As waters recede, town tries to bury its dead and renew its life


Even from 100 feet in the air, the stench rises up to meet you. It is the smell of putrefaction, of all things rotting, animal, vegetable and human, as a town buried under water emerges again from the receding waters of the Limpopo river.

Rotten crops, bloated animal carcasses, even human remains, all stinking under a hot sun. The smell grows in waves as our helicopter comes down to land next to huge pools of stagnant water.

This is Chokwe, a town of 50,000 people, which has just spent a week under water and is now slowly drying out. Last week when I flew over this town, it was under five metres of water. Half a church, a few roof-tops and the top of a sugar factory were all we could see. Chokwe's inhabitants had fled, if they were able.

Now the receding waters are disappearing as steadily as they came. The damage they caused is clearly visible. The waters rose so high here that even the first-floor flats over the shops were flooded.

Tangleweed chokes the higher bars of the climbing frame in the children's playground. The main street we walked down yesterday was crumbling but dry, while the shops and houses languished in floodwater that was no more than ankle-high.

Just as we were growing accustomed to the smell, it rose to new levels of awfulness. A truck sped by carrying the corpses of the dead. The driver wore pink rubber gloves as he headed for some higher ground chosen to serve as a makeshift cemetery.

Normal life has reasserted itself quickly here. Street traders hawk sandals and Surf, Coke cans and cashew nuts, plus a few small fish from the river. Shopkeepers are busy scrubbing out their premises.

An old woman bends over in a fetid puddle to wash the straw mat on which she sleeps. Nearby, men amuse themselves by setting up impromptu car-washes in pools of water. Outside the local supermarket, workers are using the dirty water to wash down shelving and scales and other shop equipment. There is no sign of the food, and the premises are irredeemably smelly.

The sound of gunfire suddenly disturbs the mid-afternoon peace. A heavily armed soldier has discharged his AK47 to scare away onlookers as two bags of money are carried to the bank across the road. He fires two more shots into the air to push home the point, but this only attracts more onlookers.

A mile down the road, by the waters of the Limpopo, more than 2,000 flood survivors are camped in appalling conditions in a former community centre. Men lie listlessly on dirty floors while sick babies cry and the women cook. These people have lost everything and are severely weakened by their experiences of the past week. They are, in the words of one aid worker, an epidemic waiting to happen.

The Irish agency GOAL is due to begin distributing food supplied by the World Food Programme today. Water is everywhere, but there isn't a drop you would dare drink; yet the road is full of women carrying huge buckets of river water on their heads. The Limpopo may be brown and foul, but at least it is better than the cesspools around the town.

Chokwe is ripe for outbreaks of cholera and dysentery, until clean water becomes available. Down by the river an American missionary has erected a tub the size of a small swimming pool. Laboriously, he drains bucketfuls of water from the river and strains them through a sock. He plans to link this water up to a mobile chlorination unit. It is a small project but at least it's a start.

Reuters adds:

The death toll is expected to reach several thousand as disease takes its toll and rescuers discover more bodies in isolated areas, a UN official said yesterday.

A spokesman for UNICEF made his prediction as more rain was forecast and a high-tech US military force sought to bring order to frantic international relief efforts. However, the special humanitarian representative to Mozambique of the UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, said it was too early to give an accurate figure on deaths.