October 31, 2002

Disasters in Beira

The death toll from Wednesday's (October 30) fire and explosions at an arsenal of the Mozambican armed forces (FADM) in the central port city of Beira has risen to four, and at least 26 people suffered injuries. The arsenal is in the Matadouro area on the outskirts of the city, and is the largest military munitions depot in the central region of the country. The explosions began at about 04.30, during an electric storm, when a bolt of lightning hit the arsenal. The FADM's central regional commander, Eugenio Mussa, admitted that there were no lightning conductors protecting the arsenal. The exploding munitions destroyed dozens of flimsy houses in the neighbourhood, and thousands of people fled in panic. Since rockets were going off in all directions, the fire brigade was unable to approach the arsenal to douse the flames.

The projectiles were causing damage within a radius of five kilometres of the arsenal. A 13 year old girl, Maria Alberto, who suffered serious injuries in her left arm, told reporters from her hospital bed "an object hit me when I was trying to run away. Everybody in my house thought that some enemy was attacking the soldiers". Another victim, Mascarenhas Manuel, said that initially people confused the explosions with bursts of thunder, since a thunderstorm was raging at the time. "Only when we saw houses being knocked down, did we realise that this was a war", he said, "and by then many people had been hit". Education in Beira ground to a halt. Many parents, not knowing what was going on, were too frightened to send their children to school. One school was severely damaged by the explosions, which blew out no less than 246 windows.

The arsenal is near the Beira corridor, the road and railway from Beira to Zimbabwe, and the explosions halted all traffic. A goods train was derailed near the arsenal. The mayor of Beira, Chivavice Muchangage, urged citizens to keep calm and promised that the municipal authorities will assist those who have been made homeless. He urged everyone living anywhere near the arsenal to move to safer areas.

Less than a week ago another storm in Beira rendered 500 families homeless. The bad weather has affected other districts in Sofala province, including Dondo, Buzi and Machanga Speaking in the Mozambican parliament, the deputy head of the parliamentary group of the ruling Frelimo Party, Margarida Talapa, declared "we are facing a sudden and serious disaster in which thousands of people, from one moment to the next, have been deprived of everything they possessed". She called for "immediate and unconditional solidarity" with the victims, and Frelimo deputies immediately donated 65.5 million meticais from their own pockets (about 2,750 US dollars), to assist Beira residents suddenly made destitute.

An opposition deputy, Raul da Conceicao, criticised the National Meteorological Institute (INAM) for failing to predict the severity of the storms that have battered Beira. He also noted that the City Council has had to appeal to NGOs for assistance, because the Sofala warehouses of the country's relief agency, the National Disaster Management Institute, "contain nothing, not even plastic sheeting". (AIM)

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