MACHONGWE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Surprised members of a cyclone-hit community in Zimbabwe paused from retrieving and burying their dead to welcome the first humanitarian aid from the outside world as it arrived nearly two weeks after the storm.
Survivors in Machongwe village rushed for aid this week, 12 days after the cyclone hit, putting aside a search that is now less about finding survivors and more about properly burying bodies. The village’s commercial center was entirely swept away.
The village is one of many in Zimbabwe and Mozambique cut off since Cyclone Idai made landfall on March 14, swamping huge areas of central Mozambique and sending boulders crashing down mountainsides in Zimbabwe.
As search and relief efforts continue, no one knows how many people are missing, or dead.
“This is the first time we are getting some help,” said Justin Sungura. The 18-year-old wore a dirty replica jersey of British football club Manchester City, oversized formal trousers and worn-out cleats – the only clothing he had left.
Lucy Chidawu, a 34-year-old mother of five, held dearly to her rations while soldiers tried to restrain the shoving crowd. People received a small packet of dried fish, beans, cooking oil, salt and sugar – quantities that many people said were better than nothing.
“It will only last a week at most. Hopefully the food will keep coming,” Chidawu said. Many hungry people had resorted to eating guava fruits and cooking unripe bananas, she said.
Some people desperate for the aid crossed a nearby river on a makeshift bridge of wooden poles supported by stones.
Residents marveled at how little of normal life remained. “We used to shop, drink and play snooker here. There were shops and houses, all swept away,” Hebert Mazungu said.
The cyclone reshaped the landscape. Powerful waterfalls now rush down mountainsides that once had been forested with pine and eucalyptus trees. In some places only the roofs of homes protrude from the now boulder-strewn ground.
In another hard-hit area, the stench of death led people to bodies covered by rocks and mud. In every direction, people were digging.
A young boy worked solo, using a small shovel. He was looking for his father.
Others dug with their bare hands.
“We have found someone here,” a man shouted. It was the body of a young boy, wrapped in a blanket and buried by the mudslide. He must have been sleeping when the cyclone hit, people said.
Residents asked soldiers to take the body away because they could not identify it. The corpse was carried away in a blue body bag, leaving the blanket in the mud.
“This is a daily occurrence. We are finding bodies every day,” one woman said.
The South African government is deploying sniffer dogs to help with the search efforts, the state-run Herald newspaper reported.
Rudo Mukwada said five bodies were found under what used to be her garden. She recognized none of them as family.
“They must have been washed down here from somewhere,” she said.
She said the waters had carried her some 100 meters (109 yards) from her home.
“It was as if I was flying in a plane, it was like a dream,” Mukwada said.
UNICEF’s deputy regional director for eastern and southern Africa, Bo Viktor Nylund, visited some of the most affected areas in eastern Zimbabwe and said the children’s agency was appealing for $150 million for humanitarian aid for Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique.
The amount may increase “because some of the areas are still inaccessible,” he told reporters at a school that had become a camp for about 200 people left homeless by the storm.
Different Zimbabwean government ministries and agencies have issued conflicting numbers of deaths. Residents said they had long stopped caring about the body count.
“There are bodies everywhere,” Mukwada said, “so we just have to continue digging.”