Mozambique: First the rains and now the famine

Johannesburg, South Africa. March 14 2000

BURHAN WAZIR in Beira rides shotgun in a relief lorry as it battles through mud and the musky stench of decay in Mozambique

A convoy only goes as fast as its slowest ship. Faqir is chin-deep in water, horizontal below the chassis of his aged aid lorry.

He crawls out, his face streaked with oil and dries himself with a rag. Rising water starts to flood his cabin. He shrugs. 'We will be stuck here. You have blanket?'

This is the daily reality of aid in Mozambique. An army of old vehicles has been hired locally to deliver growing stocks of aid flown by international armed forces from airports in Maputo and Beira to the stricken countryside. But the distribution of the supplies involves a tortuous journey and an agonising delay.

Faqir spends another half-hour trying to revive the engine. Finally, in desperation, he strikes a hammer against the fuel line. The engine rumbles into life. He sets off again - on the road from Vilangulu to Save, where around 20 000 refugees are gathered in makeshift camps.

The journey from Maputo so far hasn't been easy. The small tourist haven for visiting South Africans is a mere 400 miles away from Maputo. But supplies obtained by Save the Children languished there in a storeroom last weekend. Last Monday, the Belgian plane scheduled to deliver the goods was re-routed to Pretoria; on Tuesday, the pilots complained of exhaustion.

"It's very difficult getting supplies around the countryside," says Roy Trivedi, Save the Children's representative in Mozambique. "There's isn't enough transportation to begin with - and there's no point in dropping food off at a remote point if there aren't any lorries. Sometimes, the whole thing seems to work against you."

Last Thursday afternoon, the US military machine flew into Beira Airport, two weeks overdue. Three Black Hawk helicopters rolled across the skies. Below on the tarmac Major-General Joe Wehrle towered over the huddled cameramen and pronounced, with almost religious zeal: "This is a fight against Mother Nature, and sometimes nature wins. But we are here now - as soon as Mozambique's government asked us. Now it's time to get to work."

But the helicopters are only the first link in the chain. Most of the roads this far from the capital are impassable. And none of the international armed forces operating in the country - the Americans, British, French, South Africans and Germans - has thought to bring with them engineers who might have helped keep the spatchcock trucks on the road.

In Save, planeloads of food remain undistributed - and a small army of lorries struggles to cover the still flooded terrain. The road from Vilangulu is dotted with potholes; large sections of the concrete have been washed away. And while the water has receded in recent days, some sections of the road remain flooded. Faqir slowly navigates the lorry through neighbouring fields to avoid being stranded.

By mid-afternoon, it has started to rain heavily and visibility is down to five metres. The supplies - exposed in the open-top back - are starting to get wet. Faqir stops by a local farm where he procures a waterproof sheet to protect them. Three hours into the journey from Vilangulu, only five miles have been covered.

The lorry has no windows, and the rain begins to seep through into the cab and onto the floor. Down below the doorway on the passenger's side, water from the road rises through a gash on the floor. All three rear view mirrors are missing, and the speedometer permanently reads 70mph. "This is my lorry," says Faqir proudly. "Only one in town."

On the outskirts of Eseve, a small township, he stops the lorry in the middle of the street. Ahead, a lioness and three cubs are zigzagging across the concrete. Half an hour passes before the animals saunter off into the trees on the left.

There are no telephone lines between Vilangulu and Save and no way for a driver to alert relief workers of delays. Last week, Faqir's lorry tumbled into a ditch and he spent the night in the driver's seat. Villagers helped him rescue his vehicle the next morning. "This road is very dangerous," he says. But he has a wide-eyed confidence in his vehicle. "Truck is 30 years old," he says. "Always gets there."

The afternoon passes to early evening. At a little past 6pm the road ahead disappears below the waterline. It's still raining heavily and people run for higher ground.

A clutch of houses on the right is still flooded from a week ago and only the conical straw roofs are visible above the water. A cow lies dead on the grassy embankment, its legs pointing skywards. A musky stench of decaying carcasses and rotting crops fills the air.

After midnight, the truck slows outside Save; Faqir glides it down a small hillside into a clearing. As a Portuguese rescue team starts unloading the tents and medical equipment with the help of local missionaries, Faqir stands wringing his clothes. He accepts coffee from a local mission, 'Jesus Alive!', and watches his truck being emptied.

The refugees view the supplies with caution. For the past week, they have survived almost solely on military rations left behind by British boat crews. And cholera is on the rise: 12 deaths were recorded yesterday, 10 the day before. They cannot understand why the aid takes so long to come. Every day they watch helicopters flying over their heads on their way to Beira.

It has taken Faqir three days to travel 500 miles. The amenities at Save are threadbare - a tree provides us with the only shelter for the night. Huddles of refugees sleep in similar circumstances: and the volunteers of 'Jesus Alive!' battle against the prospect of more rain to keep the villagers dry. The missionaries distribute what little food they have. Back in Vilangulu, they own a factory that can produce up to 1 000 meals a day. But, as yet, the food hasn't reached Save because there are no lorries.

Next morning, some South African helicopters land at a field nearby. The villagers rush to the pilots, scanning the opened bulk doors for food and medicines. But the Orex choppers are empty of provisions, and the pilots are only on rescue detail.

Tomorrow Faqir will return to Vilangulu as another Belgian carrier lands with more supplies. The journey back to Vilangulu will take him another 10 hours; tomorrow he will return to Save - but even later.