As Leuchars man Josh Archer stared out of the window during his flight up to the Mozambique city Beira, he could see a huge inland sea.
Two weeks earlier, that sea had not existed. It was the result of Cyclone Idai, which devastated the African nation in mid-March, killing thousands, costing billions of pounds worth of damage, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
Josh, a former member of the Royal Logistic Corps, was asked to help through his involvement with Team Rubicon, an organisation that utilises the skills of former members of the armed forces and responds to disasters in the UK and around the world.
A small team had already been deployed to the country to assess the situation and work with other NGOs. International operators, including Josh, were then called upon to help.
Josh – a self described ‘army husband’ –received the call less than two weeks after the cyclone devastated Mozambique. Within a couple of days he was travelling to Matupo, the capital, before flying up to Beira, which had bared the brunt of the cyclone’s wrath.
His role was to capture video, photographs and other media of the situation and what Team Rubicon was doing.
“The descriptions of the flooding talked about creating an inland sea – I could see it with my own eyes,” Josh said.
“These weren’t exaggerations. It’s almost an entirely flat flood plain. And I’m talking about the size of the UK, a massive area. The only place you could appreciate the scale was from the air.
“You could look out of one side and see the actual ocean, and look out of the other side and see another sea that had developed from all the flooding.
“The flooding was absolutely catastrophic. We were driving along in one section and the reeds and detritus from the flood were strung along the top of the telegraph poles at the side of the road.”
Upon arriving in Beira, Team Rubicon formed two teams with worked with other NGOs. One focused on the north side of the Buzi River, reaching communities that had not been contacted since the cyclone. The other went south of the river.
The groups would find the remote communities, take a GPS location, assess how many people there are, what the situation is, and what the needs are.
That information would then be passed up the chain, so other NGOs could see what aid would be required.
The teams would then find sites where the aid could be dropped off, secure the aid, and then help distribute it.
Josh joined the team based south of the Buzi River.
“It was the more austere environment at the time,” he said. “No power, no water, no nothing. We would move aid forward, by land, because we didn’t have access to air. We’d stage it at some of the major hubs. We moved forwards to a number of villages.
“We were out in those areas establishing those supply runs and securing the aid. We’re talking about teams of four to six people, delivering massive amounts of aid to tens of thousands of people.
“It can be quite challenging working in that environment. Even personally, when your role relies on being passive and watching what’s going on. And there were times when I couldn’t do my specific role.
“I remember one time, there was an old lady struggling to put the items in the box. I stood watching at the aid station. I remember chucking the camera down and for the next 10-15 minutes, I packed the boxes for the most vulnerable people – put the boxes on their heads, made sure they could lift it.
“We’re talking about elderly people, people with disabilities. One guy was blind. I held his hand, put his hand on the items, so he could tell what the items were, packed his box, put it on his head, and walked him back to his family.
“Sometimes, when you’re in these situations, you see these things happening a lot. But sometimes it hits you. This was one of those times. You have to take a breath and remember the impact this has had on people.”
The team spoke with people who had been forced to climb trees when the flooding began, but were then trapped there for days, without food or water.
Some people, struggling from exhaustion, could not hold on and fell into the water.
Josh said: “We spoke to one, an older brother, who must have been 10. He was in the tree with his younger brother. His brother was exhausted and fell out.
“The elder brother jumped to a lower branch, reached down and caught his brother and pulled him out of the flood. He saved his life. Those experiences were replicated many times across the region.”
Josh praised the people he met as “extraordinary”, adding: “They’re intelligent, resourceful. They get on with it. They’re incredibly smart people dealing with incredibly difficult circumstances.
“They’re exceptionally hard working and will attempt to make the situation better for themselves. The problem is that they have nothing.”
Josh admitted there were times he wished he was still at home with his wife, Rebecca, and two children, but said certain moments made it worth the work.
“But you have those moments, as I’m placing the box on the lady’s head, helping someone out,” he said.
“I’m not there, saying, ‘I’m saving you’. You don’t go to save someone or be a hero, you go to see that moment when the person you’re working with gets back that sense of ‘I can do this, I can fix this’.
“That’s the bit, for me, that makes doing this worthwhile, because it is hard work. It keeps me going.
“They are the ones who are going to solve the problems they are facing, because of the scale of them and long-term nature of them. There’s a sense of shock when the disaster happens. It takes a week or two for people to realise it is OK to be shocked. They’re not helpless people, they are smart and strong. It’s a privilege to go work with them.”
Josh joined Team Rubicon in late 2016/early 2017, originally helping out at their headquarters.
His first international deployment was in response to Hurrican Irma, the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic. He spent five weeks helping deliver aid in Antigua.
Team Rubicon receives no financial support and relies on donations.
To help, visit www.teamrubiconuk.org.