As the humanitarian crisis in northern Mozambique continues, Tomás Queface speaks to survivors fleeing violence in Africa’s latest battle against Islamic State.


Boats carrying civilians continue to arrive at Pemba’s Paquitequete beach, several months after the attack on Palma. They’re loaded with survivors of the last major attack in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province, where an insurgency continues to deteriorate day after day.

Pemba hosts a large number of people displaced by attacks from insurgents of a local terror group, referred to almost interchangeably as Islamic State, Ansar al-Sunna, ISIS-Mozambique or simply ‘al-Shabaab’, after the Somali terrorists that locals have seen on TV.

Other districts, such as Montepuez, Mecufi, Metuge and Ancuabe, have also received thousands of men, women and children displaced by the group, designated a Global Terrorist Organization by the US.

While some escaped armed violence by sea, others made the long walk to distant regions in search of a safe haven.

Humanitarian agencies estimate that more than 800,000 people have been displaced during almost four years of conflict. In the latest attack on Palma alone, upwards of 70,000 people have been forced to leave their homes.

‘Palma is a desert,’ a survivor, Albano, told NewsAfrica.

‘It will be necessary to start everything from scratch, even for companies. All the things we left there no longer exist: cars, houses, equipment… everything is vandalised. There’s nothing else there.’

Mozambique has been fighting an armed insurgency in Cabo Delgado – one of two Muslim majority provinces in the predominantly Catholic country – since 2017.

Authorities there do not provide an estimate of the number of deaths from the conflict, but organisations such as The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) estimate it has claimed more than 2,000 lives. The true death toll could be much higher, as journalists and investigators cannot access the restive region.

The insurgency in Cabo Delgado province began on October 5, 2017, in the village of Mocímboa da Praia, when a group of armed men attacked a police post.

Although initially dismissed by the Mozambican government as little more than criminals, the group continues to carry out barbaric attacks against innocent civilians, burning and destroying public and private buildings, and forcing the massive flight of innocent civilians.

Refugee camps in northern Mozambique

Above: An aerial view taken on February 24, 2021, shows temporary houses at the Napala Agrarian Center in Cabo Delgado.

The invasion of Palma

Of all the districts affected by violence in Cabo Delgado, the attack on Palma has most worried authorities. It was considered a special security operation zone by the Mozambican armed forces, thanks to the presence of the French multinational Total in the region, which is exploring for Liquefied Natural Gas in the Rovuma Basin.

The project is valued at around $20 billion and has long been touted as Northern Mozambique’s future route out of poverty.

All that, though, could now hang in the balance.

On March 24, 2021, insurgents staged a coordinated attack on Palma.

They entered the town from multiple directions, and took government forces by surprise. Aldo, one of the survivors of the attack, describes how he fled to the Hotel Amarula as the shooting began.

‘We were held for three days in the hotel in a panic, no sleep, no shower, nothing.’

The Islamists took control of the city with ease as Mozambican soldiers took flight from their positions. With a free hand, the insurgents spent the next few hours cleansing Palma of government officials.

Aldo describes seeing the Administrator of Palma take refuge in the Hotel Amarula, before later being airlifted to safety in scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon.

‘When the helicopter arrived at Hotel Amarula, the priority was the Administrator of Palma, and some women and children. But the helicopter only came three times, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday respectively, and never came back.

‘We saw another helicopter coming to rescue the hotel manager and some employees who worked with him and his dogs, and we were desperate, left to our own luck because we thought that helicopter was going to help us get out to the safe zone.’

The helicopters in question belonged to a South African private military company, Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), which provided air assistance to the Mozambican police in its northern operational theatre.

Despite decades of conflict between the government and anti-communist guerrillas, Mozambique has no functioning air force, and has been forced to contract out the services to latter-day mercenaries.

Amnesty International has accused the Mozambican military and its affiliates of committing war crimes in its efforts to contain the insurgency.

However, during the attack on Palma, the DAG have been hailed as heroes for rescuing civilians pinned down in the Hotel Amarula.

Sadly, they weren’t able to rescue everyone inside. Total’s refusal to supply DAG’s helicopters with fuel led to people at the Hotel Amarula taking drastic decisions to escape. Aldo describes how the people inside organised a column of vehicles and left the hotel at speed.

‘There were many casualties from the cars that were coming after us,’ he said.

‘It was not possible to determine the number of victims, but one victim was shot in the head and lost his life on the spot, and there were six people in the car with the shots stuck in his body. One of the victims was Portuguese, who with the other wounded were only rescued when we arrived in Afungi.

‘When we arrived in Quionga, we were hidden in the mangrove and others in the trees and in the water until the rescue boat arrived at night,’ added Aldo.

‘From there we were taken to Total’s facilities in Afungi. Total gave priority to its workers and only then made the boat available to other people.’

Terror in Mozambique

Above: Men carry sacks of rice to a boat in Pemba on May 21, 2021.

Nowhere to turn

It is estimated that around 60,000 people lived in Palma before the attack, including many displaced from other villages.

When the attack broke out, civilians fled in different directions – to the beaches, towards the Tanzanian border and to the relative safety of ‘resettlement camps’, built for people displaced by the liquid natural gas operations.

‘We never thought that the attacks could reach Palma,’ recalled Júlio.

‘There were many soldiers, and since Palma is a small town, we always thought that it would not be easy for insurgents to enter here.’

‘The military’s lack of technical training made that attack possible,’ echoed Aldo. ‘The insurgents used modern weapons and the [authorities] continue to use ancient weapons.’

With the soldiers unable to beat the attackers back, there was only one option for residents: flee.

Alberto, who was part of the group that fled to the Tanzanian border, described the terror when the insurgents struck.

‘When the attack started in Palma, it was around 3pm. I was in the market in Malamba, and everything happened suddenly. We saw two police vehicles coming at high speed and there were wounded soldiers.’

He describes how many displaced people from Palma tried to enter Tanzania as a way to escape the violence, only to be turned around.

‘Those who were not native to Tanzania were not given shelter. People were taken directly to Namoto. From there they were transported to M’twara, the closest city to Tanzania. The government there took the displaced to the Mtambaswala border post and returned the Mozambicans to Mozambique, in the village of Negomano.’

According to Mozambican authorities, Tanzania refused to create refugee camps for people fleeing the violence in Cabo Delgado, and instead expelled Mozambican refugees from that country – a breach of international law, which prohibits countries from returning refugees to a country where they may face torture or treatment that could cause irreparable harm.

The United Nations Refugee Agency has also accused Tanzania of forcibly deporting asylum seekers fleeing violence in Mozambique. Its spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov said: ‘Many reported being detained, transported to a local school and interrogated by Tanzanian officials. Those who were unable to provide proof of Tanzanian nationality were returned to Mozambique through a different border point than the one used to enter the country – including individuals or families of mixed nationalities.’

UN teams in the two countries say returnees arrive in conditions of utter despair, especially those separated from their families.

Refugee crisis in Mozambique

Above: Internally displaced persons at a UN World Food Program distribution in Matuge district, northern Mozambique, on February 24, 2021.

Local terrorists

The insurgents in Cabo Delgado are a real mystery. Little is known about their composition, leadership and goals.

Zura, who was intercepted by the insurgents as she fled, said they were Palma locals who either spoke Kimwani, the local dialect, or Swahili, East Africa’s língua franca.

‘There were some foreigners, blacks, who didn’t say anything, but the natives were the ones who always spoke. They say they want to run the country. They do not say that they want to destroy the country, but that they want to destroy the ruling regime.

‘In their midst, there are children, and whenever they recruit people, they look to those of average age or below average.’

Two other women who managed to escape captivity in Mocímboa da Praia, a former tourist town taken by insurgents in September 2020, share minute details of their profile, provenance and day-to-day activities: ‘The insurgents are Tanzanians, Zimbabweans, South Africans and Mozambicans.

‘When they go to war, those who return without any fractures or scratches receive a prize of 120,000 Mt ($1,900), and for those who return with wounds, or without an arm, they receive double.’

Terror attacks in Mozambique

Above: Destruction left in the wake of an IS attack.

Abuse of women and children

One of the women called Helena, who escaped captivity, recounted an episode in which she was taken by insurgents to an unknown place along with other captives.

‘They took me to a corner and one of the insurgent commanders pointed me out, and from there he wanted to know what I was doing in the hospital and where I was captured. I said I was just a service agent.

‘Then he asked me if I had been tested for HIV and I said that I did and the result was positive and I started treatment since 2017 and now I have tuberculosis problems. I said that I couldn’t serve you as a wife, because since I arrived they haven’t been giving me medication. That’s what saved me and from there that commander pointed at me and said you can go.’

The insurgents’ bases are home to both combatants and kidnapped women and children.

The children are allegedly being trained to fight for the jihadists, while the women are made to do everything from cooking and housework to delivering food and other items to fighters on the frontline.

Rape and sexual slavery is also a daily reality for those kidnapped.

Those fleeing violence in Cabo Delgado spend days on boats, or walking to safe places in deplorable conditions, hungry, thirsty and lacking medical care. However, the conditions they find in camps for internally displaced people (IDP) can often be equally dire.

Despite the efforts of humanitarian aid organisations and volunteer groups, the situation in IDP camps is one of extreme poverty. The makeshift houses do not have beds. Some families do not have mosquito nets.

Survivors interviewed by national media in an IDP camp in Ancuabe describe the dramatic scene and express a desire to return to their home areas.

‘We’ve been here at the resettlement centre for three months, and we haven’t been able to get anything to eat,’ said a female survivor called Antumane. ‘We are starving. So we ask a great favour that the government end this war so that we can return to our homes and farms.’

The authorities, meanwhile, are calling for patience. Visiting people affected by the conflict, Prime Minister Carlos Agostinho do Rosário, said he recognised the vulnerable situation to which the displaced people are exposed, and called on them to take advantage of the approaching rainy season to grow more food for their families.

While the rain does not come, despair takes over.

Conflict over land between local populations and newcomers to IDP camps is a growing problem, with locals refusing to give up their land, whether for the establishment of shelters or for agriculture.

Women bear the brunt of the conflict. They are a target of sexual and psychological aggression, both in conflict zones and in IDP camps.

According to a study by a Mozambican civil society organisation, Rural Observatory (OMR), women are in a position of extreme vulnerability in Cabo Delgado.

‘Because they are more physically fragile, because they are the target of sexual predation by armed youth and because they are traditionally food producers, women were a recurrent target, remaining in a particularly vulnerable position.

‘In the present armed conflict in the northeast of Cabo Delgado, numerous reports have shown the abduction of hundreds of young women, and there are immense doubts about their whereabouts.’

The testimonies collected by OMR show that women face different problems, many of them related to food insecurity, destruction and theft of property, physical aggression and murder, sexual assault, rape and kidnapping.

‘Several women have reported being victims of abductions and rapes, as well as being subjected to aggression,’ the OMR stated.

‘Women were deprived of access to economic activities, the target of robberies and the destruction of their assets.’

Islamic State insurgency in Mozambique

Above: Soldiers from the Mozambican army patrol the streets following an attack by suspected Islamists in Mocimboa da Praia in October 2017.

Combatting terror

The escalation in the conflict has started to worry Mozambique’s neighbours, as well as international bodies, such as the African Union and the European Union.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been holding periodic meetings with a view to finding a better strategy to support Mozambique in the fight against the insurgency, which has since spread to parts of southern Tanzania too.

For Mozambican journalist and analyst Fernando Lima, the escalation of the conflict and Mozambique’s inability to contain the wave of violence requires greater international intervention in Cabo Delgado.

Lima believes that external forces may eventually end up replacing private military companies in supporting Mozambique.

However, the former Executive Secretary of SADC and member of the ruling Frelimo Central Committee, Tomáz Salomão, advises against sending foreign troops to fight terrorism in Cabo Delgado for the time being.

In an interview with state television, Salomão said that the support must be made available under the terms presented by the government.

‘Give support under the terms requested by the government of Mozambique, especially logistics and training. Experiences around the world show that the presence of foreign troops in the territory, from the moment that this happens, the troops enter and never leave.

‘We here in Mozambique already had foreign troops. I remember that the President of the Republic, at the time, Joaquim Chissano, had to go to a meeting in Zambézia [province] and what the population was asking for was that foreign troops withdraw. So, it is up to this country called Mozambique to build its defence and defend itself.’

Meanwhile, one of the members of the Central Committee of the Frelimo Party in favour of foreign intervention is Graça Machel.

In a recent interview with a private television channel, the former Mozambican First Lady and current politician said: ‘There is no country in the world that is trying to solve [terrorism] alone.’

Former president Armando Guebuza has also criticised his successor’s handling of the crisis.

Guebuza, who has a fractured relationship with President Filipe Nyusi due to his management of the country’s hidden debts case, questioned why those who participated in the decades-long civil war are not being used, adding that the current troops are not in a position to guarantee peace and security in Cabo Delgado.

Despite his refusal to accept international help, President Nyusi has been keen to stress that the situation in northern Mozambique is due to global jihadism rather than local issues.

However, this is not a view shared by everyone. Joe Hanlon, a journalist and Open University development researcher who specialises in Mozambique, believes factors such as growing social and racial inequalities, corruption, youth unemployment and anger over mineral rights have acted like recruiting sergeants in one of Mozambique’s poorest provinces.

Over the last few decades there have been numerous mega-projects that have created huge expectations of new jobs and development among locals, which at the end of the day have not been realized.

Indeed, the creation of the Northern Integrated Development Agency to promote development in Cabo Delgado has been taken by many as implicit recognition that the government accepts that local social dynamics may have helped the group attract recruits.

And while global jihadism may be the most obvious explanation as to why so many angry young men are taking up arms against the predominantly Catholic state, poverty and frustration may be equally to blame.

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