On March 15, a cyclone ripped through central Mozambique. Heavy rains caused the banks of the Buzi river to break, creating an ‘inland ocean’.
Floods tore through communities, destroying everything in their path. Thousands of families, many of them with young children, sought safety on top of high buildings, waiting to be rescued.
On assignment for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), photographer James Oatway met with communities across Sofala province. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, these mothers show us what strength, courage and resilience truly look like.
Marta Domingo, 26 years old, from Barrio Desmo Primero
Marta went into labour in the Muada accommodation centre in Tica, outside Beira.
“I arrived in the camp on cyclone day. That day we suffered a lot,” she remembers. “The whole house collapsed. I was running. We were seeing all the houses collapsing. I fell when I was running.”
Marta went into labour two weeks after arriving in the camp. Her husband took her by bicycle to the nearest hospital where she gave birth to twins. One of her babies died the next day. She thinks he was injured when she fell while running to safety. She is now devoting all her energy to keeping her remaining baby, Malina Seba, alive and healthy.
“My baby boy, he has no name, I still haven’t given him a name. The villagers helped me bury him because I couldn’t be there. I am recovering, but sometimes I feel pain. I am sad. Malina is doing okay. Sometimes she doesn’t breastfeed. I don’t think she knows she lost her brother.
“If I get a future, if I go home, I will go back to farming to survive. I want my baby girl to have food and clothing. We have no money; the cyclone has taken everything. I want her to go to school. I can protect my family. Things will get better.”
Elizarda Rodina, 19 years old, from Buzi
Elizarda and her two children were saved by a helicopter after spending three days on the roof of a shop. During that time, they had nothing to eat. They were surrounded by flood water. The building was shaking under the weight of nearly a hundred people who were waiting to be saved.
“On the 19th, a helicopter came. The water had gone down. We waded through knee deep water to jump up onto the helicopter. They took the mothers and children first,” she says. “I was so relieved we were safe, but I was worried because my baby was sick.”
Elizarda’s son, Marquer Antonio is malnourished. When they were rescued they were taken to an accommodation centre in Beira and he was immediately enrolled in a therapeutic feeding programme. She is beginning to think about what the future will hold for her and her family.
“I am relieved. Now we are safe, but I don’t know what I can return to. I came here empty. We are farmers. We don’t have money. In our home, we grow our food. There, life was easy. I am thinking about returning [but] I am really worried.”
Luisa Pedro Luis, 24 years old, from Buzi
Flooding has left pools of stagnant water around communities, creating an ideal breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Thousands of cases of malaria have been reported across the disaster area.
Luisa Pedro Luis, 24, is from Buzi but is staying in an accommodation centre near the airport in Beira. She has three children. Her third child, Anna Luis, who is two years old, was almost unconscious with fever when she was referred to the central hospital in Beira. After the floods ripped through their village, they spent days on the roof of a house waiting to be rescued, surrounded by water.
“For three days, Anna has been sick. I have [been given] a malaria net inside my tent. I came here because of flooding. There was total destruction. We came by boat after spending days on the roof of a house.”
After being treated in hospital, Luisa walked 8km with her baby, back to the accommodation centre, the same evening. A few days later, baby Anna is regaining her strength and appetite and Luisa is making plans to move back to her village and begin to rebuild her life with her children.
Luisa Manchengo, 52 years old, Deuche Mille, Buzi
Luisa has spent the last month in the malnutrition ward of the central hospital in Beira with her granddaughter, also named Luisa. Baby Luisa is suffering from severe acute malnutrition and tuberculosis.
When the floods came, Luisa and some of her family climbed on top of the roof of a nearby school, where they spent four days waiting to be rescued. In the chaos of the disaster, Luisa has become separated from her 14-year-old son. She still doesn’t know where he is.
“I didn’t know if the baby would survive. There was no food, we had nothing to eat for four days. There were so many people on the roof. I saw many bodies floating in the water, I was very scared.”
After eventually being saved by helicopter, Luisa and her granddaughter were taken to hospital immediately. Now that little Luisa is getting better, her grandmother is making plans to get back to her village to find her son.
“In the hospital, Luisa started receiving treatment. She is getting better. When she is discharged, I will go back to Buzi. We don’t have anything left. I am relieved she is better, but I need to find my son.”
Rosa Zachria Montangue, 26 years old, from the Praia Nova settlement, Beira
Cyclone Idai first made landfall in the Praia Nova settlement on the waterfront of Beira. The weak infrastructure could not withstand the strong winds, which left a path of destruction. Rosa called her children inside their tiny house to take shelter. Their roof was ripped off and the rains came in.
“We kept all the children inside the house when the cyclone hit. We wanted to keep them safe. The veranda is gone. The whole roof was ripped off. We are trying to rebuild using old chappas (zinc roofing).
“I was very scared for my children. We feared death and thought the house would collapse. I am recovering myself, but I need to be strong for my children. I think they are traumatised. The situation has passed, I tell my children it won’t happen again. They are beginning to forget what happened. I hope Beira will rebuild.”
At least one million children need urgent assistance – in healthcare, nutrition, protection, education, water and sanitation – one month after Cyclone Idai devastated parts of Mozambique. More than 200 000 homes have been destroyed and Unicef estimated more than 130 000 children have been displaced.