Kids scrape for remaining rice inside a pot at a displacement centre in Beira, Mozambique, last week. Nearly a fortnight after Cyclone Idai hit coastal Mozambique and swept across the country to Zimbabwe, the death and destruction continue to grow, making it one of the worst natural disasters in southern Africa’s recent history. Themba Hadebe AP

Beira, Mozambique- Her surname is Chuva, which in Portuguese means "rain". For four days that was all she saw as she clung to her rooftop in the cyclone's aftermath and prayed to be saved.
Maria Chuva clasped her five-year-old daughter, Amiel, to her tightly as she recounted the panic of opening her front door to water that came up to her neck, and scrambling with her family to the roof.

Now, after elbowing her way onto a rescue boat for a bewildering journey with her two girls to the inundated port city of Beira, she paused in the din of a displacement camp to reflect on losing everything but her children - and the splintered families now around her. The orphans are especially hard for her to bear.

“It hurts me so bad,” she said.

An estimated 900000 children have been orphaned or separated from their families, made homeless or otherwise affected by Cyclone Idai, half of the 1.8million people impacted overall, according to Mozambican government figures.

The children crowd displacement camps, sleeping rough on plastic tarps on bare brick floors, or on the wooden benches of crowded schools.

No one yet knows how many are orphaned, just as no one knows how many people in the cyclone-hit countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi are dead or missing.

Families were separated in the chaos. Many children lost a mother or father, or both.

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“We are concerned about children who were orphaned by the cyclone or became separated from their parents in the chaos that followed,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of UN children's agency Unicef.

Initial assessments in Beira indicate that more than 2600 classrooms have been destroyed and 39 health centres impacted. At least 11000 houses have been totally destroyed.

“This will have serious consequences on children's education, access to health services, and mental well-being,” Fore said.

“The situation will get worse before it gets better,” Fore added, warning of diseases like cholera, malaria and diarrhoea “which can turn this disaster into a major catastrophe”.

In a bare gymnasium in the Samora Machel secondary school in Beira, at least 12 children are orphans, said Juta Joao Sithole, who represents the nearly 350 people from the town of Buzi who shelter there.

He said the orphans are very young.

He feels for them keenly. His own two children, ages nine and seven, are still at home in Buzi after he was plucked from a rooftop after three days without water and food and flown to Beira. With communications completely down, he has no way of reaching them or knowing how they are.

When the orphaned children approach with questions, Sithole uses tough love and deflection: Eat this. Sleep here. Go play.

“When they ask about their parents, I tell them, ‘Please keep quiet’,” he said. He tells them stories and jokes instead.

It is too difficult to talk about death. “Children are children,” he said. “They don’t know anything. I treat them like my own.”

For more than a week after the cyclone, a seven-year-old girl waited with her older sister at the school, injured and bewildered by her mother’s absence.

Finally her mother appeared at the school. By then, she was so traumatised, she couldn't say her name.