Each step forward in Mozambique last week seemed to bring new problems. Tired and bedraggled after surviving their country's worst floods in more than 50 years, Mozambicans faced a litany of fresh horrors. Those lucky enough to be rescued were living in camps where disease spreads easily and clean water is hard to come by. As many as 1,000 children, separated from their parents in the scramble to be rescued, were yet to be reunited with their families. Landmines dislodged by the raging floodwaters posed identical risk to aid workers delivering food and medicines and to farmers eager to return to their fields. And, as if Mozambicans needed reminding of nature's fury, at week's end it was raining again, at times slowing but not halting the massive relief effort now under way.
As the government tallied the human cost--212 bodies recovered (a figure that undoubtedly will rise as aid operations expand and more villages are visited), at least 1 million homeless and some 650,000 in need of food and medicines--the receding waters revealed the extent of the physical devastation. The floods have washed away at least one-fifth of Mozambique's main north-south highway and destroyed long sections of the railway line linking the country to its second-biggest trading partner, Zimbabwe. It has ruined a quarter of all crops, killed a third of all cattle and washed away entire villages.
In the town of Peg§es on the banks of the Limpopo River, the smell was over-powering: rotting vegetation and animal carcasses mixed with burning charcoal and the attendant odors of illness and disease. Toads and river snakes emerged from the waters and hopped or slithered around the edge of camp. Children threw stones at the snakes and cheered when they scored a hit. Thomas Zimba, 34, who works as a shoemaker in Johannesburg, had come back to Peg§es to visit his family. When the rains started, he decided to stay. He and his family lived on the roof of their house for five days with no food. "It's too much," he says, joining the end of a long line of people to be rescued. "Why did this happen?" His jacket fell open to reveal a shiny black shoe in each inside pocket. "These are my wife's best shoes," he said. "She may need them."
Though criticized for its delayed response, the international community is finally beginning to deliver for people like Zimba. Pledges of money--$65 million at last count--came from around the globe. The U.K., Spain and the U.S. promised to wipe out Mozambique's bilateral debts. The South African Air Force crews who had carried the rescue effort almost alone as the disaster unfolded were joined by troops, helicopters, airplanes and boats from Britain, France, Lesotho, Libya, Malawi, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the U.S., Zambia and elsewhere. The single runway at Maputo's international airport had to cope with more than 250 takeoffs and landings a day--five times the normal rate. Helicopters jostled for places to land. Private jets crowded together in front of the main terminal. Commercial flights were delayed because equipment used to offload baggage collapsed after almost constant use by rescuers.
As the huge aid operation swung into action, one of the main concerns was the possibility that the floods had dislodged some of the 1.8 million antitank and anti-personnel mines thought to be buried in Mozambican soil. "Our biggest worry is that a rescue helicopter might land on one," says Major Greg Mehall, a U.S. Marine working with the U.N. rescue effort. Some of the mines were planted 40 years ago by the Portuguese, the former colonial power, but most are left over from the 16-year civil war that followed independence in 1975. "We have been making maps for five years," says Florencio Chongo, coordinator for the U.N. advanced demining project in Maputo. "Now we have to go back to the drawing board in flood areas where much of our work may be obsolete."
Mozambicans are used to starting over. Since the war between the country's socialist government and insurgents backed by apartheid-era South Africa ended in 1992, the nation of 19 million has been steadily rebuilding. The annual growth rate has hit 10% in the past three years, the highest in the world. Though still desperately poor, the county has become a symbol of African success. Last year was the first in which Mozambique produced enough of its own food not to need outside aid. Just last month voters re-elected President Joaquim Chissano in the country's second peaceful national election. Now, says the President, "our desire is to be where we were before the end of last year. We can't stop our task of eradicating misery because of the natural disaster that has befallen us." By some estimates, reconstruction costs could be in the region of $250 million.
Already, some farmers are heading back to their soggy land to salvage what they can and to start preparing for the next planting season over the coming weeks. But the urge to get on with life may cause more problems. The rainy season in southern Africa still has two weeks to run, and aid workers and government officials worry that there could be more flooding. (Indeed, the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, east of Mozambique, was struggling to cope with its own weather-related deaths and devastation, most recently from Gloria, the now-downgraded cyclone that--on the heels of Cyclone Eline--has dumped the latest heavy rain on Mozambique.) At least 500,000 Mozambicans will probably have to rely on food aid for at least six months. "Normally people gather in large groups, which makes our job easier," says Brenda Barton, a spokeswoman with the U.N.'s World Food Program. "But here we could have people living in a lot of different areas." The floodwaters may have largely drained away last week, but the problems they brought will not disappear so easily.
With reporting by Peter Hawthorne/Cape Town