Mozambique Floods - Stoddart Interview

Tom Stoddart is an award-winning photographer, based in London and working with the agency IPG (Independent Photographers Group). Although he was involved with MSF in 1998  when in South Sudan, this was the first time Tom was on a trip dedicated to MSF.

Stoddart flew into Maputo on March 1. By March 3 he was in a helicopter flying to Maputo to connect with a truck that was heading to Chokwe. Land transport was almost impossible at that time but he managed to get a lift with a large truck that brought him to the city.

The truck was pretty much the first vehicle that could make the crossing as the waters were still running high. But this twinned entry had allowed Stoddart a chance to see the flooding from two diverse perspectives.

"From Maputo to Macia, I was in a helicopter and the flooding was still quite awesome," he said. "I had already seen the flooding on television and in pictures but it is still quite a shock when you see it. It is a lot of water.

"The photographs are all taken in Chokwe. From the air, you see the flooding but you cannot see the person on the ground. But from the back of a truck (driving to Chokwe) you pass by people who are carrying their possessions on their backs, up to their waists in this filthy water. You realise the enormity of this. This is the story that is becoming apparent now.

Remaining in Chokwe for the next four days, Stoddart was based with the MSF team there.

"I was with MSF the entire time and we were all staying at the Limpopo Hotel. MSF had a house there but it had been destroyed in the flooding so they moved to the second floor of the hotel there.

"I was in Chokwe for three and a half days. The world saw pictures from the air of dramatic rescues but I wanted to be on the ground with the MSF team.

"Chokwe was really the forgotten place. There was the Chaquelane Camp nearby. There were 58,000 people there when I left. But Chokwe was forgotten a little bit. This was where the water had been the highest in a town. As the water receded, the town started to give up the bodies of dogs, people and cows. There was a real health threat.

The evidence of flooding reminded Stoddart of the accounts he had been told of the first night of flooding and the reaction of the MSF team on the ground.

"No one was there except this four man team. The water climbed two meters in just an hour. The rain was torrential and it came like a tidal wave.

"I really cannot speak highly enough of the MSF team. On the night of the flooding, they stayed and rescued many, many lives. It was lucky for them that they had a boat and a skipper like Chris. They stayed and only came out when they were ordered to and then they went back as soon as they could. They really lived out the ideals of MSF. They stayed as long as possible and did as much as possible.

"It was 2am when the flood happened. MSF was lucky to have a boat and skipper there. But it is amazing that they were there, in the pitch dark, throwing ropes across the road so people would have something to hang on to. They were working with flashlights, rescuing people and delivering them to safety on the rooftops. This must have been something to see. And the MSF team did it again and again and again.

After the flooding, the demands on MSF remained.

"The water had climbed to about 3.5 m and dispersed pretty quickly. Health issues have quickly become apparent. As the water sank, bodies appeared. MSF had 30 body bags there and when I left they were all full.

Because the flooding happened early in the morning while people were still in their beds asleep, "there will likely be a lot of bodies, that have not been discovered, in the houses," he said.

Even when he left, the impact of the flooding had created a lasting impact on the survivors.

"There are still many living on the rooftops - a lot of them too frightened to come down again."

And there have been macabre scenes of death that remain.

"In Chimore, there was a mentally handicapped man who had been chained to an outhouse and, well he died what must have had a ghastly death. This place, slowly, is starting to give up its grisly secrets.

The flood waters have been falling for the past week but the water levels and subsequent damage is still serious.

"Eight days later, the water is still serious. Drinking water supply is now untreated flood water. MSF had cleaned 90,000 litres of water when I left but that was still too little.

"Malaria was quite present but there were no cases of cholera. Lots of malaria and diarrhoea. People appeared to be getting water.

"In the outlying areas, the water was still knee deep. People are arriving and then leaving for the transit camp, Chaquelane, about 40kms away.

"The mud (in Chokwe) is a quagmire and sticks to everything. But this is the same soil that makes the area so fertile. You plant something there and just watch it grow. But now it is covered in mud and is miserable"