As the floodwaters drop in Mozambique, the priority now is to get food, clean water and medicines to the scattered makeshift refugee camps.
By CHRIS MCGREAL in Maputo
Dozens of helicopters and about R250m of other supplies were finally dispersed across Mozambique yesterday as the operation to rescue flood victims from imminent death turned into a massive airlift to feed and shelter them.
The British and other contingents arrived with boats, life rafts and other sea rescue equipment besides helicopters. But over the weekend the flood waters dropped sharply and large numbers of those who were trapped were able to walk to safety.
With conditions in many of the makeshift refugee camps deteriorating, logistical difficulties loomed over fuel supplies and lack of coordination.
The threat from cyclone Gloria has receded after it broke up over Madagascar, killing an estimated 30 people there.
But meteorologists are predicting heavy rains early this week which could again flood the Limpopo and Save rivers, hampering the relief effort and again swamping homes.
About 60 helicopters and planes, including four British Pumas flown via South Africa, are now either working in Mozambique or are expected shortly. About 600 American troops are also on their way.
While the international assistance was being gathered last week, the presumption was that it would be dedicated to plucking stranded Mozambicans from trees and roofs, as the South African air force had been doing for days.
The priority now is to get food, clean water and medicines to the scattered camps.
Some house 50 000 people, many with malaria. Others are sheltering just a few hundred. At least 250 000 people will require regular supplies of food until they can replant their swamped fields.
The World Food Programme has 8 000 tonnes of food stockpiled in Mozambique and says the problem now is how to distribute it, with roads and railways wrecked by the floods. Much will be dispersed by helicopter, and possibly some by boat to smaller or more remote riverside communities.
The United Nations is trying to persuade people not to return to their homes immediately, because of the threat of further flooding, and because it will be much harder to distribute food and clean water to dispersed communities.
"We are trying to discourage them from going back by giving them support in the camps," said Ross Mountain, the UN special humanitarian envoy. "But we recognise that it's a very human reaction to want to get back to your home as soon as possible."
Rescue workers began recovering the first bodies from Chokwe, one of the towns worst hit when water surged down the Limpopo river more than a week ago. Among the victims discovered by Médecins Sans Frontières was a man who had been chained because the locals said he was "violently insane".
"When people are walking into their homes they are finding a body or a dead relative," said Chris Horta of MSF. "As water levels fall, bodies emerge. There is news of a lot more along the main road and also in the fields."
Aid agencies have criticised a lack of coordination among the foreign contingents. The UN, which is overseeing the operation with the Mozambique government, concedes that there are problems.
"Things are coming together. There's no such thing as perfect coordination, but this is now under control," Mr Mountain said.
-- The Guardian, March 6 2000.