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One way to Dete

February 4, 2016

Given the fuel situation in Zimbabwe, where long queues would be common following rumours of any gas station having the precious liquid available, we decided to take advantage of the Lions Club offer to travel first class by train to Victoria Falls. Never having been there and being on our to-do list, it was a welcome alternative. After waiting at the train station in Bulawayo for quite some time, getting to know some of our co-travellers, white glory days Zimbabweans for the most part with some younger people thrown in, we were happy to find that the first class carriages had arrived and were being secured to the rest of the train. Our first class cabin was basic but good enough. Our train trip started while we slowly moved away from Bulawayo and the evening splendour was approaching. We would sleep on the train and get to Victoria Falls nice and early. Making our way across the different carriages to get to the dining car was no easy feat, having to go through second and third class which were fully packed. This was a mistake from the train company as the intention was to secure the first class to the dining car. As it happened, first class was at almost the other end of the train. Some white old school Zimbabweans complained loudly about this and the way the service had gone downhill the last couple of years. Everything going to the dogs… Little did we know… After dinner, which wasn’t great and bits of it cold, which was no surprise given the crisis Zimbabwe was in, the low salaries people were getting and the shaky train, we made the journey back to our cabins. My wife mentioned that the way I had secured the baby pram wasn’t the safest. I laughed it off, the only way that thing would fall would be if we hit something. Hit something we did, at around 2 am, awaken from our sleep by a thud and the abrupt stopping of the train. At first we assumed the train had broken down, which was not uncommon. Later we wondered if we had hit an elephant, as these are also common in these parts of the country.  We were going through a wildlife area after all. We looked out of the window, saw some smoke. We took our most important belongings and got off the train with others doing the same. We soon realized the problem was bigger, quite a lot bigger. Contrary reports and opinions were forming and ousted. The only staff member around also had no idea what had happened.

Slowly but surely the fire was getting bigger in the dark African night. Standing outside one could smell the elephant dung, and who else knew what was lurking in the dark looking at us for their next snack. Smoke built up and reports now came from people who headed to the back of the train away from the smoke and others who had gone for a look. It was a crash. Into another train, or a locomotive or something similarly big. Slowly the gravity of the situation became clearer as not only the reports of people stuck and burning alive came, but also the victims themselves. Those who had survived could walk or were carried. It was a complicated situation. I as father and husband, standing in the middle of a wildlife reserve on the rails, with my youngest daughter being just one year old. Wanting to go and help, but at the same time, wanting to protect my family from anything that might happen. I did what I could. Taking pillows from the first class carriages, which the single staff member did not approve of, but happened anyway. Helping to move the arm of a dead man who was lying on, and hurting the leg of, a man who had some bones clearly sticking out of places they shouldn’t.
After things settled down a bit, meaning there were still people dying and others burning alive but none coming to the back of the train, a group of us decided to head into the forest to a small clearing, where, if the train would continue burning, we would be safe from fire. A bunch of us white people, accompanied by some non-white fearing blacks went ahead with the families following suit. Friends of us, a Bolivian woman with two small boys married to a Dutch colleague of mine who had not come on the trip, decided to head back over the tracks to the closest train station.



My wife thought of convincing me to do the same, but I would have none of it, with those national geographic stories and “never leave the scene of the accident to go wondering off into the wilderness” fresh in my mind. Once my family was safe, I could also go and have a look with some other white young men. Some Zimbabweans and Zambians were busy unhooking the luggage car, much to the discontent of the railway staff that weren’t dead. This was not by the rules, only qualified staff was supposed to do this.
Obviously, the black traders cared more about their luggage and goods than any stupid rule. The train was on fire after all. We did a similar thing. The restoration wagon, which was now at 30 to 60 minutes from being engulfed by flames, had drinks. So we decided to empty it of its contents, to the extent of what we could carry. There was no water, but some soda and two cases of beer. We walked back to the clearing, passing some dead and injured people along the way. In survival mode. No idea how long we would have to wait, where we were exactly and if help was coming. If worst came to worst, giving your kids a beer would be better than no liquid at all. Of course we adults did not mind a nice warm beer in the middle of the night after the horror and stress we had gone through. It slowly started to dawn, which is always a wonderful experience in the African interior, even if it’s a terrible day. The serenity, the weirdness of the situation, it all brought some peace to our hearts.

We talked to a black gentleman who was surprised to be alive. He had also been in the previous big train crash and had now survived both accounts. Some older white Zimbabweans ladies were laughing, complaining and taking pictures of each other. My wife objected and told them off, since it’s not nice to have a good time while you can hear other screaming in pain. In these situations, one sees the best and worst in humankind.



While some brave black men where helping, carrying and caring for victims, including pulling people out from the wreckage before burning alive, others helped themselves to wallets, shoes of the those dead, unconscious or unable to protest. As the Sun presented itself in the early hours of the morning, help finally came. Bodies were loaded into trucks, the wounded on beds made out of benches. All but three carriages of the long train had not burned out.
Before heading off to a small campsite to wait for assistance, and more precisely a friend to come and pick us up, I went to the site of the crash. I am not easily moved. But this was a horror zone, with the locomotive completely gone, the first carriages destroyed, lying under the second set, with a third set on top. Body parts and dead people scattered around.

In all, about eighty people had died, and a couple of hundred were wounded. The carriages where the 1st class was supposed to go, were no more. Had the NRZ (National Railways of Zimbabwe) done their job correctly, we wouldn’t be alive, but mangled and burned among the steel.

Some of the older white Zimbabweans, soon after the incident, demanded part of their ticket money back, as they did not travel to Victoria Falls and back, but only got as far as Dete, believing they were entitled to half the money back as they got half the trip. Surprisingly enough, the Lions Club sent everyone a cheque for half the money. Needless to say, I made sure I gave the money to someone who needed it.

The reports were inconclusive about what caused the accident. For sure, there was a stationary locomotive transporting vessels, which were either empty or full with some flammable liquid. Some blamed the train conductor who had just switched shifts and apparently had some drinks before work.

Others blamed it on simple human error or oversight. Still others blamed the Zambians (of course, it´s always easy to blame the foreigner) who had been transporting fuel in containers. Government blamed no one, it would make a thorough enquiry, but sure enough the outcome would not be that total mismanagement due to a failing and dictatorial regime and the total lack of maintenance had anything to do with it.

So there it is, me and my family live, thanks to someone’s incompetence. I also believe in God’s protection and am thankful for sparing our lives, knowing however that among those who died, many black Zimbabweans believed as much or more in Christ than I. Life is cruel for some and good to others.

The accident happened the same day the space shuttle blew up in space killing six people. Hence, just as soon as the news of the Dete train accident came on the news, it had to be cut short since six white people, including Americans, had died. I knew the economic and news value of a black African is only a tenth of a white man, but it still hurts to experience this first hand. Who cares if eighty blacks die, six whites just got blown up in space…. Had the people who died in Dete been us Dutch, English passport holders and a handful of tourist and old school Rhodesians, we would at least have gotten equal airtime.

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