Mozambique: Amid the filth, the first sign of disease

Johannesburg, South Africa. March 7 2000

A strategy to lure Mozambicans to safer ground exposes them to other risks.


A UNITED NATIONS strategy of withholding aid from flood-stricken towns and villages in Mozambique, in an attempt to pressure residents to move to refugee camps, has left thousands of people desperate for clean drinking water and food, and at risk from disease.

The UN fears that, with more heavy rains forecast in the next two days, floods could again swallow up areas hit by the torrent of water that swept down the Limpopo and Save rivers 10 days ago.

It wants people to move to camps on higher ground. But the policy is punishing residents of towns such as Chokwe, where thousands of people who survived the earlier flood in trees and on roofs are refusing to abandon their homes.

The UN and aid agencies are concentrating aid on a refugee camp at Chaquelan, 40km from Chokwe. But the town received its first food only yesterday. And while the camp has three water purification plants, none has been delivered to Chokwe, even though the scorching summer sun has returned and the only available water is from stagnant pools, some contaminated with human corpses.

At the Catholic church yesterday, hundreds of mothers queued with young children for two doctors giving rehydration fluid and treatment for malaria and tuberculosis. The babies' desperate cries mingled with ominous coughs. Some children begged for water. The mothers faced the awful choice of ignoring their pleas or quenching their babies' thirst with the filthy remnants of the flood.

The torrent of water has left a tide mark about 3m-high on the walls of the church, which was home to many of Chokwe's Aids sufferers before the floods. The floor is thick with mud, some cleared to make way for the new patients. In the corridor, a young girl on a reed mat awaits treatment for malaria. Volunteers wash the mud from packets of medicines. Bandages caked in filth are laid out in the sun to dry alongside the tuberculosis records.

One doctor, Sister Elisa Verdu, despairs at a lack of assistance to Chokwe even though Mozambique is now the target of the biggest foreign aid airlift in Africa since the Rwanda crisis six years ago.

"There are a lot of people here with malaria. We don't even have enough of the basic medicines. We don't have drinking water. There's no food. There's nothing. No one has come here," she said.

The price of food has risen several times over. Without clean water, the threat of disease is as great as in the camps. Stagnant pools are a haven for mosquitoes.

The UN special envoy, Ross Mountain, is overseeing the policy of concentrating assistance on camps which he says house 250 000 refugees. "We have pleaded with people not to go back to their homes. If there is more flooding they will have to be rescued again and that will take resources away from getting food and water to people who need it," he said.

The World Food Programme finally delivered two tonnes of maize to Chokwe yesterday. But a WFP official, Lindsey Davis, said there were no plans to send purification equipment. "That's a problem. Water is a big problem," she said.

Felix Nacimiento is one of the die-hards refusing to leave Chokwe. He survived the flash flood by climbing on to a school roof, where he stayed for five days. Yesterday he sat next to a large pool of floodwater, washing the mud from a dismantled fan.

"We survived the floods. Why should we leave now?" he said. "Nothing will make me leave, even another flood. I will just climb up again, but this time I will remember to take some food."

Mr Nacimiento's house was shin deep in the mire when the waters receded. He shovelled out the dirt, washed the walls as best he could and put his furniture out on the road to dry. "Everything is destroyed in this town. Look at the school. They were repairing it and now all that work is wasted," he said.

The water tore down buildings and uprooted telegraph poles. Part of the town is under water, and the fields that fed its 60 000 residents have turned to marsh.

Near the school, a corpse lies in the middle of the street. Someone has covered it in leaves. Elsewhere, the dead have been buried in shallow roadside graves, but the stench of rotting bodies wafts from pools.

Reconstruction will take a while. The town centre was looted, partly for food and partly by opportunists. There is anger at "the pirates" - young men in boats who robbed houses during the floods. The only signs of contentment came from a few pigs, rooting in the sodden grass.

Help pours in as country counts cost


The UN says at least 250 000 are being cared for in 64 makeshift camps, principally around the Limpopo and Save rivers. The government says 1m people have been driven from their homes or have lost their crops. They will need food aid for several months while they replant and gather a fresh harvest.


14 204 people were airlifted to safety by the South African air force. Two Malawian military helicopters rescued 1 500 people. Hundreds more were saved by individuals in boats.


Yesterday 41 helicopters and 15 planes operating from Maputo and Beira airlifted food and medical supplies along a 1600km front. The helicopters include four British Pumas. Five more are expected this week. Air traffic controllers in Maputo, who have no radar, are handling a record 200 flights a day. More than 100 boats, mostly from the UK, have also been delivered, along with RNLI crews and other volunteers. More than 500 British, German, Spanish, Portuguese and French troops are already in the country. About 100 American soldiers are in South Africa to prepare for another 600 US troops expected in Mozambique this week.


Britain is the largest donor, having pledged R36m, followed by Italy, the Netherlands and the US, which is giving R20m. The UN is paying R1 100 000 for disaster assessment staff.


One-third of Mozambique's staple maize crop has been destroyed and large numbers of cattle are dead or dying. Many asphalt roads are badly damaged or swept away, including the vital route to South Africa, which is now reduced to light traffic only. The main highway north from Maputo to the port of Beira is severed in places. The same is true of the railway. Aid and internal trade have to go by air. President Chissano said reconstruction will cost at least R1 600m, and pleaded with creditors to forgive the foreign debt.


The official death toll remains 200 but will rise once the full extent of the devastation is laid bare. Already dozens of bodies have turned up in individual towns. But the final toll is unlikely to be known, because it is believed many victims near the coast were washed out to sea.


The floods have also badly hit South Africa, Zimbabwe and now Zambia. Unicef says 600 000 people are homeless in Madagascar after last week's cyclone there.