Haunted by Idai: ‘We climbed trees or drowned’
Moz villages bear the indelible scars of a merciless cyclone. For their people the memory is still raw and immense
A PORTRAIT OF BEIRA
Cyclone Idai decimated parts of Mozambique in 2019, leaving more than 1,000 people dead and 1 million affected. TimesLIVE went back to visit the worst-affected areas a year later to see how the country and its people have recovered. Video by Emile Bosch.
THE PLACE WITH NO NAME
Begaja is a small village just under 70km, as the crow flies, from Beira. The drive is roughly 300km and takes about four hours, given that military roadblocks are frequent and the last leg of the journey is a 50km dirt road that runs parallel to the Buzi river.
In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai. Video by Emile Bosch.
At midnight on March 16 2019, the deafening sounds of floodwater raging, screaming and disorientated panic woke the village. At this point terrified residents realised they were surrounded by a mass of rising water.
They climbed trees and buildings as their village was washed away. Hope dwindled as floodwaters covered the horizon. Villagers spent three days exposed to the elements without food or drinking water.
Sixteen people from Begaja died. Homes, livestock and fertile farming grounds were washed away. Its people were left with nothing.
When the water receded, it left an indelible scar on the environment and its people, who still deal with the psychological effects and trauma today.
João Xavier Beijo, Begaja’s appointed chief, describes the daunting feeling of helplessness among his people after the previous year’s flooding.
“March 19 was the day that people came down from the trees because the water level was lower, people behaved like they were a little disturbed, kind of demented, because of the situation,” he says.
Villagers now faced a more immediate threat – food security.
“In terms of support I would like to say that we are being given food and other assistance such as plastic tarps to make small houses, and other assistance such as pots and blankets. In the case of food, organisations are providing support, but it is not enough because some families are large. since They give food monthly and the amount does not cover until another month,” Beijo says.
When the banks of the Buzi river broke, Begaja was wiped out, and survivors resettled downstream, 2.5km away. Their new settlement was on the edge of the floodplains, roughly 3km from the banks of the Buzi river, which rose by 10m.
These two before-and-after satellite images show clearly not only the extent of the damage and clear devastation of the village, but just how the far removed the village is now from its original location.
The floods left an indelible mark in the minds of the people who experienced it. It also left physical wounds on the environment. These serve as a painful reminder of the trauma and human loss.
The village has a population of 1,634. Its oldest resident, Sambapi Seana, was born in 1902, making her 118 years old. She survived the flood by being helped into a tree.
“I was born in another area called Nhangara. I started to live here when I married my late husband. I don’t remember when, but it was a long time before the civil war that lasted 16 years,” Seana recounts.
She survived the civil war, fought between 1977 and 1992, and had raised her only child while facing severe drought conditions.
“The stories I can tell ... but I’ve never seen rain and floods like the ones I saw last year. I lost almost everything due to the cyclone and floods,” she says.
Seana has taken up residence in a house on the outskirts of Begaja where she spends her days in the shade of a nearby tree, removing the pulp and seeds from cucumbers which she grinds into a flour by hand.
Day-to-day life has become a struggle as she survives by community bonds and the goodwill of her neighbours. Any form of aid needs to be delivered on foot, which is more than a kilometre inland from the new settlement, and water is carried in daily.
She describes the flooding as the worst experience of her 118 years on Earth.
A MOTHER’S STORY: FATIMA BERNADO
Cyclone Idai decimated parts of Mozambique in 2019, leaving more than 1,000 people dead and more than 1 million affected. This is the tragic story of Fatima Bernardo, of Begaja. Video by Emile Bosch.
Fatima Bernardo’s voice cracks with emotion as she recounts the loss she suffered one year ago during the flood.
Like many other villagers, she gathered her family and climbed a tree, but watched helplessly as members of her family fell one by one into the floodwaters below. Six of them died on March 16 2019, including her daughter and son. She watched them float away.
Six people from my family fell in my sight. It will be very difficult to forget what happened that day.Fatima Bernardo
“Six people from my family fell in my sight. It will be very difficult to forget what happened that day,” Bernado said.
Today she lives in a small makeshift house insulated from the elements by plastic sheeting, with her three children who survived the flood.
“After the floods things are changing a little. We are trying to recover our huts to hide from the sun and rain. The big challenges are the lack of hospitals and drinking water. We are going through difficult times because we need more support. I live with my three children and I have no husband, I am divorced,” Bernado says while seated outside her home.
Life for the mother, as the community re-establishes itself, is rife with challenges. Bernado, like many other residents of Begaja, relies on food deliveries by NPOs. She says these don’t happen frequently and often don’t cater for large families.
VOICES OF BEGAJA
Video by Emile Bosch.
THE UNEXPECTED HERO
Joaquim Filipe José’s interest in the English language was sparked as a child when he mistakenly learnt the word “standby”, which he translated by using the handbook of a friend’s TV remote. He took quickly to learning English, as he saw it as a marketable skill in rural Mozambique.
After finishing school he needed to find work and had enlisted to join the Mozambican army, but was given the opportunity to do coursework to become an English teacher instead. After qualifying, José began his career teaching English in a town near Begaja where he resides.
During the flood he climbed into a tree, his two children in his arms. He was perched in the tree with his wife and 27 others for 72 hours.
“To be surrounded completely by water, while not being able to drink or eat anything for three days. You cannot imagine the sad situation we experienced,” he says.
As floodwater subsided, Jose didn’t go on “standby”. Hearing rumours of a nearby rescue team, he rode his bicycle along a 10km path of mud and water to Estaquinha.
Once there he was able to communicate with rescue teams, arrange aid, and take his first helicopter flight to point out the location of Begaja. Without his intervention rescue and aid teams wouldn’t have responded immediately because they were unaware of the village’s existence.
He stationed himself in Estaquinha where he worked as a translator and fixer for aid workers. He was able to put aside his own trauma and get to work helping his community with pride. He had developed social tools and language skills with very little resources as a child, which was a huge benefit to his community during the disaster.
BLIND MAN’S TERROR
Mateus Chapinduca Massora has been blind since birth. The sounds of fellow villagers screaming and the rush of water were the first indications that his life was in peril. His two wives had led him and their children to a tree where he could hear the sounds of the deadly floodwaters.
“I climbed the tree with the help of my wives and they tied me up so I wouldn’t fall. We did not survive because maybe we were smart, but in the grace of God,” Massora recounts.
Having been accustomed to the layout of his destroyed home village, a year later in an unfamiliar place, a trip to the bathroom requires his son’s assistance.
MAPPING THE DEAD
When people came down from trees they began the arduous task of putting the pieces back together. There was widespread devastation and all of the area’s sparse government infrastructure had been levelled.
In the days that followed the floods huge bodies of water still occupied the countryside. Hundreds of Mozambicans had drowned and many more were displaced and unable to receive help from neighbours. Those who remained were stranded on temporary islands, surrounded by receding floodwaters.
As decay set in the need to bury the dead became imperative.
In a 5km radius the bodies of 10 people lay in nine grave sites. The youngest, a three-year-old girl, was buried with her mother, who was in her mid-30s.
Some of the sites are rarely visited since they are in inaccessible places, outside the designated cemetery, buried due to necessity.
Begaja is one of four villages located in 10km intervals down the dirt road from Estaquinha, the closest and only mapped village in the area.
Stories from Begaja reflect similar stories from hundreds of nameless villages on unmarked roads in rural parts of Mozambique, Malawi, Madagascar and Zimbabwe.
These are stories of loss, grief and the painful resumption of life.
Their voices are just a fraction of the two million people affected by Cyclone Idai.
Words: Emile Bosch and Alaister Russell
Videos and drone footage: Emile Bosch
Still photography: Alaister Russell
Group video editor: Reinart Toerien
Head of multimedia; maps creation: Scott Peter Smith