seemingly sudden appearance on the global radar screen, the crisis had been building--step by soggy step--since at least mid-January, when the first reports of drownings in the swollen, swifty moving rivers of southern Mozambique appeared in the local press. By early February, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Maputo had data on flooded farmland, the evacuation of thousands of people, problems with drinking water and an increase in cases of diarrhea and malaria. U.N. bodies and international aid agencies stepped up their activities as the rains continued. On Feb. 10, the government declared a disaster in five provinces. Considering the floods the worst in decades, it also launched an emergency appeal. When the first wave of floods hit Mozambique, a U.N. team spent 10 days in the country, then left without establishing a strategy for coordinating relief efforts. A second group is back, doing just that. The first, insiders say, simply underestimated what was taking place. While it had appeared that the waters would subside, nature and neighboring countries had other plans. When Eline added its cyclonic fury to the rains, huge volumes of water backed up behind dams in Zimbabwe and South Africa and had to be released. Mozambique's misfortune is to be criss-crossed by numerous rivers, all flowing to the Indian Ocean. Swollen rivers elsewhere in the region, with nowhere else to go, headed to the sea via Mozambique.

After disaster struck, bureaucratic red tape hampered much of the early rescue work. The Mozambican authorities insisted on pre-paid visas for all visitors and precise documentation for all aid materials arriving spontaneously. Some aid workers criticized the government, but others, while acknowledging the frustration, defended it. "It's like people showing up at a party without being invited. The government feels like it's being ignored," one aid official said.

The weather, however, cared not. At the weekend another cyclone, dubbed Gloria, raised concern. "If that storm comes in, it will be a total catastrophe for Mozambique," said Michele Quintaglie, a U.N. World Food Program official. While it is too early to calculate the full extent of the damage to the country, thousands of hectares of farmland have been destroyed, and precious topsoil has been carried to the sea. And the flooding may have shifted an unknown number of unexploded land mines, remnants of 16 years of civil war. That, says Bruce Wilkinson of World Vision, is "an unknown part of the disaster, a new discovery for the relief community."

For President Joaquim Chissano--who expressed disappointment with the world's initially sluggish response to the tragedy in his country--a monumental rebuilding job lies ahead. The U.N. surely will be calling on its members to supplement the $14 million it first sought. But Chissano must feel a particularly special bond with South Africa, whose air force--an enemy in the apartheid years--has saved so many thousands of Mozambicans. "It is touching to see this solidarity unfold," says Foreign Minister Leonardo Simão. Nelson Mandela and his wife, Graça Machel--widow of Mozambique's first President--might well agree.

Reported by Peter Hawthorne/Cape Town and Simon Robinson/Maputo