Picture: Jacoline Schoonees/Dirco

Beira - A very human and courageous military colonel of the SANDF dissolved into tears as he relayed to Minister for International Relations Lindiwe Sisulu on Thursday in Beira the trauma people on the ground have gone through in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai. 

It seems almost every member of the SANDF deployed to Beira to rescue people trapped in inaccessible areas since the cyclone hit has been shell shocked by their experience, most only finding the words, spoken in barely a whisper: “It is very very tough.”

As the raging muddy waters swept away mothers who were in seconds separated them from their young children, the screams of terrified children being swept away to their deaths pierced the air. 

The SANDF and Gift of the Givers raced against time to do what they could to save as many people as possible with the limited number of helicopters they had at their disposal. 

The situation was so desperate, and the helicopters so few, that the Gift of the Givers had to hire three helicopters as there was only air access to three of the hardest affected areas of Beira. 

For many stranded people, the SANDF and Gift of the Givers rescue teams were the first they saw after days without food or medical assistance.

According to the International Red Cross, many of the hardest hit communities are still cut off from outside assistance and tens of thousands are homeless, with hundreds of families separated. 

As the water levels are subsiding, communities remain stranded and completely exposed to the elements, and the extent of the carnage is emerging, and the full body count is only just beginning.  

Imtiaz Sooliman of the Gift of the Givers spoke to Independent Media on the tarmac of the Beira airport on Thursday and relayed the trauma his staff went through as they just could not save enough people. 

“The helicopters can only take so many people and so there were always people left behind. By the time the helicopter returned many were no longer there anymore and had been swept away. Our search and rescue teams also went upriver on dinghy boats and rescued far in excess of 2000 people,” Sooliman said.

Sooliman also relayed the story of how his team had witnessed a horrifying scene in which seven people had climbed up a mango tree to escape the floods, and the branch a mother was clinging to snapped and her baby fell out of her arms into the raging waters beneath. 

The baby’s body was found a day later - a horror seared into the memory of those rescue workers.

“The problem was also that the trees in Beira are not those with large solid trunks and branches onto which people could hold on, they are flimsy and sway with the wind, which made it so difficult for people to scramble to safety,” Sisulu said.

Sisulu relayed how the SANDF had let down multiple ropes once there was no more room in the helicopters and people had to grab onto the rope and literally hold on with the raging waters beneath them. 

The helicopters would then drag the people holding onto the rope across the landscape, and the hope was that they had the strength to hold on.

In Beira alone at least 33,600 homes have been destroyed, and as you fly over the affected area almost none has a roof - it is as if the roofs were peeled off like a tin can. 

There was no signs of life for kilometer after kilometer, no moving vehicles, no signs of any attempt to rebuild. With no accessible roads in the area, and bridges destroyed, people have no choice but to remain in the make-shift camps. 

According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, US$1 billion worth of infrastructure has been destroyed.

Sooliman admits that the food packages that the people have been given are hardly sufficient. 

“The reality is that the people who survived are starving, and the little that was airdropped for them is hardly adequate. They are in desperate need of medical care, water purification tablets and they own nothing - no clothes - nothing at all,” Sooliman said. 

Sooliman’s advice for people that want to help is to donate cash so that his organisation can buy appropriate food in Mozambique which will help to support Mozambique’s economy, rather than donate all different cans of food in different sizes.

The ICRC has said that the majority of people in Beira are relying on polluted water and that an outbreak of cholera is a major risk. 

There is also a significant increase in malaria. The World Health Organisation was hoping to distribute 900,000 doses of the oral cholera vaccine by the end of the week.

“This is the worst damage outside of a war situation that I have ever seen in Africa,” Minister Sisulu said. 

“When President of Mozambique Felipe Nyusi first called me after the cyclone  hit he was a very shaken man. The water levels were rising and he desperately needed assistance. He was explaining that if the dam wall broke the whole city of Beira would be gone. Today the city is destroyed and resembles a rice paddy.”

Sisulu had immediately gone to parliament and attempted to sound the distress call, although she claims the opposition did not take her distress call seriously and says it was a very unfortunate lost opportunity to mobilise the nation behind the disaster at that early stage. 

Although she says she is humbled by the remarkable response from South Africans who have made significant donations. 

South Africans have dropped off blankets, mattresses, medical supplies, water purifiers, food and money to the Department of International Relations, and these are to be delivered by the SANDF over the coming week.

Sisulu announced a donation from the South African government to Mozambique of R70 million, and Patrice Motsepe and his wife Precious also arrived by private jet into Beira, and delivered a cheque to the Government of Mozambique of R15 million. 

After surveying the cyclone affected areas in Beira by helicopter, Sisulu and Motsepe proceeded on to Zimbabwe, where Sisulu announced R60 million for humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwe, and Motsepe handed over another cheque of R15 million to the Government of Zimbabwe.

While Mozambique has been the worst hit by Cyclone Idai, Zimbabweans in the Manicaland province are enduring terrible suffering. 

Zimbabwean Minister for Local Government Jennifer Mhlanga told Independent Media that 11 bridges in Chimanimani have been destroyed and 20 schools are closed as people are using the schools for emergency accommodation.

“The worst part is that so many relatives are missing and the bodies have not yet been found. Many bodies are trapped under the rubble, and many bodies of Zimbabweans were washed downriver and washed up in Mozambique. The bodies were buried there so our people have had no closure about the whereabouts of their relatives or been able to mourn them properly,” Mhlanga said. 

The country is in desperate need of sniffer dogs that can identify where the bodies are so that people can be identified and buried.

Zimbabwe is appealing for building materials as 60,000 people have been displaced, and water purification tablets are an urgent priority given that many areas are still inaccessible and people have no access to clean water. 

When the cyclone first hit there were so many bodies being washed up in Chimanimani that people were buried in planks of wood with their names written onto the sides of the boxes with the date.

The new Zimbabwean Minister of Defence Oppah Muchinguri said in Harare on Thursday, “Climate change is real and this is a wake up call. We must not take situations for granted. The challenge now is to be better prepared and for SADC to beef up its early warning systems".

* Shannon Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor