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They came hungry, dehydrated and desperate.
Having been displaced from their homes in the village of Chilembene, in southern Mozambique, weeks ago when torrents of water came flooding in from the Limpopo River, they were left not only homeless but also destitute.
On Thursday, more than 700 families gathered in a field in Hokwe, a small town less than 10km from Chilembene, to collect food, water and supplies that the aid organisation Gift of the Givers was distributing. But what began as a peaceful distribution quickly turned chaotic.
The number of families in the field grew rapidly as word got out in the already poverty-stricken community that food and water were being given out at the field.
Josina Mhlanga, whose home was damaged in the floods, lost her ability to walk after she fell ill several years ago. She crawled into the field to fetch water for herself and her three children. When asked where her husband was to help her, she let out a half laugh, saying: “He is gone. Just me and the children.”
Women carrying babies on their backs, the elderly, heavily pregnant and the infirm all squashed together like packed sardines in single-row lines, waiting to be called out according to a list of the needy prepared by the administrators.
“People seem to be calling their friends, and it has now become first come, first served. We are no longer using the list; it’s full of the names of friends of the administrators. It’s a difficult situation because some of the people here don’t need the stuff,” said community leader Domingos Utui as he saw the crowd grow impatient.
Six police officers wielding whips started lashing the ground to deter the crowd from going near the 34-ton truck carrying the supplies. But the crowd grew more agitated, fearing they might not get any of the food, and charged for the truck.
The number of people had grown to well over 1 000. Police began whipping whoever they saw in front of them, but they knew they were outnumbered.
Elderly women fell to the ground during the stampede. Others started snatching bags of mealie meal from each other. Those who hadn’t received anything cried out with their hands in the air, begging for the truck to be reopened.
But the situation had got out of hand, and Gift of the Givers officials said they had no choice but to pull out before the crowd became violent. No one was seriously injured.
The stampede also disrupted teaching for the 15 teachers teaching 400 primary school pupils under trees at a nearby field. Pupils from varying schools from the area had to evacuate their schools as a result of the floods.
“Some children have textbooks, some don’t, so it is hard to assess how far some of them are in their studies. We aren’t following the curriculum for now; we are just trying to keep their minds stimulated, but we have many difficulties, as you can see,” English teacher Baltiza Zimba said, pointing to the surroundings.
As the truck pulled off to continue distribution in other areas, the crowd ran behind it. Others quickly hopped into taxis to follow it, shouting “Food! Food! Please!” - The Star