Cyclone Freddy in Malawi: Searching for my daughter-in-law in the mud

Violet Frank

Violet Frank’s two grandchildren are reminiscent of her missing daughter-in-law.

It is feared her name will be added to those of more than 300 who died when Cyclone Freddy struck Malawi earlier in the week.

The youngsters had moved in with Violet a few days earlier, escaping the fate of their mother, who fell victim to the relentless power of a landslide.

“She was with my son at her marriage home in Chilobwe. He stepped out of their house when he heard neighbors screaming and things falling with a loud bang in front of their house,” Violet said.

“Luckily he survived. He was taken to the hospital by well-wishers. But we don’t know where his wife is.”

When we met Violet she was staring at the remains of her son’s house. In the middle of the two bedroom house stood a huge boulder, the memories of it ripped to shreds.

A boulder in front of a house

Mud and debris destroyed thousands of homes as floodwaters swept Malawi

A few meters away, rescue teams recover a body made of rubble and mud. It wasn’t Violet’s daughter-in-law.

She asked one of the officers to help locate her loved one, but received no response.

“If you say so [the rescue teams] where you look for people, they don’t go there. They only recover the bodies in the less severely affected places.

“But what about our people? When will they look for you?”

Chilobwe was one of the areas hardest hit by the landslides that hit Malawi’s trading hub of Blantyre.

The advice most residents were given by authorities before the cyclone struck was to stay indoors, but that wasn’t much help.

It is not clear how many houses were destroyed in Chilobwe, but we saw huge piles of rocks and trees that had leveled people’s homes.

Other houses were washed away by floodwaters or buried under mudslides.

Areas that had once been green and bustling with small businesses were in a somber mood.

Rescue teams carrying a corpse

Rescue teams find bodies buried in the mud

There was still activity – but of a different nature, with the community helping to search for the missing.

Those whose houses are still standing carry picks and shovels to scour the rubble in search of bodies.

When we met Richard Galeta, 34, he was wearing a white hazmat suit worn by people who volunteered to bury victims. Richard buried his wife and child on Wednesday.

“I worked hard for them. Now that they’re gone, I don’t know what to do,” he said.

“The last thing I said to my wife is that this week I will give her money to visit her parents. But now I have to be the one to visit them and tell them the bad news.”

He now lives in a makeshift camp set up at a local elementary school.

Man in a white hazmat suit

Richard Galeta lost his wife and child in the mudslides

Richard said life there was not easy. He accused the operators of not taking proper care of the victims and said that getting enough food was a big challenge.

“Many organizations brought us food. But it’s only rotting in one of the classrooms that have been converted into storerooms,” he added.

Malinga Namuku, who is in charge of the camp for the Red Cross in Malawi, said they feed people but it is sometimes “difficult for volunteers to keep track of who has been fed and who has not”. “But we’re trying our best.”

At the shelter, many children were running around playing with makeshift balloons made from surgical gloves. Looking at them, it didn’t feel like a disaster area. Some experts say this is likely to get stuck in their minds later on.

dr Charles Mwansambo, Malawi’s chief health minister, said the mental health of survivors is a critical issue for authorities to address over the next few weeks.

The camp houses about 5,000 people and many others arrived hoping to find a dry place to stay.

Most of the people living in the camp have nowhere else to go and are in distress as they cannot find their loved ones.

This weather makes it difficult for search and rescue teams to find people. On some days the teams stopped the activity in the middle of the activity because it had either rained or there was too much fog.

The police, the military and international organizations, among others, are helping with the search. Police also use dogs to find bodies.

As of Friday, more than 300 deaths have been confirmed in Malawi, more in neighboring Mozambique, and more than 80,000 people have had to evacuate their homes.

The death toll is likely to rise over the next few weeks as the weather clears, making it easier for rescuers to continue their grim work.

At least 200 people are still missing – including Violet’s daughter-in-law. She just hopes her body will be found so that she can have a proper burial.

Map showing the course of Cyclone Freddy

Map showing the course of Cyclone Freddy

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