Maj. Heinz Katzke saves hundreds of lives a day. But when the fuel runs out, and the sun goes down, the South African military pilot wearily, but reluctantly, sets his chopper back down on the tarmac at Maputo International Airport.
Each night for the past week, thousands of stranded people in Mozambique's flood zone have been left behind. "You see the people below on rooftops and trees ... and you think: will they make it?"
There is no mystery to the answer: people are drowning. What Mozambicans have difficulty understanding is why other African neighbors and first-world powers have not moved more quickly.
"There is no doubt that if these floods had hit in London or Rome, there would have been a much quicker mobilization of rescue personnel," says Ian McLeod, the frazzled spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund in Mozambique.
Three weeks since torrential rains ravaged much of the country - and five days since a fresh wall of flood water submerged towns and villages - a handful of South African helicopters and their exhausted crewmen were still carrying most of the burden of rescue operations yesterday.
Hopes were buoyed Wednesday when news broke that the United States is sending 900 troops and six heavy-lift helicopters - part of $12.8 million in aid - to help save the estimated 100,000 people who are still clinging to trees and rooftops. The nation's premier search-and-rescue team from Miami-Dade County (who have aided in disasters from the Oklahoma City bombing to last year's earthquake in Turkey) will also lend manpower.
But that assistance could take days to arrive, says Ian Howard-Williams, the man coordinating air efforts in Mozambique. And, though Britain announced Wednesday that it would contract private choppers and send in 69 inflatable boats with skilled crews, the first of those rescue resources was not arriving until today.
"It has still taken Britain four crucial days," to respond, London's Guardian newspaper said yesterday in a stinging article that condemns the government for failing to make a contingency plan when heavy rains fell here weeks ago. "It is an awful long time if you happen to be perched in a tree.... We will never know how many lives could have been saved by a quicker reaction."
"Mozambique is a long way away," defense specialist Paul Beaverquick, told Reuters from the London office of Jane's Defence Weekly.
"There's a terrible tendency to think 'So what?' These people are hanging on to trees at the moment, and 24 hours is a life or death matter for them."
But Mr. McLeod, the UNICEF official, is among those who point out Mozambique's remote location is a major factor in the delay. There are no European and North American military bases nearby, and an instant response to the crisis may simply be too much to ask. "We all knew the water was coming, but we didn't foresee just how bad it would be."
From the start, it was clear the velocity of the flood waters was stronger than Mozambique's capacity to respond to the crisis. President Joaquim Chissano has spent the past week issuing appeals for international assistance.
"We don't have helicopters," Mr. Chissano told reporters. "We have no portable bridges. We don't have enough boats, no planes, no [trucks]."
South Africa, with one of the most modern military forces on the continent, first sent five helicopters when the torrential rains hit Mozambique weeks ago. But, when the Limpopo River burst its banks and thousands of people scurried up trees early Sunday, the government was reluctant to send in reinforcements.
"We are not a very big nation, you know," said South African Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, hustling to get on a plane at Maputo airport after meeting with Mozambican officials who asked for more help. "We are poor, actually."
Furthermore, he said the logistics of controlling air traffic and supplying fuel made it impossible to bring more choppers into the devastated region of Chokwe. Aid groups were outraged.
"We can't write off the lives of thousands of people by saying: 'sorry, logistically this is just too difficult,' " fumes Michelle Quintaglie of the World Food Program. "It may mean we have to base out of other areas of the country."
South Africa released another two choppers only when the WFP pledged to pay $2.8 million in fuel to keep all seven aircraft flying for 15 days.
Zimbabwe has been criticized for failing to send help because it's busy fighting a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The dearth of rescue helicopters has led to soul-searching among the foreign media who compete for a chance to ride with military rescue crews. The space they consume could mean less space for a survivor.
TV networks, which have hired private choppers to cover the flood story, find their cameramen flying over stranded peasants. Some stretch out their hands in anticipation of rescue - only to realize that the aircraft is there to take film footage, not to save them.
"This is just horrible," one British TV journalist says, standing on the tarmac at the Maputo airport as he surveys the line of private choppers. "We are scum."
But Ms. Quintaglie and others argue that the stories and pictures of desperate people clinging to trees is precisely what was needed to provoke a political response overseas. "The media are helping. We see a direct correlation between the aid and the media coverage." She also notes that the small choppers used by media are not capable of conducting dangerous, precision maneuvers involved in a rescue. Lt. Col. Jaco Klopper explains that some peasants managed to build platforms in the trees and drag up cherished belongings - "chickens, goats, TVs, pots and pans."
"All that stuff goes flying into the sky" when a chopper lowers itself toward the survivors. "If a piece of metal hits the helicopter blades, that's it. The aircraft is in the water."
The danger is precisely what makes men like Major Katke unsung heroes of the crisis. He saved more than 800 lives in a single mission this week. "It makes your heart warm," he says. "But I am not a hero. It is my job."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society