By Phyllis Mbanje
Many sad and disturbing stories have been told and continue to be told about Cyclone Idai, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of people in Zimbabwe and neighbouring Mozambique. For 15-year-old Noah Zimbeva, a survivor of the devastation, the experience remains unique to him and his family.
A Form Three student at St Charles Lwanga School, one of the worst affected, Noah is still struggling to come to terms with the night of horror when he witnessed the death of two fellow pupils and a security guard. They were apparently crushed to death by rolling boulders set loose from the nearby mountains in a mudslide by the raging storm.
Speaking from his parents’ home in Budiriro 4 in Harare last week, Noah said he was clear about one thing: “I do not want to go back to that school. How can I ever sleep in those dormitories?”
When The Standard crew arrived at the family house, Noah dressed in a red Tshirt and a baseball cap, depicted the picture of any other teenager, engrossed with his laptop, one of the few items he managed to salvage.
“I only came with my books because they are important to me,” he said matter of factly.
Soft-spoken and easy-going, Noah is, however, having trouble putting behind the traumatic experience, which lasted for almost four days. Flanked by his doting sister Isabel, Noah narrated the events of the night with the innocence of a child.
“Before the fateful Friday it had been very windy. We had heard about the cyclone, but we did not even imagine it would turn out that way,” he blinks as memories come rushing back.
His young mind obviously is still processing the events and he grapples with the feeling of loss of his school mates.
“On that Friday it was raining heavily and when we retired for the night it was still raining.”
Little did the 190 or so boys know that nature was about to play a cruel game on them in their sleep.
A massive rock, which was perched on top of a nearby mountain, was apparently dislodged by the rains and rolled down gathering momentum as it neared the school dining hall.
The 26-year-old school security guard, who was in the dining hall, never had a chance to call out for help or to warn the sleeping boys as the rock smashed through the building proceeding further into the nearby dormitory housing Form One pupils.
“We had no idea of the calamity at the juniors’ dormitory, only to wake up when the boarding master called out to us. He said he needed help in getting out the Form Ones who were still trapped,” said Noah.
According to Noah, one of the boys, Munashe Jena, who later died, was trapped under the mud and another boy was trying to get him out but he got injured as well and was also trapped.
“But people managed to get him out, but it was too late for Munashe and the other boy,” he recalled.
In the morning they saw the dogs which the security guard normally moved around with roaming around the school.
“We didn’t know then that the guard had been killed as well. His wife sent a message asking if anyone had seen him. He was only discovered when another pupil who had gone to collect plates saw blood and alerted the teachers,” said Noah.
Meanwhile back home, Noah’s mother Priscilla Zimbeva had no idea that her son was in trouble.
“On Friday around 10am the deputy head Sir Mapunga posted on the parents’ WhatsApp group informing us of the rain and that power was gone,” she said.
Around 6pm in the evening she tried to get in touch to enquire about the situation, but all phones were out.
“My son has a small mobile phone that we use to send money for him on Ecocash, but it was off as well. We assumed because there was no power the batteries had drained,” she said.
But the next morning she woke up to terrible news. Social media was on fire about the disaster at the school, but the number of the deceased pupils was exaggerated.
“Messages from other groups were claiming that 20 pupils had died and some even said 50. That totally gutted me. I screamed and ran into my other children’s bedroom. I showed them the messages and we all started panicking,” Zimbeva said.
Her daughter Isabel went on Facebook and the Charles Lwanga’s school story was all over.
“As a mother my insides turned upside down and I even started having diarrhoea. I could not believe what was happening. I imagined my young boy all alone or even buried under the mud. No parent should ever go through that,” said Zimbeva.
She tried calling her son, but couldn’t get through.
“Around 8am I saw a call me back and I called that number quickly. I was so relieved to hear my son’s voice. He told me he was fine, but that they were still at the school,” said Zimbeva.
“His first words were ‘mum, look for another school for me’. The kids slept at school and because they were afraid to sleep in the dormitories they put up in the classrooms, including the dead and the injured.”
The next day (Sunday) there was no sign of help and the teachers and their students set off for Skyline about 5km away.
With the assistance of some locals they carried the dead on makeshift coffins and started off on the treacherous terrain.
“It was very cold and we were often hungry and some teachers went back to get bread and juice, but the bread was going bad,” Noah recalled.
When they arrived at Skyline the place turned out to be a nightmare since it was also inaccessible and they were once again stranded.
Meanwhile, social media was awash with falsehoods which were unfortunately corroborated by the government’s Information ministry saying that the children had been rescued by the soldiers when in fact they were marooned at Skyline.
“On Monday morning some teachers told us in texts encouraging us to make as much noise as possible to get assistance since no help was coming,” Noah said.
The teachers said they were now walking to Chipinge because the children were in bad shape.
“But on the way they met soldiers who threatened them forcing them to go back. They said it would portray a bad picture if the world got to know the truth,” he said.
The kids were finally ferried to Chipinge in buses and then to Mutare, where they spent Monday night before they finally got to Harare.