It was the deadliest cyclone to ever hit southern Africa’s coast — but it wasn’t the winds that brought calamity. A year ago, the relatively weak, meandering Cyclone Idai made landfall not once but twice in Mozambique, both times slowly churning its way to the mountainous border with Zimbabwe. For a combined nine days, torrential rain fell across a vast region.
Landslides wiped out entire hillside villages in Zimbabwe. Many people who lived there were plunged along with their homes into rivers that soon rose high enough to sweep away yet more villages in the lowlands and deposit lifeless bodies as high up as the canopies of the trees of the flood plain of central Mozambique’s Buzi River.
At least 82 Zimbabweans were swept into Mozambique, where locals promptly buried them, thinking of the dignity of the dead, rendered unrecognizable by the vicious torrent. But family members have yearned for the bodies of their loved ones to be returned. The government made promises to retrieve the bodies, no matter the challenge of identifying them.
A year later, not one body has been retrieved, and the families that survived have all but given up hope of ever knowing the fates of their kin.
“We need closure. The truth will set us free,” said Julliet Machangira, 26, who lost her two sons, Tadiwanashe, 4, and Lovemore Maute, 12. She and thousands of others remain in camps run jointly by the United Nations and the Zimbabwean government.
“The government promised us money to go to Mozambique to do our own search, but that was the last we heard about it,” she said. “I want to talk to the locals who buried the floating bodies to identify my sons.”
After Idai, bodies litter Mozambique’s fields, and the true death toll may never be known.
The government minister tasked with repatriation and reburial, July Moyo, did not respond to repeated calls and messages.
Because of the haphazard burials that mixed bodies from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the cyclone’s true death toll is unknown, but it is likely that more than 1,000 died. Many were swept down the river to the sea, making retrieval even harder in some cases. Yet more may have been eaten by the river’s crocodiles.
Only one forensically trained body recovery specialist, Stephen Fonseca of the International Committee of the Red Cross, worked in Mozambique after the cyclone. With the help of locals, he tracked down where hundreds of victims were buried and recorded coordinates of the sites, leaving open the possibility that they could one day be unearthed and identified. But the challenges go beyond simply finding the bodies.
“This disaster was the opposite of a plane crash, where you know the passengers’ names, you know how many there were,” Fonseca said. “Simply put: not everybody will be found. We don’t know and we will never know how many were swept away, or stuck under debris in the riverbed, for instance. And even if you know where the bodies are, which ones do you exhume? How could you know which ones came from Zimbabwe?”
Heat and moisture also damage DNA over time, and most if not all of the bodies would have been subjected to extremes of both in Mozambique’s tropical climate.
Identification of the bodies might in some cases still be possible, but Zimbabwe’s promise to the victims’ families was a long shot from the start.
Kuda Ndima, 37, also lost two children during the storm — her 12-year-old son, and a baby she was five months pregnant with, which she miscarried after she was swept 300 yards downstream and hit a boulder. The sense of loss she feels is compounded by the government’s inaction.
“They lied to us saying they would help with the repatriation and reburial, but they are doing nothing about it,” she said. “We wish they could even make a grave for the unknown victims, like a memorial. Instead, they are just folding their hands as if nothing has happened.”
Moyo’s local government ministry had also promised survivors new homes, which never materialized — the same goes for many roads and bridges in the region. Along with hundreds of thousands in Mozambique, Zimbabwe’s survivors still live in camps. Most of the displaced were subsistence farmers, and the World Food Program forecast another lost harvest season ahead.
“The upcoming April-May harvest is expected to be relatively good in the region, but few of the 250,000 families whose homes were damaged by the cyclone have been able to return to their villages, let alone rebuild,” said Deborah Nguyen, a WFP spokeswoman. “Most are enduring high levels of food insecurity, meaning they do not eat enough, borrow what they can from relatives or friends, forage for less-than-nourishing wild foods, and continue to need outside help to survive.”
Both Mozambique and Zimbabwe have weak governments that rely on humanitarian aid to feed large portions of their populations, despite ample agricultural land. Successive floods and droughts have diminished output, but government mismanagement has led to widespread food and water shortages, especially in Zimbabwe.
Since the ouster of former president Robert Mugabe in late 2017, Zimbabwe has been run by Emmerson Mnangagwa, one of Mugabe’s closest allies. He has been accused of the same cronyism and patronage politics that kept Mugabe in power for nearly four decades, and his government faces steep international sanctions that have damaged the local currency and left the economy in tatters.
Mugabe is gone. But his tactics persist in Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa’s wife, Auxillia, released a statement on Sunday that marked the cyclone’s anniversary in which she admitted that little has been done to help the victims.
“A year on, we are reminded that the effort needed for survivors whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed is still enormous. There are thousands who are still in makeshift shelters who need proper homes,” she said. “There are thousands who need food and clothing and even thousands more who need economic support to engage in farming.”