Zimbabwe: Cyclone Survivors Start Picking Up the Pieces

A MIDDLE-AGED woman walks along a rugged muddy road holding a rusty shovel, singing a popular Christian hymn Hatina musha panyika (We have no home on earth).

The fringe of her thick shock of hair partly covering her eyes, she proceeds to her damaged house enclosed by huge rocks, tree branches and thick mud.

On one hand, she holds a shovel and the other a stained passport. She found the passport near her neighbour's flattened home, she later reveals.

There is something in her step that tells she has been looking among the ruins of Ngangu Township in Chimanimani for something quite different.

Then from behind, there is a shout: "Mai Makaya, where have you been? We were worried about you."

A middle-aged couple and their teenage son -- her other neighbours it transpires -- are hurrying toward her before an animated reunion ensues. They ask about her husband, and a shadow momentarily crosses her face.

"Nothing yet," she says, eyes and head suddenly bowed.

The conversation takes on a decidedly sombre tone, punctuated with loud silences during which she glances over at the Zimbabwe Independent news crew through reddened, sleep-deprived eyes.

She gathers a laboured smile, while carrying the shovel with which she had gone to dig around the wreckage in the sure but vain hope of finding her husband.

A few other people have gathered, including her brother and two of her missing husband's friends, helping clear the yard.

It is not hard to be deeply touched by such agony, stoicism and grace, which seems to prevail in this former mountainside beauty spot despite the shortages of supplies and sluggish return of lifeline following the Cyclone Idai catastrophe which killed 344 people and left 257 missing while hundreds more were injured -- at least according to the government. Villagers and relief agencies believe the number of casualties exceeds 500. There are signs of destruction, death and despair everywhere.

Mountains bear permanent scars from the landslides which, perhaps, connote the scarred lives of locals. New rivers now flow freely where people's homes once stood just three weeks ago.

The landscape and face of the earth have been disfigured in some cases beyond recognition.

"He wanted to rescue our neighbour's children when the house was hit by a rock and got swept away by the tide. He has not been seen to date," Marian Makaya explains how her husband met his fate on the night of March 16, while her two minor children whom she rescued by taking them to the roof of the house on the fateful night cling to her fatigued body.

Around the township, grown-ups could be seen frantically clearing debris as they tried to rebuild their broken, tattered lives.

Little children, oblivious of the fate some of their neighbours and friends suffered, run around, their nimble, miniature feet carrying them through the unfamiliar rocky surface.

Schools closed prematurely in the wake of the calamity.

"As you can see, we are in trouble here and we think the council must find us another place where we can build our houses. There are many people who cannot be accounted for here and we still think many are still buried under these rocks. We have buried about 70 people here," another resident who survived the disaster, 69-year-old Kingston Chimbini, says.

Down the valley of death, at a place called Peacock where Nyahodi River confluences with Nyamarirwe River -- which in real fact was a small stream that was transformed into a massive river in a matter of 72 hours -- an entire shopping centre was washed away.

Of the 13 people who were swept away at Peacock, just one body has so far been discovered. One of the shop owners, Witness Gambire (33), is still struggling to cope with the loss of his two daughters.

"The building fell on them as they slept. Before we could get in to rescue them, a huge tide came and swept everything away. I don't know how I will be able to survive from now. I am now living in a tent and I have no capital to restart my business," he says.

The road to Kopa Growth Point in Rusitu feels like a helpless plunge into the valley of death still trudged by a giant, invisible mass slaughterer.

Idai expressed its full wrath for this place, where it swept away 80 houses in one night when three flooded rivers, Rusitu, Nyahodi and Chipita, met and changed course, washing away all the houses and a police station before engulfing a banana plantation and a workers' compound.

Thick sheets of mud and rocks transported from upstream followed to seal off the place, crushing many to death.

When the Independent news crew arrived there, volunteers were still sweating in the mud, digging for bodies; some possibly already swept far afield down the local and Mozambican rivers into the Indian oceanas reports and images have shown.

Sniffer dogs, hired by the government from South Africa, had just left, but not before identifying a few dozen bodies as evidenced by pegs which stood in places where the cyclone's victims were presumed to have been buried alive.

Crestfallen people with missing relatives could be seen milling around the place hoping the next excavation would bring forth their beloved ones' bodies.

But survivors here are not willing to relocate despite the deadly effects of the calamity.

"It will be difficult for us to relocate to another area. We were born and bred here and we don't think there is another area where we can go and grow bananas. We may be sent to an area which is dry and poorer. There is a lot of water here," 66-year-old grandmother Roseline Mabuto, who lost three nieces in the disaster, says.

A spitting distance away, Joice Bodeni -- whose hut miraculously stood the test of angry storms and floods -- could be seen clearing the yard using a hoe with the help of her eldest son aged 13.

"As you can see, I am picking up the pieces and restarting my life. We were left with nothing. Out crops were all swept away and our relatives perished, but we cannot abandon our homes. We don't know what the future holds," she says.

Up and over the mountains via a treacherous 42km freshly created detour which took three hours to navigate, we visited an evacuation centre to talk to a nurse who is charged with managing the health -- physical, and, increasingly, she says, psychological -- of dozens of people who are quite literally marooned there with nowhere to go even if they had any means of transport.

"We are short of some supplies, and more people arrive each day," she says. "But we will persevere. Everyone is making extra efforts to pull together, to look forward."

As we leave, a youngster, now also living in the refuge runs over with a plastic bag containing biscuits, gold for many of those made homeless by the catastrophe.

"Help yourself," she says, smiling broadly, her manners intact despite the shattered state of her young life. She, too, we later hear, has lost loved ones.

Earlier, we had seen this community from a vantage point high above the headland. The washed-out creeks where small townships and villages once stood looked like pieces missing from a scenic jigsaw puzzle.

Helicopters bringing aid hovered above the scattered wreckage of some of those formerly vibrant little places; others could be seen delivering medical and other supplies.

Whilst still lost in wonderment, surveying the dreadful panorama, a middle-aged man approaches, asking where we were from and what it is we do. He turns out to be a local assemblyman embarking on a trip to find family and friends he has been unable to contact since the events of March 21-23.

The scale of the disaster is overwhelming, he says, amid fears the death toll in Chimanimani alone may reach 500.

"People perished in this area, we will try to do our best to locate their bodies and reset our lives," Noah Maputa (32) said as he glanced at over the destruction below, before darting off to continue with his tiresome search.

While the cyclone might have receded into the horizons, flowing rivers are ebbing and humanitarian aid coming, the storms and floods have left a dark cloud of death, crushed spirits and despair engulfing the Eastern Highlands.

For survivors, the real struggle to rebuild their shattered lives has only begun.

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