Blantyre, Malawi – Four days after Grace Mastala was forced to flee her home at the foot of the hillside Soche Quarry community in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, she is still searching for her 13-year-old son, dead or alive.
Mother and child were separated by Cyclone Freddy, a record-breaking storm that made its way to the South African country and its eastern neighbor Mozambique last weekend.
Since Thursday, more than 300 documented deaths have occurred in both countries and nearly 90,000 people have been displaced as their homes were swept away.
Mastala, who works as a housekeeper, was on her way home around 11 a.m. Monday when mudslides swept down Soche Hill and interrupted her journey.
“It was right in front of me, it was scary,” the mother-of-two told Al Jazeera on Thursday. “Fortunately, some people from the area who ran away managed to grab my daughter, but my son was never with them.”
The World Meteorological Organization has said the cyclone that formed off the northern coast of Australia in February before making its way to southeast Africa could be the longest-lasting storm in the southern hemisphere.
In neighboring Mozambique, officials say at least 20 people have died since the cyclone made landfall in the port city of Quelimane on Saturday night.
‘We need help’
Freddy, now gone, caused widespread devastation in Malawi, including critical infrastructure. Roads have been closed and power poles have toppled, the Electricity Generation Company Limited (EGENCO) said.
Malawi has declared a state of emergency.
“Even though the cyclone has dissipated, the country is expected to continue to receive heavy rainfall along riparian areas likely to cause flash flooding,” a statement from the Department of Disaster Management Affairs, DODMA said on Thursday.
Schools are also closed in Blantyre and throughout the southern region of Malawi. As a result, 165 camps have been built in schoolyards and classrooms across the city to provide shelter for affected households.
Malinga Namuku, the manager of the Manja Primary School camp in the heart of the city, said benefactors and non-profit organizations have provided a lot of support in the form of food and clothing.
“We hope that more support will continue to come, because there are just too many people here,” he said. “We have asked the government to find us somewhere with tents set up, because we do not know how long people will stay here, because schools also have to continue, especially for exam classes.”
During a visit to the affected areas on Wednesday, President Lazarus Chakwera declared a 14-day national mourning period.
In his speech, Chakwera said he authorized the release of 1.6 billion kwacha ($1.5 million) to help the cyclone-affected Malawians.
“I can already tell you that this money will not be nearly enough,” he said. “The devastation we are dealing with here is greater than the resources at our disposal.”
The president appealed to the international community to “please look upon us with such a favor because we need help”.
Some individuals, multinationals, and also the United Nations and the United States Agency for International Development are beginning to offer some relief.
The United Nations said in a statement on Wednesday that it supported the establishment of an emergency operations center in Blantyre for humanitarian coordination between the government and NGOs.
The UN said it also provides “critical logistical support, including transport for search and rescue operations and transporting humanitarian workers, equipment and supplies to communities cut off by floods and landslides, as well as medical supplies and equipment to improve infrastructure for water and sanitation to meet immediate health needs”.
‘Feels like a nightmare’
Many of the 5,000 people who have taken refuge in Manja are distressed. Some have lost their homes and barely escaped alive.
Yohane Pangani, also from Soche, managed to escape just before mudslides engulfed the house he shared with nine family members.
“We have lost everything, our home is gone, but we are thankful that each of us is still alive and that we all came to this camp,” said the 25-year-old.
Before leaving the area, Pangani worked with his friends to rescue seven people, including a pregnant woman, buried in the mudslides. He was due to start training at a teacher training college in Blantyre in April, but now has to wait longer as the cyclone has disrupted life in the town.
Belita Freyal, a 45-year-old mother of six, was at the market Saturday selling vegetables when she saw the floodwaters approaching. She panicked and fled, leaving behind all her goods and sustaining injuries in the process.
The floods washed away her vegetable farms, the main source of income for her family, and she is now worried about how to pay back the debts she took on for her business.
“I’m glad my family is safe, but I’m also worried because the business has been bread and butter for my family, given that my husband is out of work,” she told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Mastala arrived in Manja on Monday afternoon with only one child by her side and has been searching for the missing child ever since.
“I don’t know where my son is,” she said gloomily. ‘I’ve just come from Queen Elizabeth [Central Hospital] to see if perhaps he was treated in the wards. I even went to the morgue to see if I could find his body there.”
Bodies were brought to the camp earlier in the day for survivors to identify. Her son was not there.
It is difficult for Mastala to navigate through the ruins left behind by the cyclone, but it is made worse by the knowledge that her son has yet to be found and that her family is homeless.
“I just can’t afford to go through with this,” she said as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Where will I even go when it’s time to leave camp? It all just feels like a nightmare.”