/ 23 March 2021

‘Beheadings’: Aid workers wait for visas as violence intensifies in Mozambique

Mozambique Unrest Islam Politics
Amnesty International has released a report that implicates Al-Shabaab, the military and mercenaries in atrocities in Cabo Delgado province. (Photo by ADRIEN BARBIER / AFP)

The death toll in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado insurgency already exceeds 2 000 people, but there could be many more. Internally displaced people, who are the face of the country’s latest humanitarian drama, have already surpassed half a million, at more than 670 000. 

Mozambique’s government has always been reluctant to accept military aid, being more open to humanitarian aid. But more than three months since they were requested, more than 50 UN visas are yet to be issued. It is a long wait to help alleviate the suffering of civilian populations caught up in a war that Amnesty International once again reports is having a disastrous effect on them. 

In September, there were more than 300 000 displaced people; by December, the number had risen to slightly more than half a million. The figure has now rocketed to about 700 000 as of the beginning of March. 

The districts of Quissanga, Muidumbe, Mocímboa da Praia and Macomia, which were occupied by a group known locally as Al-Shabaab, have become ghost villages. The numbers of the internally displaced people has overwhelmed Montepuez, Pemba and some districts in Nampula, in Mozambique’s northernmost province.

Horror stories abound: tales of women seeing their husbands beheaded by Al-Shabaab insurgents in Cabo Delgado, children whose parents were beheaded in front of them, fathers seeing daughters and wives being taken away by insurgents.

Three-and-a-half months of waiting

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has been closing borders around the world, prompted the government to announce a special entry visa for humanitarian assistance providers on 1 December. 

At the time, after a cabinet meeting, it was reported that the humanitarian visa would be granted to foreign citizens who travel to the country at the invitation of the Mozambican government or international organisations to provide humanitarian and nonprofit services.

But more than 50 UN experts are still awaiting a humanitarian visa. This was disclosed by a UN representative in Mozambique, Myrta Kaulard, in an interview with Portuguese news agency Lusa. 

Kaulard said she hoped the matter would be resolved in weeks. “It is necessary that this external support reaches the ground,” she said.

In January, the UN noted “administrative challenges” for assistance in Cabo Delgado. At the time, there were 57 pending visas. Approval would probably take three-and-a-half months, it warned. The lack of humanitarian visas limits the humanitarian response and has implications for the willingness of partners to contribute resources.

The customs clearance of medical-care materials has also been an obstacle. 

Insurgents move in on Palma

When gas reserves were discovered in 2010, Cabo Delgado, neglected in the more than 40 years since independence, seemed to be the province that would propel Mozambique’s development. But the find also shifted the political and social climate in the area, as the Mail & Guardian has reported before, opening the way for armed extremists to lead attacks in the province starting in 2017.

Now the province has set up centres for internally displaced people to accommodate those who left their life behind, and are facing misery and hunger. Many have been exposed to cholera outbreaks.

Talks of military aid seem to be an irritant for the Mozambican government, which continues to pay mercenaries whose activities have been under scrutiny, as Amnesty’s report noted

The number of displaced people continues to grow as insurgents appear to gain ground. Palma has now become the new pole for insurgent attacks: in February only it was the site of two attacks, with the number of dead, wounded and displaced people yet to be determined. This insurgency is apparently entering the stronghold of oil and gas enterprises.

Amnesty report creates consternation, again

This is not the first time that an Amnesty report on the situation in Cabo Delgado has created a stir, both nationally and internationally. Last year, it published a report, accompanied by images, that denounced attempts at beheading, torture and other ill-treatment inflicted on prisoners; the dismemberment of alleged opposition fighters; possible extrajudicial executions and the transport and disposal of a large number of corpses in apparent mass graves. 

At the time, the country’s defence and security forces (FDS) did not take long to react through the FDS spokesperson Omar Saranga. He was assisted by the spokesperson for the general command of the police, Orlando Mudumane.  Such statements would usually be made by Ministers of Police Jaime Neto and Minister of the Interior Amade Miquidade; the fact that they were not suggests a possible change in strategy.

Despite recognising Amnesty as a respected human rights organisation, the spokespersons said they condemned the approach based on videos and photographs without taking into account the nature of the covert and reductionist propaganda of the terrorist group operating in Cabo Delgado, which they said aimed to denigrate the image of the FDS in fulfilling its constitutional obligations and assignments in situations of war. 

Amnesty’s new report throws more oil onto the fire, placing the actions of the government and its allies, the mercenaries of the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), the South African private military company hired to fight the insurgency, at the centre of the denunciations.

The Amnesty International’s report alleges all three parties committed war crimes, causing the death of hundreds of civilians. “The international community has not been able to respond to this crisis, which has reached the proportions of an armed conflict of great magnitude in the last three years,” the report reads.

Cabo Delgado residents are trapped between the Mozambican security forces, the private militias that are fighting alongside the government and Al-Shabaab. 

The reports indicate that 15 communities were displaced from their places of origin and the panorama that is outlined is of the intensification of the armed struggle in Cabo Delgado since the Al-Shabaab attack on Mocímboa da Praia in March 2020.

They also note that the military and police officers committed extra-judicial executions, acts of torture and other ill-treatment and mutilated bodies. This had already been reported previously.

They remember what followed after the attack on Quissanga, in which government security forces captured civilians who they believed to be Al-Shabaab supporters. “They blindfolded several men and shot them, then threw their bodies into a mass grave,” Amnesty International writes.

During the following month, government security forces took women to be raped at the base they had set up nearby, where they also detained, beat and summarily executed other men.

“People disappeared. They were all taken to a hole to be killed. They come up with a list of names and asked if we know them. And we didn’t lie, so they wouldn’t take us too,” said a woman quoted in the report.

The Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) is also indicted in the violation of human rights.

According to sources cited by the witnesses who spoke to Amnesty International, DAG operatives fired machine guns from helicopters, threw hand grenades indiscriminately at crowds and repeatedly fired at civilian infrastructures, including hospitals, schools and houses, a tactic used in Iraq.

“The company clearly violated international humanitarian law by shooting indiscriminately at crowds, attacking civilian infrastructure and failing to distinguish between military and civilian targets,” Amnesty International notes.