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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 April 2019

‘Maybe he’s died there’: Residents of Mozambique's capital tortured by silence of loved ones trapped by Cyclone Idai

Maputo is a world away from the vast disaster zone but its inhabitants fear for missing family and friends in Beira

Workers at Maputo's bustling central market began Thursday like any other day, preparing their stalls and joining in a communal opening howl across the covered concourse.

The Mercado Central, like the rest of Mozambique’s capital, is operating as normal but times are troubling for many of its stallholders and customers.

A second day of mourning was under way in Mozambique on Thursday after Cyclone Idai crashed into the country's central provinces last week.

In the capital, a post-colonial Indian Ocean city far from the worst-affected areas, residents fear for the well-being of distant family and friends.

More than 1,000 kilometres north in the central coastal city of Beira, thousands have been marooned, made homeless or killed by the tropical storm – the deadliest for two decades.

For many of Maputo’s residents, grief is being compounded by a torturous radio silence from loved ones and uncertainty over their fates after more than 242 were confirmed dead in a toll that is certain to rise.

Emily Dmande, 46, a stallholder who sells cashews and tropical fruit, agonises over her missing uncle and his four children.

“I have not spoken to him because the phone is not working," Ms Dmande says. "Maybe the phone has gone into the water. I’m very, very worried. People there are dying.”

Most of Beira's 500,000 residents have no communications after the Category 2 storm tore a path of ruin through the port city, destroying or damaging telephone lines, 90 per cent of its infrastructure, 15,000 houses, 30 hospitals and 616 classrooms.

“I don’t have contact with him now,” Ms Dmande says. “Maybe he has died there. I don’t know.”

Salomao Junior, 51, at his stall in Mercado Centrale in Maputo, Mozambique, where he sells eggs, onions and potatoes, March 21, 2019. Jack Moore / The National
Salomao Junior, 51, at his stall in Mercado Centrale in Maputo, Mozambique, where he sells eggs, onions and potatoes, March 21, 2019. Jack Moore / The National

Salomao Junior, 51, has been selling eggs, potatoes and onions at his stall to Maputo’s shoppers since 1985.

The Christian considers a pastor he knows who is trapped in Beira as family, and expresses his fears for him and his congregation of 275 worshippers.

“There’s no way to ring for them because there is no power,” Mr Junior says.

“We are watching the television every day. People under the house, people under the trees. These are things that make us cry because we are fearing for their lives.”

The cyclone also left a path of destruction across neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi, and across the region the hurricane-force winds and rain have killed more than 350 people, it was estimated on Thursday.

About 15,000 people remain stranded in Mozambique and another 65,000 are languishing in emergency centres after being rescued.

The scale of the cyclone is only gradually becoming clear. World Food Programme spokesman Herve Verhoosel said on Thursday that about 600,000 people were affected by Idai, and he estimated that 1.7 million would eventually need assistance.

In Buzi, a coastal district of about 200,000 south of Beira, the principal town is still submerged, with evacuations continuing, says Guiomar Pau Sole, spokesman for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Ten thousand people remain there, Mr Sole told The National, despite a slight decrease in flood levels. But as rain subsides, tales of lost relatives emerge.

Estefania King, 34, an embassy worker in Maputo, has been luckier than others.

She had not heard from her two sisters and seven nieces and nephews in Beira for five days after the cyclone struck because of the lack of power.

One family member sent images of their home on Thursday, showing destroyed roofs and a flooded courtyard.

“Before the communication was open it was a sense of desperation, not hearing from them,” Ms King says.

“But now that they have managed to contact, I am mostly sad that I cannot do much to help.”

A stall worker selling fruit, vegetables and nuts at Mercado Central in Maputo, Mozambique, March 21, 2019. Jack Moore / The National
A stall worker selling fruit, vegetables and nuts at Mercado Central in Maputo, Mozambique, March 21, 2019. Jack Moore / The National

With the help of 120 specialists and helicopters, planes and ships, the government has rescued about 40,000 people from immediate danger, says Paulo Tomas, spokesman for Mozambique’s National Institute of Disaster Management.

The international community is now racing against the clock to deliver aid and prevent further disease and death.

Rescue workers continue to pull survivors from rooftops, trees and stadiums above the clay-brown water that has engulfed Beira.

Britain and the EU have already released funds, while the US military is standing ready to help the rescue effort, the US Agency for International Development says.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, on Wednesday offered his private B747 plane to deliver humanitarian assistance.

The UAE has already sent a 97-tonne shipment of aid and the Emirati Red Crescent has pledged $4.9 million (Dh18m) in relief funds for Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Rescue services have struggled for days to deliver aid to those in most desperate need, thwarted by an inland sea of flooding.

Nelson Sengo, 34, a money transfer agent, says residents of the capital have responded to the government's call for solidarity by donating food such as rice, sugar and oil to agencies, which take them to Beira by sea or air.

But Mr Sengo, a father of three, wants to do more for his disaster-struck compatriots. He just has to know how.

“Me and my wife have decided to do something but I don’t know where I can go," he says. "I went to search. Where can I go to do something?

Mr Junior also wants to assist, but has little idea how, apart from offering his eggs, onions and potatoes. The people of Maputo, he said, want to help their fellow country men and women who live so far away because they are “not in a very good condition” and, even if they survive, they will have to live without their homes, farmland, or livestock. “They have to start from the first things. It’s not easy,” he said.

The reality is that there is little that Maputo residents can do above offer food supplies. Mozambique’s small $13 billion economy requires the assistance of international donors, stretching from the Gulf to the Atlantic. Humanitarian workers from across the world are now flying into Beira airport, which has reopened, and what the country needs now is money for mosquito nets, tents and water purification equipment to stave off the threat of malaria and cholera, according to Mr Tomas.

For Mr Junior, he just hopes, like Ms Dmande, that he will receive the call that he has been waiting on for days.

“I am praying,” he said, “every day, all hours, I think about them.”

Updated: March 25, 2019 09:33 PM

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