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Mozambican families hunt for loved ones separated by cyclone

BUZI — She struggled home with food, her small daughter and the proof she was still alive.

Veronica Fatia huddled on a wooden boat that left Mozambique’s cyclone-shattered city of Beira for what was now the unknown: the flooded town of Buzi, which for a week people had been fleeing with little but their clothes.

Fishermen’s boats ferry Buzi’s displaced to Beira every day, sometimes scores of people in one vessel. But Fatia was going against the tide, up waters that recently carried corpses to the sea. More than a week after Cyclone Idai roared in, the muddy flood waters were still pouring off the river banks, draining what aid workers had called an inland ocean.

Cyclone Idai’s death toll has risen above 750 in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, the three southern African countries hit 10 days ago by the storm. Thousands of families swept apart by the storm are now seeking to reunite.

After a three-hour boat journey, carrying bags of rice and her 2-year-old daughter, Fatia stepped carefully out of the vessel and walked into the remains of Buzi, looking for her mother, hoping she was still alive.

She passed the Jesus Saves Bank, now closed, and by a nearby three-story building where on the rooftop residents clustered in search of signal for their mobile phones. She passed the people now living in the open along the sandy main road, cooking, building shelters and a young boy read a textbook.

Her mother might be at the school, Fatia decided. A cry went up as she approached it and people came running.

“Mama!” She was there. They embraced on a concrete walkway now littered with cooking fires and tiny children, one nodding off beside a pile of still-warm ashes.

“My home is gone, but I’m also happy because I can see my family,” Fatia said.

Her mother, Maria Antonio, said she had last seen Fatia the Tuesday before the storm. “I didn’t know anything about her,” she said. “I’m very happy to see her.”

But the fate of her other daughter, in Quelimane further north, remains unknown.

It is a common heartbreak for thousands of families in central Mozambique, who have no way to learn about missing loved ones as destroyed communications networks struggle to return. People are desperately searching for family members separated by the flooding, destruction and death brought to the area more than a week ago by Cyclone Idai. Some will not be as lucky as Fatia.

The fishing boats between Buzi and Beira are now a lifeline carrying survivors and essential supplies, braving spattering rain, rolling waves and still the punching stench of death. Near Buzi, a dog’s carcass hung from the branches of a tree.

Cut off from the world, people can easily panic. One member of the Mozambican Red Cross, Assane Paul, tried to calm a knot of people in Buzi who had heard a rumor that another cyclone was on its way.

“If you don’t answer well, we won’t eat!” The people called out as he spoke to The Associated Press.

Other residents of Buzi try to adapt however they can, from the Bible reader on the rooftop blaming the cyclone on people’s sins to the man walking down the road in soaking wet trousers. They were the only clothes left, he explained. It was very much wash and wear.

Many people were still on the move. Dozens waited at Buzi’s small pier where the fishermen’s boats pull up, bags of belongings at their feet and concern on their faces. Or they simply watch for news.

The other end of the journey is the beach in Beira. Small children and barefoot women were carried off on a fishing boat and gathered together by aid workers in a spitting rain. Some looked lost. Few carried much. One small girl stood alone, hugging herself, her eyes wide and pleading.

“I hid in the mosque,” said a 12-year-old boy, Ramadan Gulam. “I was there for a week.” He had come from Buzi with nothing but a bag of clothes and his brothers. “My father said to go because the floods would come again. … I don’t know what to do now.”

Christina Machado came with her two children and a bandage on her ankle. It was cut by a tin roof during the cyclone, she said. It was treated just yesterday.

“I’m looking for my husband,” she said. He had been working in Beira for two months. She didn’t know where she would be taken next.

Francisco Mambonda spent about a week on a rooftop with nothing to eat. He and his wife and sons drank dirty water to survive.

Barefoot, shivering and in tattered shorts, he added another plea to the growing chorus: “I don’t know what to do now.”

Emergency responders still have some hope.

As night fell and one wooden boat from Buzi approached the flickering, generator-lit Beira skyline, another passed in the dusk. It carried soldiers to their duties. Some raised their guns and cheered. AP

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