Chimanimani: Valley of the shadow of death

Villagers dig up rubble as they search for bodies of victims of Cyclone Idai in Chimanimani

BY PHILLIP CHIDAVAENZI

CHIPO Dhliwayo (30) of Rusitu village in Chimanimani is a devastated woman after a nasty encounter with the fury of nature.

The blank look on her face, long after shedding many tears over the last few days, cannot even begin to explain the pain in her soul.

On Friday last week, Cyclone Idai knocked on her door, and one of her huts caved in after failing to stand the pounding of nature, killing one of her three children on the spot. She and her husband and two other children sought shelter in the other hut.

But like an avenging spirit that cannot be appeased, the cyclone-induced storm continued to rage, and brought down that hut as well, killing the second child.

Dhliwayo, whose face still bear scratches sustained in the disaster, and her husband were lucky to escape the horrific tragedy with their youngest child, the sole survivor of their offsprings.

“I didn’t think I would survive this,” she said. “It is by God’s grace that I am still alive. But I’m heartbroken because my children are gone. All our possessions are gone. We have to start from scratch.”

The young woman is just one of the many bereft villagers who lost their loved ones and treasured possessions — in some cases whole families — to the catastrophic cyclone that also devastated Malawi and Mozambique, reducing the coastal town of Beira to rubble.

A few metres away from Skyline, a distraught father is busy digging up some brick debris after the house collapsed on his son. In another section, a few metres down a deep valley, another grief-stricken family is also burying a loved one, another victim of the heavy downpour.

The hardest hit areas in Chimanimani include Ngangu, Gonga, Kopa Growth Point, Charleshood Farm, Machongwe and Vhimba.

Ngangu, which was cut off from surrounding areas saw some marooned villagers airlifted to safety by military helicopters. The operation, however, could not start earlier due to the heavy rains and fog, according to Brigadier-General Joel Muzvidziwa of 2 Infantry Brigade, who is leading the military rescue efforts.

He said they could not make any forays into the cut-off area because of the mean weather patterns.

For other villagers, however, it was a little too late because by the time help came, they had already died. It was a sombre moment as the military helicopter started bringing in the dead bodies at Skyline, which had been turned into a temporary “command” centre.

Although Maxwell Makosi (46) was hopeful that his family members would be airlifted to safety, his hopes started wearing thin when the military helicopter started bringing in the body bags.

“To be honest, I’m not as hopeful as I was yesterday. I don’t know if my family survived,” said Makosi who had been away from home on the horror night.

These are still early days yet as the full scale of devastation and loss is yet to be quantified. Many lost their homes, property and livestock.

Cornwall Sithole (37) said he lost two uncles who were most likely swept away on their way from a beer drink.

“We have not heard from them since Thursday,” he told NewsDay, deep loss etched into every line of his face. “Chances are high that they have not survived the cyclone because they never reached home. It is difficult to reconcile myself to that, but I’ll have to accept it. Who can fight nature?”

With roads blocked by vehicles stuck in the mud, four bridges washed away, fallen trees, rock falls and landslides having become the order of the day, some villagers had to take the initiative to start searching for their relatives buried under the debris, hoping against hope that there was a chance some could still be alive.

With indications that some bodies may never be recovered given the large-scale devastation of some villages and growth points, and would probably lie forever where they fell — many here are worried about the issue of closure.

“What has happened here is tragic,” said Maria Makaya (35), who had travelled to Chimanimani from Harare after learning that her home village was at the epicentre of the cyclone.

“I tried calling my parents while still in Harare, but I couldn’t get through. So I decided to come and check, only to realise I couldn’t get past Skyline because our village is now inaccessible,” she said.

‘I am just hoping that someone from my family will be among these people that are being brought here by the helicopters.”

Muzvidziwa, the 3 Infantry Brigade commander, said the most extensive damage from the cyclone was concentrated in the Rusitu valley where mudslides destroyed homes.

“We don’t have sufficient data on the numbers of people who died and those that are missing. In fact, when the data collation is done, we are expecting the number of missing people not to be less than 500,” he said.

While many of the survivors that sustained wounds heal with the passage of time, just like reconstruction of some damaged portions of various roads in the area have started, it is the internal wounds that will probably take a lifetime to heal.

This was confirmed by a doctor leading the medical team attending to the injured.

“There are also a number of patients who may need special care in a hospital,” the doctor said.

“There is a lot of trauma. It’s one of the major things. Many of them will need psychiatric help, especially those that have lost whole families or children. So, after treating the injuries, the mental health aspects will need to be attended to.”

The cyclone appeared to have caught many of the villagers unaware when winds with speed of up to 170kph and flooding swept across south-eastern Africa, including Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, affecting more than 2,6 million people, according to the United Nations.

Other villagers felt the response to the disaster may have been too slow, something which was also confirmed by Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri, who was quoted saying government was unprepared for a disaster of that magbitude.

“We had heard that floods were coming and a cyclone, but we had not moved or done anything to help ourselves,” Muchinguri said.

“I think we as people of Manicaland have learnt a lesson and next time we will protect lives and urge people to move knowing what will happen, and we move into camps together with the government’s help.”

ACT Alliance, a coalition of 151 churches and faith-based organisations working together in over 125 countries, said in a recent report: “At least 20 000 houses have been damaged in the south-eastern town of Chipinge, while 600 others were totally destroyed. The government is struggling to cope with the huge influx of affected households as the country reels from economic problems. The affected households are now sheltered in churches and temporary structures set up by UN agencies. Several aid agencies are assisting government efforts in the search and rescue operations and in the distribution of food aid.”

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