Floods separate children from their families

Feature story
By Ian MacLeod and Ruth Ayisi

Celso Manganhe was eating a plate of porridge for breakfast under a tree when his mother spotted him for the first time after they were separated from each other during the country's worst floods, eleven days ago.

"I am so very happy," said the mother hugging her 13-year-old son.

Celso and his mother, Elsina Manhica, along with his younger brother and sister had spent two days in trees trying to escape a wall of flood water that swept away their home and thousands of others along the Limpopo and Save River valleys. "Some people managed to cook in the trees, but we had no food nor water," said Elsina.

At one point the water came with so much force, that the mother lost her grip on her five- -year-old daughter, Iolanda. As she was being carried away in the floodwaters, a neighbour managed to grab Iolanda and tied her with a cloth to a tree. Celso's grandparents were not so fortunate. They drowned.

After two days, the waters on small islands of high ground where Elsina and her family had climbed the tree were around knee high. Elsina and Celso, along with others climbed down to pick whatever food they could recover from their partially grown small maize field. A helicopter began circling the area, and landed, rotors still whirring. All the young boys ran through the water to the helicopter and eight were picked up and taken to the safety of the main road, about 20 kilometres away.

When the helicopter returned an hour later, more young boys ran to it and were picked up. It returned once more, but the parents and young girls were too apprehensive to go to the helicopter - they were unsure of what had happened to the boys and decided it was better to stay in their waterlogged surroundings than risk uncertain destinations.

Some four to five days later, with the waters still slowly receding, the word started to spread around the village and the nearby town of Chokwe that lost children had been taken to the large camp for displaced people in Chaquelane, some 60 kilometres away. Anxious to find out what happened to Celso, the mother borrowed 30,000 Meticais, just over three dollars, for public transport to and from the camp, where some 40,000 displaced people have gathered.

"I had been so worried. At first I did not know where Celso had been taken to," said the mother. "Then I heard that he was in Chaquelane and was sick. So I had to come as quickly as possible."

She was overjoyed that her trip had been worthwhile. Despite having malaria and a very high fever, Celso also said he was happy. "I knew my mother would collect me. I missed my family."

But Celso goes back to a different home than the one he knew before the floods. "Our home and machamba (plot of land) is destroyed and we have no food," conceded Elsina. "We used to have plenty of maize and vegetables. Now I do not know what I am going to do to feed my children."

"But I do not want to stay here in the camp. I must go home and make sure that the few remaining things I own are not stolen, " she said.

Following the floods, almost half a million people are dependent on food aid for their survival. Most flood victims were farmers. Now their plots are submerged under a sea of muddy water.

In Chaquelane, there are still 52 children separated from their families. A week earlier, when the camp was first open, the number was 105. Unlike the other displaced people in the makeshift camp who sleep under trees, the children at least have one tent to share and receive food cooked by a group of Catholic nuns.

Of the 52 boys, only three are girls. One of the nuns, Alda Macuacau, says, " the reason why we have so few girls is that the girls are too attached to their mothers. They did not want to get on the helicopter and leave their mothers behind. I saw one girl refusing to leave the trees. She drowned with her mother."

One of the girls remaining at the centre is 11-year-old Eliza Albino, who admitted she did not want to be pulled up into the helicopter and leave behind her aunt who was looking after her. "My aunt forced me to go and said she would follow later. I was crying to stay with her."

Eliza has heard that her aunt has survived the floods but has not yet been able to see her. The last time they were together, floodwater had come up to their shoulders. "I just did not know where the water was coming from. I thought I would die. I have never experienced anything like that before," said Eliza softly.

Eliza looked frail and thin. She is receiving treatment for malaria. "My joints all ache and my feet shrivelled up from being a whole day in the water. I had no food or water to drink."

UNICEF is working with NGOs and the Government to register all children separated from their parents. Some of the parents have already collected their children, but across the flood-ravaged south of Mozambique hundreds are still unaccompanied. It is also likely that some children may have been orphaned by the disaster. In such cases efforts will be made to reunite the children with other family members or with another family in their community.

Photos and the details of the child will be taken of each child and sent to the children's villages. Meanwhile the priority is to make sure that the children have tents to sleep in, food and medical care.

As Celso leaves to his home area, a lorry drives slowly around the dusty, smoky overcrowded camp. A young boy sits pensively at the back of a lorry with a man who is calling over a megaphone in the local language Shangaan, "Do you know this boy, Narciso, is he yours? Or your neighbours? Ask around. He has lost his family."

For more information on UNICEF, visit its web site at