CHRIS MCGREAL reports
The first sign of life from one of the trees speckled across the vast new lake that is southern Mozambique was an arm thrust from among the leaves. The anonymous limb waved a cooking pot, not with any great vigour, for fear of upsetting the precarious balance of life under the foliage. But it was enough to catch the South African pilot's eye.
After a week of plucking Mozambicans from the worst floods in living memory, the helicopter edged in for another rescue. The gale pumped out by its rotors opened the tree like a flower, pushing the leaves and branches aside to reveal eight people perched high above the water.
It is a precarious business for everyone involved. The exhausted Mozambicans must hold on tighter than ever to prevent the helicopter's winds tossing them into the water. The pilot has to get close enough to winch down one of the crew, without letting the tail collide with the tree. It is a particularly difficult task when there are so few reference points for him to maintain his position.
Sometimes all that is visible above the waterline is the tree over his shoulder, so he must continually glance back to ensure that the helicopter is not drifting too close.
The fear of the moment was written over Celeste Libombo's face. She had little choice but to put her faith in the man lowered to grab her, but the elderly woman was still reluctant to let go of the tree. Eventually she was torn from the vegetation that had been her home for five days and hauled aboard the helicopter. She sat on the floor, stunned. Perhaps it was out of amazement at having been plucked to safety, or perhaps out of uncertainty at the deafening noise in a strange, lurching contraption.
In the upside-down world that is now Mozambique, people are not the only ones living in trees. Millions of insects seek refuge in the foliage. Libombo, whose apparent frailty belied the strength she mustered to survive in a tree, said her clothes and head were covered in bugs for days.
"Sometimes I couldn't open my eyes because the insects crawled into them. We poured water over ourselves to get them off, but they always came back," she said. "There was no food, and drinking the water made me sick.
"If you are in a tree you have to do all your private things in front of everybody. If you are young it is easy; you can climb down to the water. If you are old it is very hard to move."
Then there are the snakes. Green mambas are particularly feared as they wriggle through the water in search of safety among the trees or slivers of high ground packed with people. A good aim with a sling shot can stun a snake long enough to allow someone to beat it to death. Everyone knows that a single bite, with no means of treating it, is a death sentence.
As the survivors from the trees are dropped on the road, and the helicopters sweep back to repeat the exercise, another struggle begins. The lucky ones are merely exhausted, dehydrated and hungry. But many have malaria or have been laid low by consuming nothing but leaves and the water below their feet. The water does not look too bad; just a little muddy. But hidden in it are rotting corpses, animal carcasses and sewage washed from the village pit toilets.
Some of the rescued are wounded or have hands torn to pieces from clinging to the bark. The pilots picked up one women who had lost her nails trying to maintain her grip.
There were too few helicopters to pluck all the survivors from the flood. There were even fewer to deliver food to the growing informal camps on high ground. People are not starving yet, but food is becoming as much a matter of urgency as rescue. It is not just a case of preventing malnutrition. Bodies weakened by hunger and the lack of clean water provide a good refuge for disease, particularly in overcrowded camps. Aid workers live in fear of the first cases of cholera.
Not all the tree dwellers are grateful to see the helicopters. Some people furiously wave them away. Perhaps they fear to be tossed from the tree. It is more likely that they do not want to abandon what little they have left. From the branches, many people can see their homes. They are waiting for the waters to subside. Better to go home, rescue what you can and start replanting crops, than to end up in a camp.
But they will not have heard that a fresh torrent of water is on its way down the Limpopo and Save rivers, and that Cyclone Gloria is hovering menacingly around the Mozambique channel. The worst may yet come.
-- The Mail & Guardian, March 10 2000.