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Tenaciously, Mozambicans hang on

Some 5,000 people were rescued as of yesterday; 100,000 await help.

Churning flood waters rose around Helena Simiao and her eight-year-old grandson as they clung to the upper branches of a tree for one horrifying night and day, singing hymns and praying.

"We sang the whole night through," recalls Mrs. Simiao. "There were many people in other trees, and we sang to each other.... We wanted to comfort each other."

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South African military helicopters have plucked Simiao and at least 5,000 other people to safety during one heroic rescue after the other since Sunday. Yesterday, television cameras captured a woman being saved moments after she had given birth in a tree.

The frail Simiao is among thousands now gathered in the refugee camp in this northern town. And Mozambique's national disaster institute said at least 100,000 people were still waiting to be rescued yesterday, trapped along tiny spits of land, on roof-tops, and in trees.

Three weeks of heavy rains and a cyclone had already devastated much of Mozambique when the mighty Limpopo river burst its banks late Saturday, sending fresh waves of flood waters coursing through the rural area of Chokwe, some 60 miles north of the capital city of Maputo. Mozambique's president said more water released from the man-made Lake Kariba in Zambia and Zimbabwe would reach Mozambique in the next few days, hitting areas previously unaffected by the floods and Cyclone Eline.

"We speak of 1 million people on the move at the moment," President Joaquim Chissano told reporters yesterday.

From the air, the damage is plain to see. Water stretches for miles over farmland that fed thousands of rural families. Newly paved roads are submerged. In places, only telephone poles stick out a few feet above the water line.

In a country where 83 percent of the population relies on the land for a livelihood, some impoverished peasants are so reluctant to leave their valuable cattle behind that they have refused to board helicopters, taking their chances on a piece of high ground. Others who were rescued have returned to their homes again, eager to see what has become of their property.

And yet, many people in Mozambique display a remarkable will to carry on with their lives. Some people trapped in trees have been spotted building make-shift platforms, huddling up in the thick branches with bags of clothes, bicycles, cooking pots, and even goats.

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President Chissano begged for additional assistance from developed countries. "Mozambique has nothing," he said yesterday. "The world can do more."

The rescue effort received its first major piece of international assistance yesterday as Britain dispatched choppers, boats, and a corps of trained emergency workers to Mozambique. The United States delivered a military transporter full of aid supplies and donated $1 million to help pay for costly helicopter fuel.

Help can not come soon enough.

At least 200 people are already confirmed dead. The country's shaken president returned from a tour of the flooded area on Tuesday to tell journalists he had spotted bodies floating in the waters.

With just a handful of helicopters at their disposal, weary South African pilots have been forced to return to the capital of Maputo each night while desperate people wave from rooftops in a bid for help.

"We could see people in the trees as we turned back tonight," a sweat-drenched Willie Ludwick said after eight hours of live-saving duties in the back of a giant helicopter. He lifted 150 people to safety in one day.

"But I keep thinking: what if it was my wife and kids back there?"

Michelle Quintaglie, spokeswoman of the World Food Program, was one of the few who dared to spell out the shocking reality: "We are choosing who is going to live and who is going to die. Each night, we are leaving behind people that we know will not be there in the morning."

River bursts

When the Limpopo River burst, homes were submerged in less than an hour. Angelina Ngovene, an elderly farmer is among the estimated 1 million to be displaced by the floods. She saw her thatched-roof hut float away.

"We were sleeping when we heard a noise," she recalls. "We woke up, and there was the water, lapping against the hut. It was 4 a.m. I didn't have time to take anything, not even clothes. We just ran."

Murky water had reached her chest before Mrs. Ngovene made it to an elevated cement platform with throngs of other panicked villagers. When a helicopter arrived the next day, Ngovene was the only one of a dozen family members to make it on board.

"I am crying for the children of my brother," she says, blinking back tears as she talks through an interpreter in Macia. "Do you think they were saved? I am sick from not knowing."

Countless families torn apart by the floods are facing the same agonizing questions. One chopper was full to capacity and in the midst of lifting off when a woman on the ground tossed her baby up in the air. A rescue worker caught the tot just in time.

But even those who have made it into a rescue chopper are not out of danger.

Military crews, forced this week to focus solely on rescues, abandoned their original missions of delivering food and medicines. The first cases of cholera have already been reported, and the number of malaria cases is three times higher than normal.

Aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, the Red Cross, and Save the Children are all working to assist - yet refugees arrive by the thousands in camps that are without basic supplies.

The United Nations Children Fund has stepped in and is now paying for a private helicopter to run delivery missions on a full-time basis.

"There are at least 35,000 displaced people in camps," explains UNICEF spokesman Ian McLeod. "Their lives are in danger too. We need to get them access to clean water, medicines, sanitation facilities, food."

The World Food Program distributed more than 1,200 tons of food - corn meal, beans, oil, sugar, and high-protein cookies. A US military carrier arrived yesterday with thousands of blankets, cookies, water containers, and rolls of plastic sheeting that will be transformed into shelter. Help is also trickling in from other countries, including Italy, Spain, and Malawi.

Rebuilding again

Like Mozambique itself, Simiao and others in the Macia refugee camp now face the daunting task of rebuilding from scratch - for the second time around.

"In one day, we have lost it all again. This time, to the floods," says Simiao. "I am here with nothing. My cows are dead, and my land is under water."

First, a 16-year civil war destroyed this country. By the time the battle ended in 1992, rebel bandits had made off with Simiao's few possessions, destroyed much of her village, and forced her to abandon precious crops.

The country also lay in ruin but, with help from the international donors, Mozambique resurrected itself and became the world's fastest-growing economy last year. Investors poured in, factories opened, tourists returned, farmers tilled the fields, and for the third year running, Mozambique had produced enough food to feed itself.

In one refugee camp, kind-hearted women who lost all they own have assumed responsibility for the care of more than 100 children who have been separated from their parents.

In Maputo, staff at the national disaster center have been working until 2 a.m. each night. "The spirit of the people here has been incredible," says spokesman Antonio Macheve.

Prime Minister Pascoal Mocumbi says he has every confidence the country can rebuild itself again, as long as the rest of the world is ready to help. "I get determination from my own people. They have nothing ... but they ask for seeds. It shows what confidence they have in the future of this country," he says.

"We repaired our country after one human disaster - the war. We can do it again," Mr. Mocumbi adds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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