Malawi flood survivors cry out for aid

NSANJE, Malawi - Frantic scenes greeted a military helicopter as it landed to deliver aid in a village after severe floods left 176 people dead and 200,000 homeless across Malawi.

Flood survivors, sheltered in a local school in the village of Chimbulika in the far south of Malawi, rushed to get their hands on food and supplies as the chopper neared the schoolyard.

"It's a great relief to hear that sound of the helicopter because we know it is bringing food," said 58-year-old Modesta Basikolo as she made her way through the crowd of about 1,000 people.

Chimbulika is located in the worst-hit district of Nsanje which has been turned into a land of islands and lakes, with scores of people stranded on small patches of dry land.

These areas are now reachable only by helicopter or four-wheel drive vehicles.

The chopper made two turns, delivering blankets and a total of 80 bags of flour - but that only amounted to one plate per family.

It was not enough, said Basikolo, who chairs a village protection committee that is settling the survivors at the schoolyard camp.

The government and aid groups have been "too slow to respond with relief items and food to this emergency," she said.

"The people are barely surviving," Basikolo said. "It's tough here." "Can one helicopter bring enough food for everyone here?" Rice farmer Matemba Bauleni, 63, was rescued with his two grandchildren by boat.

"We are begging the government to treat this as an emergency. We have not eaten for several days since we were rescued."

In the village, where classrooms have been turned into a temporary shelter, survivors have no cooking utensils, firewood or running water. They sleep on cement floors and use pit latrines that have been dug outside.

Paul Puleni, a medical activity manager for Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) - which has set up mobile clinics in the area - said there was "a need for good sanitation in terms of clean and safe water".

"We anticipate outbreaks as a result of the floods, so health education is important because one case of measles equals an outbreak," he told AFP.

'It was hell'

The survivors share their horror stories of the sudden torrent of water and the stream of floating bodies that followed.

"I could not believe what I saw," said fisherman Jossam Mangawe, 44. "I am still haunted by this."

Eliza Gift, 21, said Malawi had seen floods before, "but this time around, it was hell".

"Within an hour, the whole area where there were villages, our gardens and schools became a lake. We saw people being swept away as I, my husband and child, clung to a tree for two days."

She said her husband pleaded with private boat owners - who are charging up to $10 to rescue stranded people, a small fortune in a region where many work as subsistence farmers and fishermen - to evacuate them and pay them later when they find money.

"There are still people stranded out there on higher places, but these boat owners want money upfront. It's a desperate situation," she said.

With four schools in the area turned into camps and another four under water, classes have been cancelled.

"We have nothing," said Bright Chipojola, headmaster of one of the flooded schools. "We lost everything. The schools lost everything."

He pointed to a lake in the distance where his school buildings used to be: "Until Monday last week, there was no lake."

Fisherman Medison Manuel, 28, said his boat was swept away by the floods.

"With that boat gone, my life is in tatters. I don't know how I will survive from now on."