27 March 2007

Mozambique in Mourning

Unknown Weeping Woman. Alfredo Mueche/IRIN

Although people are carrying on with their regular business, the atmosphere in Maputo is a little different. Newspaper headlines highlight the most up-to-date counts on dead and injured, aid agency vehicles carrying food, supplies, and volunteers make daily treks out towards the neighborhoods that have been destroyed, and groups of sad people in their best clothing cluster together. What happened, and what the Mozambican government is going to do (or not do), are the major topics of discussion whenever two people meet.

Officially, 101 people are dead (at least that was the number of bodies delivered to the morgue so far). The city of Maputo is providing coffins for the funerals which started on Sunday. Searchers are also trying to hurry with body recovery in the destroyed neighborhoods because the high temperatures we've been having the past few days are speeding up decomposition (which will make it harder to identify remains). More than 100 children are reported missing according to the allafrica.com news. That number hides the fact that other children are among the dead and injured. The city's psychiatric hospital was destroyed (Which may explain the man with no pants or underwear and a too small tee shirt that I passed on the street yesterday. He was talking loudly to himself in Portuguese as he ran along.).

People are really upset with the government. Apparently, when some munitions (at the same depot) went off in January, the government said that they would take care of it. Well, nothing happened and now a lot of people are dead, injured, missing, and without homes. The army is cleaning things up, in cooperation with HALO. So far over 1400 pieces of unexploded ordinance have been recovered. Most of the pieces are Soviet-made BM-24 rockets (~1m long and 112kg). Some of the ordinance is too big and dangerous to move, so they are getting rid of it on site (whatever that means, I wouldn't want to be around). They also need people who read Russian (particularly former soldiers) to help with the ordinance remaining in the Malhazine depot.

The Malhazine Depot is slated to be decommissioned, but when? And what about the other 30 munitions depots in and around Maputo as well as the others throughout the country? What are the storage conditions like in these places? What will be done about the safety of local residents in the meantime? These are among the questions that many Mozambicans are asking.

My favorite quote so far has got to be the following from the now former Minister of Defense Tobais Dai - even though it has nothing to do with Thursday's debacle. Apparently, after the last explosion at Malhazine in January 2007 which seriously injured 3 people, he said it was their own fault for building their makeshift homes (i.e. cane homes) too close to the military depot. Dai was recently (as in this weekend) fired by his brother-in-law, President Armando Guebuza.

Most of what I've reported above can be read in the local papers and on All Africa news (one of the best sites I have found for reading about what is going on in Africa). BBCAfrica carried on story and a video about the explosions, but I haven't seen anything else since (it is another good source for Africa news but it doesn't necessarily have the little local stories - great pictures though). I think that it is pathetic that nothing has been reported in the US news, although the US mainstream media did carry stories about people dying in Madagascar's cyclone and the recent Japanese earthquake. I am not saying that these are not valid stories, but why only natural disasters and not a disaster caused by governmental negligence? Is it because the American public can only handle one of those at a time?

Some links to the online stories:

Mozambique: Government Negligence Blamed for Deadly Blast

Mozambique: Explosions - Death Toll Reaches 100
Mozambique: Explosions - Death Toll Now 101, First Funerals Held

The picture above has been featured in several local newspapers and I got it from the AllAfrica News site. It was taken by Sr. Alfredo Mueche at IRIN.

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