PEMBA, Mozambique—Last year, 10-year-old Maria Antumane was forced to watch as a group of militant men carried out a gruesome attack on her village, Bilibiza. Armed with machetes and guns, the men had ordered her to keep her eyes open as they beheaded residents a few feet away from her.
“I saw this happening. Killing. The men told us, ‘sit there and watch someone be beheaded,’” Maria said, fiddling with the hemline of her stained T-shirt. “And everyone started crying. And they said, ‘No one cry about this.’”
The men burned down Maria’s village. Amid the chaos, she managed to escape into northern Mozambique’s dense tropical forest. As she fled, her leg got caught in an animal snare. “I was trapped from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. I was stuck without anybody to remove the trap,” she said. “I was screaming and crying.”
Several villagers who were also fleeing the attack on the village passed by Maria. They tried to pry apart the jaws of the trap to release her leg, but rushed off when they thought the attackers might be approaching, leaving her stranded and terrified. Eventually, some villagers who knew Maria’s parents recognized her. They managed to release her leg from the snare, which left an open wound on her shin. They carried her with them, traveling for days until they reached Pemba, the capital city of Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. There, alone in the hospital, Maria recovered from her wounds and from malaria.
Three and a half years before the attack on her village, a group of armed men raided police stations in the village of Mocímboa da Praia in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, kicking off a seemingly endless stream of violence in the northern part of the country. Little is known about the ideology or goals of this shadowy group, which calls itself al Sunna wa Jummah (ASWJ). The local population calls it al Shabaab, an Arabic phrase meaning “the youth,” although it has no apparent connection to the Somali terrorist organization with the same name.
Since the police station raid, these armed militants perpetuated at least 517 attacks targeting civilians, killing more than 1,157 people, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED). They burned down homes, looted villages, abducted women and girls and murdered locals in gruesome acts of violence; in November 2020 they reportedly beheaded and chopped up the bodies of more than 50 villagers, turning a local football pitch into an “execution ground,” according to media reports.
It’s difficult to pinpoint how the conflict began. Over half of Cabo Delgado province’s population is Muslim, and experts believe that the armed militants emerged more than a decade ago in the northern area of the province as a religious group bent on separating itself from the local Muslim population, which it believed was practicing a “degraded” form of Islam.
In 2008, people began visiting mosques in Pemba and other northern districts “trying to preach a very radical Islam,” said Salvador Forquilha, a senior researcher at the Institute for Social and Economic Studies (IESE), an independent research institution based in Maputo. The movement leaders are suspected to have direct ties to fundamentalists in Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and the Great Lakes region and indirect ties to religious clerics in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan and Algeria. As radicalization spread through the northern provinces, local religious leaders say they attempted to inform the then-government about the impending threat.
“When you speak with religious leaders in Pemba, especially, and also in other districts, they will say, ‘look, we were in touch with the government and we told the government that something was going wrong in our mosques, but the government did not take action,’” said Forquilha. “So the group evolved very quickly. And when the group found huge resistance… in the local mosques from local religious leaders but also local population, they started actually to become much more violent.”
Experts say that the government’s failure to heed those early warnings was a missed opportunity that could have spared countless others from recent violence, including Maria Antumane’s aunt, 55-year-old Ana Maria Biche, who fled the same attack as her 10-year-old niece. She remembered the armed men entering the village around 3 p.m. They began burning down houses, looting and killing at night. Biche described the men as young, between the ages of 17 and 25, and well-armed.
“They were all young men with guns,” she said, waving her hands and widening her eyes. “They seemed to be from Mozambique or Tanzania. They spoke Swahili and in other languages… there were white people between them… and Arabs with beards.” Biche described the brutality she witnessed in her village. “I saw them kill people with knives. One of them used a chainsaw,” she added, mimicking the noise and sawing motion, “on someone’s neck.”
Two of the people murdered that day were Maria Antumane’s mother and father. “They cut their heads from their bodies,” Biche said. “They took their heads off, and threw them to the other side.”
Biche, Maria’s aunt, was luckier than most. She escaped into the forest and traveled for days until she reached Metuge, an emergency center set up outside Pemba to accommodate the displaced. There, she became one of the almost 700,000 people displaced in northern Mozambique as of the end of 2020, according to a new U.N. report. Nearly half are children.
Metuge is endless rows of tents, cooking fires and open defecation areas. Local boys rush towards open car windows to sell buckets of mangos for less than $1.00 each. Women and girls balance buckets over their heads as they leave the water points set up by the government with the help of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Hundreds of shoeless children spend their time playing with local volunteers in lieu of any formal schooling or education. Many of them have been out of school for years—the result of 2019’s devastating Cyclone Kenneth, the COVID-19 pandemic, and, now, the conflict.
Although humanitarian organizations are fighting to provide clean water, food, and medicine to the residents of Metuge, there are more than 10,000 people in the center and only enough resources to meet the needs of a few hundred, according to UNICEF estimates. When displaced people started fleeing to Metuge, the government began housing them in and around local schools that had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the attacks continued and the situation in the north of the province worsened, more and more families started showing up.
“We are overwhelmed. The health facilities are totally overwhelmed,” Isabel Periera, a nutrition specialist with UNICEF in Cabo Delgado, told The Daily Beast. There’s no possibility, no capacity for them to respond as they should.”
To alleviate the pressure on Metuge’s resources and create space for newly-arriving families, the government of Mozambique has been working with aid organizations to move people out of the center and into semi-permanent settlements.
“The authorities registered us and informed us, ‘you will be moved from Metuge to Ndokota,’” said 33-year-old Balamade Abadre, who fled an attack on his village with his elderly parents, his wife and his young children.
Abadre’s family had already been living in Metuge for seven months when they were informed they would be moving. “They said, ‘we are taking you to another place but we will build you the house and you will stay in these new houses,’” he explained. The process has been frustrating for Abadre, who was once a proud provider for his large family but says he now feels helpless because of his inability to earn money to care for his relatives.
Building materials for Abadre’s new home arrived while he was talking to The Daily Beast. He and the other men labored in the sweltering heat, dragging the poles and thatch to the individual plots that had been designated for their families. Abadre has been told that this arrangement is only temporary, but the creation of these semi-permanent settlements indicates that his family’s stay may last months, if not years.
“I don’t want to be here, but the government authorities mandated it because when we fled from the war the government helped us and said, ‘come stay here and wait until the war is over. And when the war ends you can go back home,’” he said. “And what I want to say, I’m crying out to go back home.”
Only one out of 10 displaced people make it to humanitarian centers and settlements, with the vast majority of families having to rely on the generosity of local host families to survive, according to the U.N.
Sixteen-year-old Atija Siraje and her family fled their home in northern Cabo Delgado twice: first when their house was destroyed by Cyclone Kenneth and again when armed groups attacked their village. Siraje’s family lived close to the ocean, so rather than traveling on foot, they decided to go by boat like many other coastal families escaping conflict. It’s a dangerous journey. News reports indicate that boats have sunk or capsized, resulting in numerous civilian deaths.
“All of them I remember.”
— Maria Antumane
“We slept on the sea for two days without eating,” Siraje said. She desperately misses her home and her old life. “I love my friends but I haven’t seen them.”
Today, Siraje’s family live on Ibo, a picturesque East African island that was once a sparkling eco-tourism destination. Cyclone Kenneth ripped through the region, reducing Ibo’s hotels and colonial-era buildings to rubble. Just a year later, the militants tried to seize control of the islands. Ibo is currently under the control of Mozambican security forces to ensure that the militants do not try to breach the island again. Siraje’s family sleeps in a tent in the backyard of empathetic local residents.
“Ibo has become a shelter for displaced people fleeing the continent,” explained Issa Tarmamade, the district coordinator of Ibo. “We had to support the people coming in, sometimes with nothing but the clothes on their back. Others came almost with no clothes at all.”
Once families reach the islands, many risk traveling by boat once again to reach the safety of Pemba’s beaches. Muanaicha Momad, 55, lives in a one bedroom beach hut in Paquitequete, a beachfront along Pemba’s coastline. She used to share her home with only her sister and daughter until the conflict started. Now, Momad is hosting 47 members of her extended family in her home, many of them children sent ahead to safety by their parents. Without a job or a husband to support her, she relies on handouts from aid organizations and the goodwill of neighbors to help care for her displaced relatives. But making ends meet is a daily challenge.
“When I get something like a bag of rice, I only make it in the morning,” said Momad. “During that time, I don’t make lunch because if I make lunch, the kids eat late, and at night they don’t sleep. They want to eat dinner.”
The government of Mozambique was initially slow to respond to the conflict, downplaying the violence and publicly projecting that the situation was under control. When the government did respond, they used heavy-handed “arguably often ineffective” tactics that “appear to have alienated local populations,” a U.S. Congressional report describes.
Mozambican security forces have been accused of beating, mistreating and torturing suspected members of the armed groups. An explosive new report released by Amnesty International in March 2021 outlines gross human rights violations by government forces including, “attempted beheading, torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners; the dismemberment of alleged Al-Shabaab fighters; possible extrajudicial executions; and the transport and discarding of a large number of corpses into apparent mass graves.” The government of Mozambique did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
Recently, the government of Mozambique has hired private military contractors to help in the fight. The first to enter the country in 2019 was the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to President Vladimir Putin. According to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a U.S. nonprofit policy research organization, “Russia traded Wagner’s military support against Islamist insurgents in Cabo Delgado province for access to natural gas.” But the group was reportedly unprepared for the mission, and pulled back after suffering significant personnel losses. It is unclear if any Wagner personnel remain in the country.
Next came South African private military contractor Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), which was founded by Colonel Lionel Dyck, 76, a white former Rhodesian military commander. DAG’s bread and butter was anti-poaching operations in southern Africa until it entered northern Mozambique’s murky conflict.
According to 53 witnesses interviewed by Amnesty International in its new report, “Dyck operatives have fired machine guns from helicopters and dropped hand grenades indiscriminately into crowds of people, failing to differentiate between civilians and military targets.” These allegations could place immense pressure on the government to assess and regulate the activities of private military contractors engaged in northern Mozambique. Two sources close to DAG told the Daily Beast that they received concerned messages from the contractors about what they were being tasked to do in Cabo Delgado.
DAG responded in a statement released on March 2, 2021, saying that the allegations are “of great concern to the company as we have detailed Human Rights Policies and Standard Operating Procedures in place to govern all our operations and take our responsibilities and obligations seriously.” DAG said it plans to commission a panel of experts from both South Africa and Mozambique to investigate.
Ana Maria Biche was staying in Metuge when she got word from local community members that her niece, Maria Antumane, might have survived the attack in Bilibiza and was recovering in the hospital in Pemba. Biche started catching tiny fish and selling them to make enough money to pay for a bus from Metuge to Pemba.
“I went to the hospital, and I found Maria,” said Biche. “She started crying. And when I found her Maria said, ‘Mama Ana! I don’t have a mom. I don’t have a dad.’”
Today, Maria lives with Biche in Metuge. Their reunion in the face of conflict and chaos is nothing short of miraculous. But Maria says she misses her family, victims of a brutal conflict that is still unfolding.
“Some days I remember my mother, father, and all the people. All of them I remember.”