Op Idai: Mike’s time in Mozambique
Posted by Mike Brewer 17th May 2019 RE:flections
Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins
News of Cyclone Idai
When I first heard about Cyclone Idai on 13th March, I knew straight away that this was a significant event that was going to require a large scale humanitarian response.When the request came from RE:ACT for volunteers for wave one, I was really frustrated as I had a trip to Edinburgh booked with my wife, which overlapped the deployment date by one day. I contacted Sam at HQ and told him I would be available to travel the day after wave one if that was any good. He told me to put my name into the hat which I duly did. On Monday 25th March, whilst in Edinburgh, I got the call from Sam to say that they would like me to deploy the day after the rest of wave one on the Thursday.
Time to deploy
I arrived at Chilmark early on Thursday morning expecting to fly out that day, only to be told that we wouldn’t now be flying until the Friday. Although this was to be my first RE:ACT deployment, having spent 30 years in the Police I was well used to the ‘Hurry up and wait’ situation and understood that this was inevitable.
Myself and Josh Archer, the Ops Producer, flew out from Heathrow on the Friday evening. Our bags were well overweight as we were carrying ‘delicious’ dry rations for the teams on the ground. An understanding person at the Air Ethiopia check-in desk, had a word with his supervisor, and due to the nature of our travel, allowed us to check in the bags at no extra charge.
Fourteen hours later, after a short stopover in Addis Ababa,we arrived in Maputo. As the next available flight to Beira wasn’t until Monday afternoon we had two nights sleeping on the floor of a hotel. This was good practice as I wouldn’t sleep on a bed again for four weeks.
When Josh and I arrived in Beira, Strike Teams Alpha and Charlie were already out on the ground. We heard that our team was being split to supplement the other two teams. Stef and I would be joining Strike Team Charlie in South Buzi, while Norrie and Simon would be heading out to link up with Strike Team Alpha.
Dropped into the unknown
Armed with a grid reference and minimal kit but plenty of rations, Stef and I climbed aboard a South African Army helicopter that had offered to drop us off en-route to another tasking. We were told that they would touch down, we had to jump out and they would be away. A short twenty-minute flight followed and then, true to their word, they quickly ushered us off the aircraft.
Looking around me in the quiet that followed the noisy flight, for a moment I felt the loneliest person in the world. Stef snapped me out of it, pointing at some buildings in the distance saying ‘It must be that way’. Unfortunately, ‘that way’ involved going through long grass, a thing we had been warned against due to the threat of Black Mamba snakes, which are common in the area.
With no choice, we walked carefully through until we found a mud track that headed to the village. On entering the outskirts, we spotted a blue ‘RE:ACT’ baseball cap and as we got closer we saw it was Mike and AJ from Strike Team Charlie who had seen the helicopter and were walking out to meet us.
Excited greetings were exchanged; from me and Stef because it felt like we had come in from the cold and from them because they thought we had American rations! (We didn’t)
Home Sweet Home
We followed them to what was to be our home for the next eight days. ‘Home’ had been an impressive looking single storey house before the flooding. Now it was a mess. Although the flood waters had subsided, everything was covered in mud up to the level of the windows. Holli, the team leader for Strike Team Charlie, and Keith, the medic, were there to welcome us.
Two rooms, plus a bathroom, had been cleared for us to use. We could just about fit our mosquito pods into the two rooms, while the bathroom had no running water at all. The toilet was flushed with a bucket of water.
South Buzi had no electricity but it did have a well which was working. The well was about half a mile from our new home so several trips a day were needed to collect drinking water, water to wash with and do washing in. The water we drank had to be filtered and then have chlorine tablets put in. This made it taste vile but at least it was safe. A solar shower was rigged up under a tree.
At six o’clock each evening, when the sun went down, the humidity went through the roof and plagues of mosquitoes descended on us. Knowing that many carried the Malaria virus the only option was to take to our mosquito pods and wait for the sunrise.
Helping those hardest to reach
Our days were spent in the back of pickup trucks, visiting hard to reach villages to carry out needs assessments which were then reported back. We would also collect data on such things as the number of people who died in the storm and any instances of cholera. We worked closely withother NGOs.
Saturday 6th April was a day of great excitement as the airfield, which had not been used for twenty years, was now ready to receive aircraft. A Samaritans Purse aircraft did a low pass as the pilot carried out a last minute visual assessment before banking round and coming into land. It was incredibly brave as an unseen hole or rock could have ripped off the undercarriage. The plane was quickly unloaded and the aid transferred to a nearby warehouse, which until a few days before had been a derelict factory building.
Out with the old, in with the new
After two weeks, it was time for the teams who had been part of the first wave to return home. We crossed the Buzi river in the small rowing boat, that had by now become ournormal mode of transport, before being picked up by a Medicine San Frontiers helicopter and taken back to Beira.Holli, AJ and Stef headed home and I awaited the arrival of my new team mates; ‘Bradders’, Rick and James.
Arriving in Beira on the Sunday, they were all keen as mustard to get out onto the ground and start working. We would form a new Strike Team Charlie, or as we referred to ourselves, Strike Team Saga as we were a bit older than the previous team members!
We were informed that we would be going to South Buzi, this time assisting with distribution of aid, and engaging with those receiving ‘Life Saver’ water purification cubes, tomake sure they were used correctly.
We were soon on a rowing boat across the Buzi river with the majority of our kit. We headed straight to the warehouse and after a quick briefing were in a truck to Inharangue, where distribution of Life Saver Cubes, tarps, blankets and Hygiene Kits was happening.
Arriving back at North Buzi late and with a storm coming in,the only shelter we could find for our mosquito Pods was under the canopy of the entrance to the hospital. The storm proved too much for this temporary shelter, and I woke a couple of hours later, lying in a puddle inside my pod. At about 3am we were woken by a local person shouting at us. It was only when we heard the word ‘Malaria’ that we realised he needed medical assistance and pointed the way into the hospital. He left but returned a few moments later with his mother on a stretcher looking very sick. Luckily, in the morning we were given the good news that she was on the road to recovery after receiving antibiotics.
The overnight rain had caused chaos on the already difficult roads, and despite two attempts, we were unable to get aid out of South Buzi the following day.
In the days that followed we were busy with both the distribution of aid and also receiving more aid into the warehouse by C130 aircraft.
Over the weekend we were approached by Samaritans Purse who needed our help with a joint enterprise with them, and the World Food Programme. This involved us travelling to a village called Cherimonho with tractor loads of Life Saver Cubes, Hygiene Kits, tarps and blankets. It would mean a four hour tractor journey, where we rode on the trailer with the supplies. We were delighted with our new task. Riding on the trailer had become the new norm and we were becoming quite expert at ‘hanging on’.
A school was used as a store for these items, while at the same time helicopters from the World Food Programme were flying in much needed foodstuffs. The plan was that the four members of our Strike Team would remain on site overnight to provide security, while the tractors headed back to South Buzi to return by noon the following day with more aid and a distribution team.
During this time, villagers from Baya, which was still inaccessible by road, would walk the 14km into Cherimonho to collect their supplies from us. However, a misunderstanding meant that villagers from Borongue and Nbadi also arrived at the school, wrongly believing that thiswas their collection day as well.
This meant that there were around 800 people present instead of the anticipated 350. By 1pm, with still no sign of the tractors and distribution team, frustrations began to build. With very limited communications we were able to establish that there had been technical problems and the tractors were not now expected until 4pm. At this point we were fortunate to find someone to translate for us, and using him and the Chief of Borongue we persuaded those not from Baya to leave and return on their allocated day.
By 5pm and still with no sign of the tractors we told the residents of Baya to make their way home or they would not make it before dark. This was a really difficult moment as we knew how hungry they were.
Much to our relief the tractors finally arrived at 8pm having suffered numerous breakdowns on the way. We spent an unexpected second night at the school before starting our long journey back to Beira and ultimately the UK.
Reflecting on the Op
For me on reflection I ask myself three questions:
Was it the harshest environment I’ve ever lived in? Undoubtedly
Was it the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done? Absolutely.
Would I do it again? Definitely.