KADOMA, Zimbabwe (AP) — Hundreds of relatives, community members and others on Thursday sat on piles of soil and rocks or wandered around at a site in Zimbabwe where dozens of artisanal miners are feared dead after rains flooded mines while they were underground.
About 40 people were trapped underground, said police spokesman Clemence Mabweazara. Artisanal miners at the forefront of the rescue operation said the figure could be higher. The mine is on the outskirts of Kadoma, west of Zimbabwe's capital of Harare.
The tunnels where the artisanal gold miners are trapped run as deep as 50 meters (164 feet) into the ground, making the rescue operation difficult, Mabweazara said.
"There was a heavy downpour resulting in the flooding of shafts. All the shafts are connected underground. We suspect the trapped miners have drowned, so our efforts are now on pumping out the water to retrieve the bodies," Mabweazara said.
Large groups of men, women and children using picks, shovels and hoes are a common sight in Zimbabwe's mineral-rich fields. The artisanal miners operate without regulation and safety standards are hardly practiced. Illegal mining has become rampant in a country where many people are unemployed.
The miners went underground before heavy rains destroyed a dam wall, resulting in massive flooding, according to reports from Kadoma. Rescue teams and pumps to drain the water were mobilized, but hopes of pulling out survivors were fading.
"Quite a huge amount of water came from the top and flooded into the shafts. In so doing, it trapped our brothers and sisters down there. They were unable to escape," said Peter Haritatos, the deputy minister of lands, water and climate, and a member of parliament for the area.
"If they have passed away, at least families can positively identify the bodies that come up and have closure," said Haritatos, adding that "draining the water is the easy part, retrieving the bodies from the tunnels is going to be difficult."
He said bodies were likely to be retrieved starting Friday.
In the absence of heavy machinery or experts from the government, fellow artisanal miners led the operation to pump out water using small, diesel-powered water pumps offered by a small-scale miner with operations nearby. A few hosepipes drew the water out, but hardly enough to empty the flooded tunnels.
"Nothing is working. I have been using my pumps since Wednesday morning, no one else is helping out," said Levison Hware, who was leading a small group of artisanal miners gathered around a shaft. Tree branches and ropes supported the pumps.
Frustrated, Hware switched off his pumps, forcing government officials present to negotiate with him to continue until bigger pumps arrived.
Government officials in suits struggled to avoid falling into the deep pits, gullies and water pools in the area.
"The government and the big mines close to here have not helped at all, it is all left to us but we are not experts," said Frank Mukwezeramba, another artisanal miner.
Kezias Zvitiki said his 47-year-old son and 20-year-old nephew were among those trapped underground. His concern has turned to how he will be able to care for his son's four children.
"My son has been working here for two years to pay school fees for his children and buy food for the whole family. Who will take care of us now? I am too old to work. The government has to chip in and pay the school fees," said the 92-year-old.
Joyce Toma said her uncle was trapped inside.
"It was his first time here. He was in prison for 10 years, as soon as he was released he came here to look for money," she said. "Now he is gone."