A visibly shaken Thinkmore Madimutse was the first survivor to be retrieved from a flooded shaft at Silver Moon mine yesterday four days after disaster struck in the gold-rich Battlefields area.
Madimutse was among several miners that were feared dead after Cricket and Silver Moon mines were flooded on Tuesday night following a dam wall collapse nearby.
“It’s tough underground, guys,” were the few words that he uttered as he emerged from the shaft in the morning amid jubilation from relatives of the missing miners.
The relatives have watched in frustration as the rescue effort led by fellow artisanal miners moved at a slow pace.
Madimutse estimated that at least 20 miners had died underground and a few were still alive.
As he left headed for a tent pitched for survivors, the rescue team brought 26-year-old Simon Mushonga to the surface and he had a gripping story to tell about how they survived the disaster.
Mushonga said part of the mine where they were trapped in was not immersed in water as feared by rescuers.
“The tunnel we had used to get into the mine is the one that is blocked by rubble and water, but the area we were in had no water,” he said.
Mushonga said they could hear the humming of generators and pumps, giving them hope they would be rescued.
“We could hear the pumps humming and this gave us hope,” he said.
“We felt that people had not forgotten about us and we also kept pushing trying to find a way out, it was a torrid time for us.”
Madimutse said of the 20 he suspected to have died underground, none had drowned.
“It was not the water, it’s just an issue of carbon, it was not the drowning, it’s just the carbon,” he said.
The eight survivors were weak and their feet turned white as they removed the gum boots they had worn for over four days.
One of the survivors emerged from the shaft clinging to a bag of gold ore that he insisted he would take to the hospital with him.
There were no health professionals to check on the survivors as they emerged from underground, but police officers were on hand to interview them.
For some time, the survivors sat in a tent as they gave police officers details of their missing colleagues and narrated their experience underground.
The rescue operation was led by fellow artisanal miners who bravely went down the shafts to retrieve their colleagues.
Zanu PF officials clad in party regalia were at the scene, but their only contribution was to pose for pictures with the rescued miners.
Madimutse said had the rescue effort been done timely, more people could have been saved.
“I could hear from the other side of the shaft voices and sounds from people hitting against the wall,” he said. “I don’t know if they are still alive.”
The Civil Protection Unit’s response was poorly co-ordinated and this saw tempers at the mines flaring.
Top mining companies, including Zimplats and AfroChine, provided pumps and generators as well as engineers who assisted in the rescue efforts.
Mashonaland West provincial administrator Cecilia Chitiyo, said she was happy with the response.
“We have experts and engineers coming from government and conglomerates who are helping in the rescue and retrieval operation,” she said.
Chitiyo said medical staff and churches were counselling relatives of the trapped miners.
On day four government was appealing for fuel, body bags and food donations for the ongoing operation.
One the trapped miners Jabulani Ndlovu’s relatives sat patiently under a tree and seemed to be losing hope after the eight survivors were brought to the surface.
Ndlovu’s heavily pregnant wife Chipo Mushava was forced to return home because of her health condition and left her sisters to keep vigil.
“Nobody has been giving us information,” said one of Chipo’s sisters, Sarah.
“This hurts because all we keep hearing are rumours. We have been here since Tuesday and no information has been given to us about the rescue operation.”
Chegutu West MP Dexter Nduna said the disaster was a wakeup call for the government to improve the working conditions of artisanal miners.
“Artisanal miners last year contributed 21 tonnes of gold to Fidelity Printers, while the big guys only did 11 tonnes,” he said.
“The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe should, therefore, use just 30% of what it collects to capacitate these miners and ensure that we improve on safety.”
Relatives said the trapped miners were caught unawares as they went about their routine work in the shafts, some of which are 100 metres deep.
“They should give us the chance to go into the pits because we know the pits better than them,” Mazongo said, as the sound of water pumps clearing the shafts hummed through the air.
Carlos Daka, who also mines in the shaft but was not working on the fateful night, said he considered himself lucky, but was grieving for his colleagues.
“I am in tears because most of the people trapped down there are my age — between 21 and 23 years of age — so really it’s so painful that they are trapped,” he said.
Kazius Zvikiti (94) said of his two missing sons, Xavier (47) and Marlon (35): “I am old and I was relying on my children for survival. I don’t know how I am going to survive without them.”
Charles Mwenye, a 41-year-old survivor, said four of his friends were inside the shaft. “I could have been the one trapped underground too,” he said.
“When I was on my way out of the shaft, I saw a flood coming straight in. Thank God, I am alive. The police came yesterday and today, but nothing has been done. All my hope is lost now.”
Mwenye said he and his friends earned a living as illegal gold miners since 2015 in areas surrounding the northern province of Mashonaland West.
Zimbabwe’s economy has collapsed in recent years, forcing thousands to try to feed themselves and their families by excavating in areas abandoned by major commercial companies. It is dangerous and physically gruelling work.
Kadoma and nearby areas are rich in gold deposits and popular with the artisanal miners who use picks and shovels and generator-powered water pumps. The makeshift shafts and tunnels can easily collapse in the rainy season when the ground is soft.
The miners, known locally as makorokoza, or hustlers, usually work at night using torches and can disappear into shafts and tunnels for more than two days.
The Centre for Natural Resource Governance, a mining watchdog, blamed Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency for failing to protect lives by properly decommissioning disused mines.
The NGO said the mine should have been sealed to avoid tragedies of this nature.
Lovejoy Mbedzi said her brother Evan Chibuwe (29) had been missing since Wednesday.
“I am very sad. This mine shaft is full of prople 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).
“I’ve been waiting since the day he went missing, hoping he would come back to me.”
Gold is the largest foreign currency earner for the struggling Zimbabwean economy and this makes illegal gold mining attractive to unemployed young people.
Fatal mine accidents occur frequently, though rarely on this scale.
Illegal gold miners last year contributed significantly to the record bullion output of 33 tonnes in the southern African nation. They sell their gold to a central bank subsidiary or private buyers.
— Additional reporting by Reuters/The Guardian