Blantyre, Malawi – Four days after Grace Mastala was forced to flee her home at the foot of the Soche Quarry community at the base of a hill in Malawi’s commercial capital of Blantyre, she is still looking for her 13-year-old son, dead or alive.
Mother and child were separated by Cyclone Freddy, a record-breaking storm that made its way into the southern African country and its eastern neighbour Mozambique last weekend.
As of Thursday, there have been more than 300 documented deaths in both countries and nearly 90,000 people have been displaced as their homes were swept away.
Mastala who works as a housekeeper, was on her way home on Monday at about 11am when mudslides came roaring down Soche Hill, interrupting her journey.
“It was right in front of me, it was scary,” the mother of two recounted to Al Jazeera on Thursday. “Fortunately, some people from the area who were running away managed to grab my daughter but my son was never with them.”
The World Meteorological Organization has said the cyclone which formed in February off the northern coast of Australia before making its way to southeastern Africa, may be the longest lasting storm in the southern hemisphere.
In neighbouring Mozambique, officials report at least 20 people have died since the cyclone made landfall in the port town of Quelimane on Saturday night.
‘We need help’
Freddy, which has now dissipated, caused widespread devastation in Malawi, including to critical infrastructure. Roads have been cut off and electricity poles have fallen down, according to the Electricity Generation Company Limited (EGENCO).
Malawi has declared a state of emergency.
“Even though the cyclone is gone, the country is expected to keep receiving heavy rains along lakeshore areas which are likely to trigger flash floods, ” a statement from the Department of Disaster Management Affairs, DODMA on Thursday read.
Schools have also been shut down in Blantyre and across the entire southern region of Malawi. Consequently, 165 camps have been built in schoolyards and classrooms across the city to provide shelter for affected households.
Malinga Namuku, the manager at Manja Primary School camp in the heart of the city said well-wishers and nonprofit organisations have provided a lot of support in the form of food and clothes.
“We hope that more support will keep coming because the people here are just too many,” he said. “We have asked the government to find us a place somewhere with tents erected because we don’t know how long people are going to be here, as schools also need to continue, especially for the examination classes.”
During a visit to the affected areas on Wednesday, President Lazarus Chakwera declared a 14-day national mourning period.
In his speech, Chakwera said he authorised the release of 1.6 billion kwacha ($1.5m) to assist Malawians affected by the cyclone.
“I can already tell you that this money will not be nearly enough,” he said. “The level of devastation we are dealing with here is greater than the resources we have at our disposal.”
The president appealed to the international community to “please look at us with such favour because we need help“.
Some private citizens, multinational companies as well as the United Nations and United States Agency for International Development have started proving some relief.
The United Nations released a statement on Wednesday indicating that it has provided support to establish an operations emergency centre in Blantyre for humanitarian coordination among government and NGOs.
The UN said it is also “providing critical logistical support, including transportation for search and rescue operations as well as to ferry humanitarian workers, equipment and supplies to communities that have been cut off by flooding and landslides, as well as medical supplies and equipment to improve water and sanitation infrastructure to address immediate health needs”.
‘Feels like a nightmare’
Many of the 5,000 people to have sought refuge at Manja are distressed. Some have lost their homes and barely escaped alive.
Yohane Pangani, also from Soche, managed to escape just before the home he shared with nine relatives was engulfed by mudslides.
“We have lost everything, our house is gone, but we are grateful that every one of us still has life, and we all made it to this camp,” the 25-year-old said.
Before leaving the area, Pangani worked alongside his friends to rescue seven people, including a pregnant woman, buried in the mudslides. He was set to begin a programme at a teacher’s training college in Blantyre in April but now has to wait longer because the cyclone has disrupted life in the city.
Belita Freyal, a 45-year-old mother of six, was at the market selling vegetables on Saturday when she saw the floodwaters approaching. She panicked and fled, leaving behind all her goods and sustaining injuries in the process.
The floods washed away her vegetable farms, the main source of income for her family, and she is now worried about how to repay debts she took on for her business.
“I am happy that my family is safe but I am also worried because the business was the bread and butter for my family, considering that my husband is out of work,” she told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, on Monday afternoon, Mastala arrived at Manja with only one child by her side and has been searching for the missing one since.
“I don’t know where my son is,” she said, sombrely. “I’m just coming from Queen Elizabeth [Central Hospital] to see if he was maybe being treated in the wards. I even went to the mortuary to see if I could find his body there.”
Earlier in the day, bodies were brought to the camp for the survivors to identify. Her son was not among them.
For Mastala, sifting through the ruins left behind by the cyclone is hard, but is compounded by the knowledge that her son is yet to be found and her family is homeless.
“I just cannot afford to move on from this,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Where will I even go when it is time to leave the camp? It all just feels like a nightmare.”