The real cost of IY’s flames

Child victims of the Imizamo Yethu fire have been drawing as a means to open up about their experience to members of non-profit Community Cohesion.

The box houses are covered in scrawls of red, orange and yellow. Some of the drawings are accompanied by text, others not. Some include human figures or those of animals, while in other portraits the space is filled by indiscriminate smears of red crayon or pencil.

All are sketched with a heavy hand, and the message is clear. Fire.

There are more than 100 of these illustrations, each representing the recollection of a child who lost everything in the Imizamo Yethu fire. It has been a little more than a month since the blaze tore through the settlement, yet it is only recently that these children have been able to manifest their thoughts and feelings on paper.

The month has weighed heavily on everyone, from those left destitute by the fire to City officials, NPOs and volunteer organisations.

But for the very young, it will be some time before they can even begin to contemplate any sense of normalcy.

Bronwyn Moore, managing director of Hout Bay-based non-profit Community Cohesion, is under no illusions about what lies ahead.

“The impact of the fire is huge,” she said.

“There has been such an impact on the 170 children we are trying to counsel. Families have become separated as men and women are accommodated in different areas. All the children had prior to the fire was their home and possessions. Now they have nothing to pin their stability to.”

Community Cohesion social workers and volunteers have been a constant presence at the marquee town set up at the Hout Bay Sports Complex. Currently, they are counselling 800 fire victims, all of whom are suffering one or more symptoms of trauma.

A check-list drawn up by the organisation shows high incidence of headaches, restless sleep, hyper-vigilance, loneliness, excessive crying, flashbacks, problems in getting on with others and dizziness.

What was especially concerning, Ms Moore said, was that many of the children housed in the marquees exhibited anti-social behaviours, which had been exacerbated by the trauma of the fire.

“The violent attitude among the kids is frightening. It believe it was there before, possibly because of parents not being there for them, but it is now being compounded. It takes a while to get through to them.”

Ms Moore said there had been three basic assumptions shattered by the event: that people could grow old safely; the belief that the world was a safe place; and other people were intrinsically good.

“We are told that there is a lot of theft going on in the tents, which shatters people’s belief in others. There is also a lot of uncertainty among the people. People are feeling unsettled. At this stage, all they want is to have their practical needs met.”

She said victims were experiencing a “protracted” impact period in the wake of the fire.

“They are living in the tents, but as long as they do so their lives can’t return to normal. This is not a normal situation, and as such we face a huge challenge. All we can do at the moment is crisis containment. Our biggest fear is that situations like these will become the new normal.”

Ms Moore paid tribute to the 36 members of Community Cohesion who had worked day and night to counsel victims.

“In the beginning they worked 24 hours a day to assist those in need, and they haven’t stopped since. There have been times when they suffered rudeness and abuse from some victims, but they continued to work with them. They are the most extraordinary people.”

A group of fire victims housed in the tents confirmed that life had not been easy in the past month.

“Things are being stolen here all the time,” said Alex Lwazi Tshezi, one of the first men to resettled at the marquee town.

“Inside the tents, we can’t sleep properly. We are always scared someone is going to steal from us. There are also a lot of sick people staying here. They don’t tell you they are sick, and then other people get sick.”

One of the more troubling aspects to emerge is an apparent factionalism in the tent community, the result of which is that some people are “taking everything for themselves”.

“There are people who make sure others they know always get the best fruit and juices or sheets and blankets. They always take the new things,” said Khutazwa Zito, a mother of a two-year-old child whom she has since sent to relatives in Khayelitsha.

“If you go to work, by the time you come back you will see your things have been stolen. Two weeks ago someone stole lots of cellphones. Another problem is the kitchen that has been set up so we can cook. If you go there, the people will tell you that you can’t cook. They only let their own people cook.”

Efforts to rehabilitate the child victims of the fire have also been undertaken by Jennifer Manikkam and Cheryl Crowie, of the Western Cape Social Workers Veterans Forum.

“What we have discovered is that a lot of children are not at school, but when we ask them why, they go blank,” Ms Manikkam said.

“So we have been trying to get them to open up. Last week, we took a group of children and mothers to World of Birds, and it was amazing to see what happened when we came back to the tents. Suddenly, the moms wanted to tell their stories.”

She said it was important for fire victims to start talking about the future.

“We are trying to unpack what’s happened, so they can rebuild their lives. I think it is important for us as a community to ask ourselves what we want for all the children of Hout Bay, as they are the future.

“We need to rethink Hout Bay. A lot of these children come from households headed by single mothers, or headed by other children.

“We need to consider their circumstances, and instead of donating toys, food and clothing, we need to get our hands dirty and really work towards improving their lives.”

She said many people had lived through fires previously, and for young children seeing the trauma on their mothers’ faces was overwhelming.

“We have been working in silos, but the time has come for us to work together.”