Hungry, angry and fleeing the horrors of war in northern Mozambique

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Some people rub their stomachs and talk of their hunger. Others describe burnt villages, abducted relatives, and the agonies of long treks through the bush to reach safety.

But it is the beheadings that most haunt Palma, a besieged town in northern Mozambique. It is a place cut off from the outside world by roving gangs of machete-wielding Islamist fighters, and it is now symptomatic of a wider security and humanitarian crisis that has engulfed a remote region the size of Scotland.

More than half a million people in the region have been driven from their homes in the past 12 months.

“They cut his neck,” said Said Ahmad, 47, sombrely drawing his finger across his throat as he explained how dozens of insurgents entered their village one night, earlier this month, before killing seven men including his brother, Bernado Bacar.

Another eyewitness described the grotesque aftermath in the isolated village of Quirindi, close to the mangrove forests that line the nearby Indian Ocean, with bloodied bodies tied up with rope and severed heads carefully balanced on top of them.

Said Ahmad managed to escape with his brother’s extended family and walked through the night to Palma. When he later called his brother’s mobile phone, a stranger answered and said: “We killed your brother. We are afraid of nothing. We are al-Shabab and we kill as we please.”

Like so many people I spoke to while travelling in Cabo Delgado province, he seemed baffled by the violence, by the Islamists’ gruesome scorched-earth agenda, and by the transformation of a neglected but relatively peaceful region into a war zone.

A population forced out

Al-Shabab is how Mozambicans now refer to a shadowy Islamist insurgency that began four years ago in the province – an insurgency that was initially dismissed as a minor distraction in a region that is rich in minerals and focused on reaping the benefits of an international $15bn (£11bn) off-shore gas project.

Today things look very different, with a third of the province’s population forced to flee. The US state department has designated the insurgents as a terrorist organisation dubbed “Isis-Mozambique” – a reference to the franchise arrangement that the Islamic State group (IS) is believed to have set up with the local faction.

I flew into Palma soon after the latest attacks. From the air the damage of past cyclones is visible on stretches of Mozambique’s long and stunning coastline.

Shortly before landing on a dirt airstrip, I saw the construction work for the giant gas refinery on the Afungi peninsula. The work is still proceeding under heavy protection by the military.

We were the first foreign journalists to reach Palma during its siege. The entire province has been more or less closed to foreign – and many local – journalists for the past year.

The pandemic is a factor as is the precarious security situation, but Mozambique’s government has also been widely criticised for seeking to block access to the conflict, both for the media and, to a lesser extent, international humanitarian organisations.

“We face restrictions from [the] government in terms of bringing in supplies and people,” said Jonathan Whittall, the head of analysis for the medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The outskirts of Palma were eerily empty. The first group of civilians we saw told us they wanted to leave town on a truck parked nearby.

“We want to leave, because we’re hungry. We’re afraid of al-Shabab, but what can we do? We’ll die here from hunger anyway,” said Rabia Momat. She said the police had blocked the group from leaving.

On the dusty main street, we saw crowds outside several food shops. There were scuffles as police and soldiers tried to block people from entering.

“I’m very, very hungry. I have three days without eating. I’m here [in the queue] but I don’t get nothing,” said a man called Sufo Salimo, who accused the police of trying to extort money from people.

Away from the crowds, I met a group of young men who had recently fled from another nearby village. One spoke of seeing “seven white men” among the insurgents, but others said they’d heard the attackers speaking their local language, and noted that they appeared to know which houses belonged to local officials.

One of the men used his mobile phone to call his father, who was still in hiding in a mangrove forest on the coast, along with about 50 others. Neither man wanted to give me their names.

“We’re trying to reach Palma but it’s not possible yet. We’re afraid al-Shabab will catch us. We have no food here and people are very hungry. We are not safe,” said the father.

Although some food supplies – organised by local businessmen and by aid agencies – are starting to arrive by sea in Palma, many people said the amounts were far too small and that prices for bread and rice had risen by four to six times.

Girls abducted

Several people in Palma told us that they’d seen women and girls being abducted by the militants. Soon after flying back to the regional capital, Pemba, I met many more people with similar stories.

“I saw my daughter trying to run to the boat with two other children. The people from al-Shabab chased them. They took my daughter and many others. Then they set fire to our village,” said Fatima Abdul, 43, who’d escaped by sea late last year and was now living on the beach in Pemba, scavenging for seafood with nothing but a plastic sheet to protect her from the rain storms.