Ayanda and the twins run side by side along with the raging river. They are filled with horror. They run barefoot on mud, faster than the river that has taken their beloved Sthembiso. There are drenched by rain, Ayanda’s nightdress and the twins’ onesies sticking to their bodies.
“Baba!” the girls scream.
“Sthe!” Ayanda cries out.
Their hearts carry mere ounces of hope as they run to the bridge downstream. They hope to find Sthembiso clinging on to something – a log or the pillar of the bridge. But all hope is vanquished as soon as they get there. The river is flowing way over the bridge. They search around, in disbelief that the roiling water has drowned the structure. There were houses near the bridge – but the river is now flowing where they were standing just a few hours ago.
They had supper with the Ndlovu family after coming back from church on Good Friday. But now there is only the roiling river where the Ndlovu house used to be.
Ayanda and the twins shiver in the rain, in a state of deep shock. They quickly realize that no human being can survive being taken away by a river with this much fury, this much power. They wail with their outstretched arms pointing to the river. It’s like they are begging the torrent.
The pain in their hearts and bodies is so intense that even if the river were the most heartless of human beings it would have a change of heart and spit out their beloved Sthembiso. But this is a river. You can’t stop a river when it has burst its banks.
* * * * *
Amahle and the emergency crew help those stranded along river banks throughout Umlazi. They move on as soon as people are safe on higher ground. In G Section, mere minutes after they have moved residents to higher ground, a river takes their homes.
The radio crackles as soon as the crew files into the truck again: “Need you to attend to Power neighbourhood immediately,” says the voice.
“We need more help on the ground! We are overwhelmed! We need Sea Rescue and SANDF!” Nolwandle shouts into the mouth piece.
“Okay. I’m on it,” says the radio operator.
Nolwandle turns to the rest of the crew at the back of the truck. “I need everyone on their A game,” she says. “We are heading to Power. Things are really bad there!”
They hear the raging river a kilometre before they reach Power. They are supposed to cross a bridge but it’s been swallowed by the river. There is no way to get across. They get out of the truck and start moving people standing too close to the water. The sound of the river reverberating in the valley worms into Amahle’s ears. She knows that sound will forever stay in her mind. The sight of it – brown, roiling, moving at speed, with waves like an ocean – will also never leave her mind. The river seems to be the emotion that is anger, brought to life.
Above the noise is another sound that she will never forget: the anguish of a woman and her two daughters. Twins in onesies cling on to their mother, all of them wailing, too close to the roiling river.
“Baba!” the girls cry out.
“Sthe, come back to us!” the woman screams at the river.
These two cries alternate, echoing in the valley.
Two female emergency crew members gently move Ayanda and the twins away from the bank. Silver emergency blankets are draped over them; their vital signs are checked. They are given the first stages of trauma counselling.
Amahle can see that the family still have their eyes firmly fixed on the torrent. She can see clearly that their eyes wish, hope and expect their Sthembiso to rise out of the water unscathed.
Amahle is taking photos from high up in the truck, but this scene is too heart-wrenching for her. She moves the camera off Ayanda and the twins. She takes photos of surroundings. A car submerged with just the roof visible is not far off.
The lens of her camera becomes blurred. She fidgets with the focus button and wipes the lens with a dry cloth but the lens is still blurred. It takes a moment for her to realize that it is in fact her tears that have blurred her vision. She takes a moment to sob inside the emergency truck.
The rain stops. Amahle collects herself and joins Nolwandle and the rest of the emergency crew by the banks. She finds them gathered in solemn discussion.
“The river takes them and leaves them there,” says one member of the emergency crew, pointing to a bend in the river. “Last time there were floods we fished out bodies from upstream right there.”
“They are just bodies now,” says Nolwandle. “No person can survive this force.”
The water recedes quickly to reveal limbs sticking out of reeds and mud. The emergency crew use their hands to dig the bodies out.
There are two children, a man and two women. The bodies are pulled through the water of the same river that took their lives. None of them have visible injuries. Now that the bodies are clean it looks like these people will speak. But a human being is never this still, this peaceful.
The wailing of bereaved families shakes Amahle and all members of the emergency crew. But it’s only when the government mortuary trucks leave with the bodies that the emergency crew can afford to break down. They all have their heads bowed inside the truck, crying.
Amahle takes photos. The river has receded drastically. It hardly makes a sound now – there’s just the trickle of a peaceful stream.
Tell us: Have you read or thought about rescue work from the point of view of the emergency workers, like this? Could you do this work?