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Floodwaters Drop Freeing Thousands

March 3, 2000

CHIBUTO, Mozambique (AP) _ The water level in the flooded Limpopo River valley dropped unexpectedly Friday, freeing thousands of people who were marooned for days in trees and on rooftops during Mozambique’s worst flooding on record.

Rescuers have saved more than 12,000 people from the floodwaters. But tragedy struck the rescue effort Friday when a boat capsized, drowning four children. And in refugee camps, many people went hungry for yet another day.

Officials expect the floods’ death toll to run into the thousands, and the collection of corpses has been hampered by a shortage of body bags. Aid officials said people stuck in trees were being driven by hunger and thirst to eat the carcasses of drowned animals and drink filthy floodwater, putting them at risk for disease.

The four children died after an inflatable boat carrying 17 refugees hit a tree and flipped over, said the boat’s pilot, Peter Britz.

Britz and 13 others clambered up a tree and got a taste of what thousands of people have endured since huge swaths of central and southern Mozambique were flooded by torrential rains last month.

``There are snakes in the trees, stinging ants, wasps and lots of mosquitos,″ Britz said after rescuers ferried him and the others to safety hours later.

``These people have been sitting in the trees all these days with these things crawling on them and biting them,″ Britz said. ``I didn’t realize what they were going through until I got stuck in a tree.″

Officials estimate 1 million people need food, medicine and other aid throughout Mozambique. Getting it to them is a logistical nightmare, with many areas still accessible only by air.

At a refugee camp outside the southern town of Chibuto, scenes of misery blended with a determination to persevere Friday.

``I lost my home, my crops of maize and beans, and 14 goats,″ says Antonio Bila, a grizzled 58-year-old farmer. ``But I’ve still got my plow.″

Ninety percent of the buildings in Machanga district, in southern Mozambique, have been destroyed, the Italian MISNA news service quoted Italian missionary Rev. Ottorino Poletto as saying Friday. Dozens of people were killed by collapsed buildings and fallen trees, he said.

``The generator and the grain mill at the mission were covered by floodwaters, and the (mission’s) students’ foodstuffs, the personal belongings, the school archive were destroyed,″ he said.

Once delivered to safety, many refugees remained hungry. Millions of dollars in aid pledged from abroad has begun arriving in Mozambique, but distribution problems seemed to be common.

Local aid officials were doling out cornmeal soup to some of the Chibuto camp’s 1,500 flood victims while ignoring many others, refugees told a reporter. One of those who went without was Anastas Macele, who lay in the dust, semiconscious from exhaustion and hunger, not far from a huge pot of simmering soup.

Mathias Chauke, whose wife Gina lay in the shade of a tree, too weak to move, repeatedly went to the aid officials with his empty food bowl and was rebuffed.

``They’re not giving us anything to eat,″ he said.

A local relief official, Agostino Lumbele, said all the camp’s occupants would be fed by day’s end.

Supply didn’t appear to be a problem. Several large bags of corn flour from the U.N.’s World Food program lay in a food depot, along with vegetable oil from the U.S. Agency for International Development and cases of canned sardines. More food was being offloaded from helicopters a half-mile away.

Rescues in the Limpopo valley had been expected to take three or four more days, and the receding floodwaters came as a welcome respite for weary crews. Lt. Col. Jaco Klopper, commander of the South African air force’s rescue operation, said Friday that rescue workers thought most people caught by the Limpopo flood had been moved to safety.

``We will send out three aircraft (Saturday) to comb the area to make sure,″ he said.

The air force pilots who have been the backbone of the rescue operations have earned widespread respect.

``The South Africans ... are real heroes,″ Mozambican Foreign Minister Leonardo Simao said. ``It is touching to see this solidarity unfold.″

Mozambican officials, meanwhile, said U.S. troops expected to arrive in Mozambique soon were likely to be based in the central city of Beira. U.S. Embassy officials declined to say where the 600 U.S. soldiers being sent from Europe along with helicopters and other rescue gear would be based or when they would arrive.