After four days trapped underground in flooded shafts, eight miners have been pulled out alive at Cricket Mine at Battlefields, near Kadoma. It is feared that dozens more are still trapped below.
The ongoing effort includes mine rescue teams from Zimplats, RioZim, AfroChine, police, government and dozens of fellow miners, who have bravely descended via makeshift hoists into the dark tunnels below to find more survivors. Those who made it out reported seeing bodies in the water.
The disaster started on Tuesday night, when a blocked waterway near the informal mines burst after heavy rain, sending water rushing into the shafts, where fellow miners say at up to 70 people may have been working.
Rescue efforts were slowed by heavy rain, which affected access to the site, which lies some 8KM off the main dirt road leading from the highway. Cricket Mine, where the bulk of miners are trapped, is on claims owned by RioZim.
The area is littered with numerous uncovered shafts, making it more dangerous for rescuers unfamiliar with the area. Shacks used by the miners line the verges of the gold fields.
Survivors escaped the water by finding higher ground inside the shafts as columns of water rushed in to the mines.
“We are yet to assess and find out if there are any more people down there who are still alive,” said the government’s deputy chief mining engineer, Tapererwa Paswavaviri, speaking at the site. “But indications are that some of the guys succumbed to gassing, that was the major cause of fatalities.”
The Centre for Natural Resource Governance, a mining watchdog, blames the Environmental Management Authority for failing to protect lives by properly decommissioning disused mines. The group said the mine should have been sealed to avoid tragedies of this nature.
Lovejoy Mbedzi said her brother Evan Chibuwe, 29, has been missing since Wednesday. “I am very sad. This mine shaft is full of boys between the ages of 18 and 30. They are so young and don’t deserve to die in this manner,” she said.
Trapped miners have no funeral cover and relatives are pleading for government assistance. “I don’t have a funeral policy, burying my child will be very difficult,” said Idah Gwangwari, 60, who lost her son Donald, 20.
Mines Deputy Minister Polite Kambamura said early signs are that the miners had illegally closed off a waterway to give themselves access to the abandoned shafts.
“They tried to block the water channel 300 metres away from where the shafts are, but there was a flood leading to their submersion.”
Government’s feeble response to the crisis has drawn public fury. The Civil Protection Unit reacted late, and those on the ground appeared poorly equipped.
Only the arrival of a unit from Zimplats sped up the dewatering of the mines. Rescue efforts were led by the informal miners themselves, who are more familiar with the maze of tunnels, and are less cautious than the formal rescuers are to risk entering the increasingly unstable shafts. The informal miners placed themselves in more danger to save their colleagues.
First, the rescue teams dewatered the shafts. By Thursday morning, some eight metres of the shaft had been drained. The teams then connected a slurry pump, which draws out mud. This allowed the very first team of rescuers to finally get access into the shafts and seek out survivors.
Early on Saturday morning, the first breakthrough came; one of the miners, Thankmore Mandimutsa, wedged in a ledge on the sides of one of the shafts, responded to calls from the rescuers.
This immediately raised hopes that more survivors could be found.
Above, officials had given up on anything other than a retrieval of bodies. The first rescue forced them to marshal more resources.
Over the few hours that followed, more miners were found. One by one, they were brought to the surface, lightening up the grim faces of the hundreds of desperate relatives waiting above.
Among those rescued on Saturday morning were two young men, Thankmore Mandimutsa and Simon Mushonga, who survived by escaping onto higher ground when the flooding began.
Will they ever go back below again after this tragedy? After surviving four days without food or water, in pitch darkness, and neck-deep in water, will these young people return to this dangerous line of work? More than 1.5 million people survive on artisanal mining, according to the Zimbabwe Miners Federation. For many, like Thankmore Mandimutsa, below, this is the only job they can get.
[Click here to read our report on the rising body count in Zimbabwe’s illegal mines]