‘I ran, my heart was broken’: inside Mozambique’s evolving Cabo Delgado conflict

Pencils scratch as students in year eight feverishly work through an exam paper. At the back of the classroom, Clara Edna Chevambo, 37, a minute figure in hand-me-down clothes, finishes first and hands her paper to the teacher. As she leaves, her 11-year-old daughter is arriving for afternoon class. A vegetable farmer who supported, clothed and fed five children, her mother and her grandmother, Chevambo is now living in a borrowed tent in a camp, one of the ones with something to do to fill a few hours.

“I’m in school every day, and I don’t want to miss class. I send my daughter to school every day.”

Where she lived and farmed in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost region, bordering Tanzania, is too dangerous a place to be now war has engulfed the region. An estimated 800,000 people have been displaced by an Islamist insurgency that has killed 3,000 people since 2017. Known as al-Shabaab, although not linked to Somalia’s group of the same name, it has declared itself affiliated to Islamic State.

“Once the militants came, we didn’t stay. In Cabo Delgado, when we saw militants with uniforms we knew they weren’t military; they were terrorists” says Chevambo.

“We saw people from neighbouring districts leaving with kids and baggage,” Chevambo says. “My dad called and said, ‘Let’s go with the kids’.”

Since late July small military detachments from other African countries have been arriving in the Cabo Delgado region after an agreement among the Southern African Development Community (SADC) marked by delay and tensions.

Tanzania, Botswana and Lesotho are sending soldiers, Zimbabwe is sending military training personnel and Angola is providing aircraft, while off the coast of the province’s capital city of Pemba sits the Warrior-class navy patrol ship SAS Makhanda of South Africa and there have been reports of sightings of armoured vehicles crossing the border between the two nations.

Last week it was a Rwandan-led operation that saw the port town of Mocímboa da Praia, the centre of Mozambique’s war, reclaimed from al-Shabaab. But most of Mozambique’s neighbours have problems of their own, and there are political tensions with South Africa. Mozambique’s president Filipe Nyusi is currently the head of SADC, and his response to the recent civil unrest in South Africa disappointed some.

International concerns focused on the conflict in March this year, when al-Shabaab, having seized Mocímboa the previous August, moved 80km north and attacked the coastal town of Palma.

This led to the shelving of a major liquefied natural gas project of French company Total nearby, which Mozambique’s government had hoped would be a lucrative programme.

That siege lasted four days, left dozens of locals and international contractors dead, and trapped tens of thousands of people without food or water for weeks.

Although religious extremism, government marginalisation, and greed for the region’s abundant natural resources have all been blamed, al-Shabaab’s motives remain opaque. The US government designated the insurgents as an international terrorist organisation – Isis-Mozambique – in March, although there is little known about the strength of the connections between the insurgents and the wider Isis group, which has claimed credit for its activities.

Chevambo’s family drove south. She had heard that the government was providing documentation to displaced people so they could resettle. “Because of what I saw on TV about what was going on, I got my documents, signed the order, and I went to Dondo.”

She is now in a camp in Savane, a one- to two-hour drive from the town of Dondo, in the province of Sofala, and nearly 1,300km south of her home. Collapsing tents, woven sleeping mats and yellow jerry cans of water dot the landscape. While most of the displaced are encamped within Cabo Delgado province, some, like Chevambo, have travelled much further in search of an enduring safety.

Most of the people in the Savane camp are from Sofala, displaced by cyclones in 2019-20. Chevambo and her children are among strangers whose language they don’t speak, and are squatting in a tent owned by another family.

“I’m suffering a lot because nothing grows here on the farms,” she says. “I can’t manage to grow anything. But because I have my kids, I’m crying to get a tent and do everything possible to stay here.”

The emergence of a terror group in Cabo Degado in 2017 was not a surprise. Decades of being marginalised by the central government 2,700km away in Maputo had caused resentment to fester and Imams had been warning for years about fundamentalists from Kenya, Tanzania and the Middle East radicalising the region’s disaffected youth. But the government did little to address concerns until the Mocímboa da Praia attack. As violence escalated, the group moving from village to village, burning down towns and beheading men, women, and children, the government cracked down, closing seven mosques and detaining more than 300 people without charge, including religious leaders and foreigners.

In May 2018, a photograph of six militants posing in front of the Isis flag began circulating on the encrypted messenger app Telegram. Its caption reportedly stated that the group had pledged allegiance to the now-defunct Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In June 2019, Isis claimed credit for its first attack in Mozambique.

Last year, Isis circulated a message on its al-Naba news bulletin in which it gloated over the failure of western and African nations to put down the insurgency and accused them of having only financial interests in Mozambique.

“There is nothing in it that interests the Crusaders besides its huge reserves of different natural resources and in which American, French and South African companies jointly invest,” the message read. “And Russian and Chinese companies are ambitious to find for themselves a foothold in them as well.”

The conflict illustrates how Cabo Delgado’s vast natural resources have become a flashpoint in the area.

In 2010–11, a group of multinationals, including Italian company Eni and US firm Anadarko, discovered one of Africa’s largest natural gas fields off Cabo Delgado’s northern coast. Foreign investors arrived, keen to capitalise, and worked with the government to establish projects there.

In 2019, Total announced its $20bn (£15bn) investment plan to begin delivering liquefied natural gas by 2024.

To make room for the projects, people in Palma and the surrounding areas needed to be relocated. Total’s website describes plans to resettle 557 households in a newly built settlement, and to provide livelihood re-establishment and development for those affected.

But civil society organisations and locals claim their was insufficient compensation for land and that promises for job creation and re-skilling were not met.

A spokesperson for Total told the Guardian that people were compensated “as per government-approved compensation rates and in line with national legislation and [the International Finance Corporation’s] Performance Standard 5”, which “is widely recognised as the international best practice standard for private sector projects involving land acquisition and resettlement”.

The company maintained its commitment to employing and training locals, it said.

But after the March attack, Total indefinitely suspended its operations in the region. “Some of the benefits for the local population in terms of job creation have however been postponed as a consequence of the force majeure situation and the suspension of project activities in April 2021,” said the company spokesperson.

Sumail Ansumane, an elderly man, sits in the shade next to a pile of luggage. His frail body is hunched, exhausted from his journey. Ansumane and his family escaped from Mocímboa da Praia and travelled north to Palma, thinking they would be safe there. But, like so many others from Cabo Delgado, they were travelling in the wrong direction. The war followed them to Palma, and they were caught up in the March attack.

Ansumane heard the shooting start. He and his wife gathered as many of his family as they could find and ran into the forest to hide. In the chaos their daughter Sifa went missing and as soon as the fighting slowed, the couple returned home to look for her.

Ansumane remembers the screams of his wife when she saw Sifa’s body. The insurgents had laid her out for her family to find, her head cut off and placed on her stomach.

“They beheaded her, and they cut her arms and legs off. And then they left.

“That’s why I ran away and came here,” says Ansumane. “My heart felt like it was broken.”

Sifa’s son, who was not yet a year old, died of an unknown illness soon after.

Ansumane has brought his remaining family south to Ntele, a host community 20 minutes from the city of Montepuez that is rapidly expanding as crowds of people arrive from the north. They sit in groups and wait for food, water and shelter. Two nuns weave among the rows of sitting people.

“This place is not good,” says one, who requested anonymity. “Why do these people have to stay here for a long time? It is not human.”

She points to the sitting people, some holding bowls of maize porridge covered in flies and dirt, and says: “We’re really worried about this situation. That situation can cause diseases. They eat there. They do everything there. It’s no good.”

The nun says new arrivals have to sleep in the cold without enough food or water for more than 15 days as they wait to be formally assigned to resettlement communities.

“I think the government is not in control,” she adds. “They are not able to control things because a lot of people came after the Palma attack. They don’t know what to do.

“There is something wrong because when they arrive here, everyone is just waiting. When will they give them food to eat? They are really strong, but now they’re tired. They just wake up and sleep.”

Dozens of families are queueing at the emergency service tents set up by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Albert Viñas, an MSF coordinator in Cabo Delgado, shares his frustration over the glacial pace of charities to prepare, coordinate and start helping, as well as with the government’s reticence to support aid groups.

“The response of the humanitarian actors is slow. From November until now [aid] has increased, but it’s not enough. There are deep needs,” says Viñas, adding: “There are some bureaucratic constraints like visas, clearances of medical cargo that don’t help.”

A small bus pulls up at Ntele. People disembark and begin unloading their hastily wrapped belongings. One woman, tall and elegant, is dressed in traditional capulana fabric and firmly holds the hands of her two young sons at the side of the busy road. Fatima Buanauasse, 27, left Mocímboa da Praia when the insurgents arrived.

“When they arrived in Mocímboa, my mum said, ‘my children, let’s go. We can’t wait until they get here. It’s dangerous. We will lose our children,’” Buanauasse says.

Three of her cousins have been killed and four of her nieces and nephews have been captured. Buanauasse’s 10-year-old daughter, Sharifa, is missing.

“I don’t know where she is,” she says. “She lived with her father when they started [attacking] … I am always worried, and sometimes I cry. I have no certainty about anything. And every day, I worry.”

Buanauasse has almost given up hope. “I loved my daughter,” she says in the past tense.

After the attack, Buanauasse took her sons north towards Tanzania, where they lived for a while in a camp just over the border.

“I went to Tanzania because I had no other option. I fled because of the war,” Buanauasse says. “We suffered because we couldn’t walk freely. We stayed in a fenced-in camp.”

The Tanzanian government, once hailed as one of the most welcoming to regional refugees, has been returning asylum seekers to Mozambique, in an apparent violation of international agreements. Since January, the UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that more than 9,600 Mozambicans have been pushed back across the border, including 900 in two days in June. Buanauasse and her sons were among them.

“We travelled with the Tanzanian government in a military tank,” she says. “They found us in the houses.”

Buanauasse was dropped in Negomano, a border town, where she caught a bus to Montepuez, in south-west Cabo Delgado.

The bus station at Montepuez is a large, fenced-in area that serves as a transit centre for displaced families trying to reach the south. Plain-clothed police eye new arrivals for any sign that could indicate an affiliation with the insurgents. Food vendors hawk chicken skewers, boiled eggs and fruit between the parked buses.

Every hour, overloaded minibuses and pickup trucks pull up inside the wire gates and unload dozens of dusty travellers. Many spent their long journeys petrified, clinging to the roof or the rusty sides of the vehicles.

Drivers chant out the names of their destinations: “Mueda, Mueda, Mueda … Macomia, Macomia” and hustle passengers on board, extracting whatever fares they can.

There have been complaints that bus drivers are profiting, taking advantage of people’s desperation, but the drivers say they take only what people can afford and allow more passengers on board than is legal.

“Sometimes we help them as fellow human beings,” says one driver, Quiasse, whose surname is withheld for his protection. “They can’t pay the full fare for transport. Some of them sleep around the bus station. And our government doesn’t help them as displaced people. They only watch them.”

Quiasse says that the police extract bribes from the drivers for overladen vehicles. Sometimes, he adds, officers take money from displaced people on their journeys south.

The Mozambican government has been slow in responding to the crisis. After months of denial, it hired Russian and South African private military contractors as security. In March, an Amnesty International report accused one contractor and government forces of committing human rights abuses against civilians.

“Government security forces took women to be raped at the nearby base they had set up, where they also detained, beat and summarily executed more men,” the report claimed.

And the conflict has global significance. The connection to Isis, as well as the threat of the conflict spilling across borders, has alarmed Mozambique’s neighbours. The arrival of foreign forces marks a new phase, but for displaced people like Chevambo, rebuilding their lives as best they can is their only focus.

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