By Isaac Salima & Serah Chilora
Cyclone Freddy death toll has now risen to 438, Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) announced last night.
And as some of those whose lives have been spared mourn the loved ones they have lost and as they struggle to cope with life in evacuation camps, their despair is being compounded by theft of relief items being donated for their barest survival, we can report.
Reports abound that in some of the over 400 evacuation camps, people that are seeking shelter there have gone days without food — because it is not being provided.
At Kapeni Demonstration School Camp in Blantyre, people have been going without adequate food not because it was not available. Rather, we have learnt, it is because those managing the donations could not release the items, for their own reasons.
Then, Friday morning, people there woke up, hungry and hoping that the food would be released at last, only to find that the ‘store house’ where the relief items had been looted to the bare floor.
Acting on a tip, we visited the camp yesterday afternoon and gathered testimonies of how a room that was half full of relief items went empty on Thursday night.
“As we went to bed yesterday [Thursday] this room was half full of the relief items,” Dalitso Kelias, one of the people at the camp said, pointing to one of the classrooms where the goods were being kept.
“Around 3am, we heard some noise and when some of us went out we saw people taking out things like bags of maize into a nearby maize filed.
“We do not think it was a break-in but people who are managing the place could be in the know of what exactly has happened,” Kelias said.
Another person at the camp, Charles Phiri, said they saw a number of people who were removing the items from the room that night.
“I suspect that others came from surrounding villages because the items were just too many and we were surprised this morning to find that the room was empty,” Phiri said.
According to him, the place was being managed by village committee, ward civil protection committee and officials from the Malawi Red Cross Society (MRCS).
Representing Group Village Head Misesa, Ester Demula described the news as “very sad”.
“I cannot independently confirm the news because I did not spend the night there. But we have heard of what has happened. It is very sad because this place is keeping alot of people who need food aid and for someone to decide to steal the items, that’s very sad,” Demula said.
She further said police came in the morning to investigate the issue and people are waiting for their action.
“We hope that police will help us to know exactly what happened,” she said.
Limbe Police spokesperson Patrick Mussa confirmed receiving a report on the issue.
“We are currently investigating the matter and I cannot comment much because investigations are underway,” Mussa said, adding that they have since deployed officers to provide security at the place.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that police have detained some two people who were in charge of the camp.
MRCS Communications Manager Felix Washoni said officers from the organisation could not have been involved in the theft.
“Our officers were at the place to distribute some items and left to other areas for similar exercise. However, I am not aware of the issue,” Washoni said.
At the camp people we talked to said that they have not been getting adequate food support since they occupied the centre in Sunday.
“It is only some individuals who have been mobilising to give us food. But we have had to spend some days eating only one meal per day,” Angella Muhiwa, one of the people at the camp, said.
Sheelin Laher, one of the well-wishers in the community who has been providing some food to the people at the camp, said it was not surprising that the items have gone missing.
“We have had difficulties to talk to officials at the camp to release the items to the people. The camp has been receiving enough support but the things were just being stocked without being distributed to the people.
“When I came here yesterday [Thursday], this room was full with various items which were not being released to the people. We have had to confront the authorities on why they were holding the items when people were in need of them,” Laher said.
She said she and colleagues, using their own means, have at times been sourcing food for the people at the camp while there were food items such as flour in the stores.
It was unfortunate for the items to just disappear, she said.
During our visit, we found the room in question literally empty with the only items being a few bags of flour donated before we arrived.
In his address last night, President Lazarus Chakwera bemoaned the impact of the cyclone.
As such, the number of camps set up to care for the victims has had to increase from 317 to 437.
“Despite these setbacks, I am encouraged to see how resilient the victims are all over the Southern region,” he said.
He commended both local and international support that’s pouring in.
He singled out the US, United Kingdom, Zambia and Tanzania government for their support.