Queuing to survive: Knysna residents after the devastating fires

 Deon van Rooyen has guarded prisoners for three decades. Now he and a colleague are the only ones standing between 500 food parcels and 1‚000 people at a church in Knysna.

“You see this kind of thing on the TV but you never think it will happen here‚” said Van Rooyen who was among those affected by the devastating inferno that tore through the Garden Route. In front of him is a queue of people snaking around church grounds.

Most of the people were not directly affected by the fire that engulfed the area last week. And those who lost their homes or suffered as a result of the fire are disgruntled at the “opportunists” who are cashing in on the biggest disaster to hit the area in living memory. According to Western Cape Premier Helen Zille at least 10‚000 people were evacuated.

Raymond Mashilo‚ 59‚ watched as his home went up in flames. He received a bag of clothing‚ including two pairs of second-hand shoes for his young daughter.

“My children sleep at the civic centre but I can’t stay there. There are too many people there‚ brown people‚ white people and black people‚” he said adding that he was planning on sleeping at the police station.

A few men tried to skip to the front of the queue but they were immediately jeered by the rest of the people and sent to the back by an usher in a reflective vest.

“Some of these people have been here since 7am‚” said Van Rooyen. The warder knows not to deny anyone entry – even if he recognises a face from the day before.

Every 30 seconds he lets in twelve people‚ mostly women‚ but the line doesn’t get shorter and he believes that once the food and clothes are finished‚ the crowd might try to storm the building.

“What can I do against 1‚000 people?”

Close to the church is another distribution point‚ but here they have a register with the names of affected people. Their names are ticked off a list after receiving a bag filled with food and a bag of clothing.

Reverend Rod Jamieson‚ in charge of the distribution point at his church‚ said even though not everyone lost their homes‚ everyone has been affected by the disaster.

“We are not turning anybody away because we are all in need here in Knysna at the moment‚” he said.

Knysna resident and volunteer Gene Kruger explained that the situation at distribution centres is “near chaos” and more people arrive every day to collect clothing and food.

“We needed right from the start a central point for the disaster relief so that people could have gone there‚ register themselves and complete a simple vetting process‚” said Kruger.

“The crowd is pretty good willed‚ good natured. Let’s hope it stays that way.”

Shoprite‚ Unilever‚ Nestle‚ Game‚ Pick & Pay and Checkers are among the companies assisting with donations which are distributed by disaster relief organisation Gift of the Givers.

Rashied Kamissa‚ a Gift of the Givers worker‚ said there have been tense moments when supplies ran out.

Firefighters cautiously optimistic as weather conditions improve around Knysna

“We have already received calls from another centre that there are too many people. The food that we delivered is not enough so we are going to add another 350 food parcels for a total of 850‚” he said.

On Sunday they delivered 150 food parcels to a community but when they got there 300 people were waiting.

“We delivered the parcels but those who didn’t get tried to fight‚” said Kamissa who promised to return with more supplies.

Van Rooyen said two of his colleagues at the Knysna Correctional Facility lost their homes and the flames were a mere 20 metres from his house.

“It’s heart-breaking to see how much the country’s people care about Knysna‚ it’s just a pity we are not getting support from our president‚” he said.

Aron Hyman – Tiso Black Star Group

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