THE port of Beira, Mozambique's second-largest city, was reduced to near-ruin by 17 years of civil war. Now it is the strategic epicenter of the regional drought relief effort.
Beira's airport, which handles only a couple of scheduled flights a week, matches the activity of a major international airport as Russian and South African transport planes take off and land in a continuous series of airlifts to towns and villages long isolated by the war in Mozambique's central Sofala and Manica Provinces.
Beira is also a vital link in the food-relief chain for landlocked Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi.
More than 825,000 tons - 22 percent of drought-related goods for the region - have been handled at Beira since April, making it the busiest of the nine ports receiving corn and other drought-relief commodities.
At the port - renovated in a $4 million project between 1986 and 1991 - ships laden with corn discharge their cargo into wharf-side bagging machines. The 110-pound bags (50 kg) of corn are then loaded by conveyer-belt into trucks which shuttle along the Beira corridor - a bustling link between the Indian Ocean and Zimbabwe and Zambia that is protected by Zimbabwean troops.
By October, the pressure on Beira was beginning to take its toll. Up to a dozen ships were waiting at anchor to unload their wares.
Despite round-the-clock operations, a berthed ship had to wait three weeks to unload.
Of the 10 mainline locomotives, only three were working. One had crashed, two were undergoing maintenance checks, and four awaited new wheels.
The full complement of trains was restored at the end of November when new wheels arrived and the South African Rail Authority, Spoornet, delivered four locomotives under terms of a contract.
The backlog at Beira was aggravated by the Mozambican government's decision to increase six-fold (from $25 to $150) the road tolls for trucks crossing the border from Zimbabwe to Mozambique.
"The authorities are reorganizing the port," says David Morton, southern Africa director of the United Nations World Food Programme.
"There is a plan to restrict the number of vessels unloading to four, which would greatly improve performance," he says.