Saved but lost - tragic children of the floods

Johannesburg, South Africa. March 2 2000

Mozambique asks: How many dead, as survivors await news of their families

By CHRIS MCGREAL in Palmeiras

There is one question at the back of most Mozambican minds at the moment. How many are dead?

The question is more than academic for nine-year-old Tania Costa. She struggled to safety as the Inkomati river consumed her home more than two weeks ago but she still does not know the fate of her family.

Her father works in South Africa but the last time she saw her mother and two sisters they were disappearing into torrential rain as they fled the water sweeping through their home village, Calanga.

Tania's family may have escaped to the other side of the river and through the flooded villages and fields. Perhaps they are still clinging to an island of high ground, or to the roof of a particularly tall building. But she could not remember ever seeing any. Perhaps the worst has happened.

"We were all running away from the water and my mother was holding my sisters and then I just couldn't see them any more. There was so much rain, I didn't even know where I was running. I saw some other people and they called to me and told me to go with them until we got to the road," she said.

"It took a long time and the water was very high. All the time I was praying to God that my mother and sisters were still alive. I'm sure they are but I just can't find them. I ask everyone, but nobody knows where they are."

The charity Save the Children said that more than half of the children it accounted for in some areas are separated from their families.

The children are one more task the Mozambican government and aid workers will have to grapple with once the urgency of rescuing the tens of thousands of people still stranded in the floods is past. For now, the well-being of many children is left to the kindness of strangers.

Tania is one of four children from four different families being cared for in the house of Maria Teixeira. All four have lost their mothers and fathers, at least temporarily. Mrs Teixeira took Tania in after she came across her sitting beside the road, soaked to the skin.

Word spread over the next couple of days, and the three other children came knocking at Teixeira's door. She could not turn them away.

"The flooding is terrible for everyone but it is worse for the children. They suffer so much. They do not understand what is happening," she said.

"I see them crying all the time because they want to be with their mothers. All I can tell them is that there is hope. If they survived then I am sure their mothers survived too."

Teixeira does not have much money. The food to feed her guests comes from her own harvest of cassava and maize. All the children sleep on a concrete floor in the same room of the tiny house. All consider themselves very lucky to have encountered such caring.

At other sites, dozens of children are crammed into a single house with only a couple of adults to look after them. But they too are lucky.

Many children are still trapped in the flooded areas. They are at even more risk than their parents because they are more susceptible to the cold that sodden clothes brings, and to being forced to drink contaminated flood water.

It is particularly bad for babies. Some can still suckle their mothers, but the women have often not had anything to eat in days. If there is an outbreak of cholera or dysentery, as some aid workers fear, the children will be most vulnerable. No one is predicting how many children will require care after the floods pass, any more than anyone knows the number of dead. But it is presumed that tens of thousands of young people, with or without their parents, will need feeding. Some will also require medical attention for wounds infected by the flood waters. Many will need new homes. Even those children fortunate to escape with their parents face a difficult time. In parts of the capital, Maputo, whole neighbourhoods have disappeared in the floods. Now two, three or even four families are crammed into a room. Save the Children has distributed blankets and cooking pots. Doctors have checked the children. But the immediate future is bleak. Tania does not look her age. Her hair is tightly bound. She looks frail and exhausted. When she speaks, it is in a tiny whisper. "Every day I go to look at the water, to see if it is going down so I can go home and see if my mother is there. She doesn't know where to look for me so I must find her. But there is still a lot of water and people say it is dangerous to go. I am not like a man. I cannot fight the water. I must wait and hope," she said. Teixeira is prepared for the worst. If any of her new charges' mothers are dead, or cannot be found, then she says she will make what is now a temporary home into a permanent one for them. "It is for the government to decide what should happen to the children who lose their families. Perhaps they have other relatives in their villages. Tania's father is in Johannesburg although she hasn't seen him in quite a long time. Perhaps he will come back for her," she said. "But if it is necessary, I will tell the government that I will look after any of these children here as if they are my own. We must all endure this together."

-- The Guardian, March 2 2000.