About 3 000 people have been killed and about 900 000 people have fled their homes in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique as a result of a campaign of terror being waged by Islamist insurgents in the resource-rich coastal region of the province.
The plight of the deeply-traumatised displaced people, more than half of whom are children, was the focus of a webinar on Tuesday hosted by the Denis Hurley Peace Institute and the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office.
Panellists, most of whom are involved in the mission of addressing the growing humanitarian crisis, spoke about its impact on the region, the gruelling day-to-day realities of the displaced persons and the search towards solutions to this tragedy that has been simmering since 2017 and escalated in March with a substantial attack on the town of Palma which is home to hundreds of foreign workers from the nearby Total liquefied natural gas (LNG) project.
More than 800 000 of the people who fled from their homes in the coastal region of Cabo Delgado are living in other parts of the province, while most of the rest have moved to neighbouring provinces. Most of the refugees are staying with very poor relatives who are doing their best to support them despite their own struggle to feed themselves. The rest are staying in tents in overcrowded temporary resettlement centres or in more organised permanent resettlement centres. Tanzania, which is the northern neighbour of the province, is reluctant to provide shelter to those fleeing from the terror.
The panel members, who each delivered a short report and participated in a question and answer session, were .
Dom Inacio Saure, Archbishop of Nampula Mozambique, Sister Sr Marines Biasibetti, Director CEMIRDE (Mozambican Episcopal Conference Commission for Migrants, Refugees and Displaced Persons, Tim Smith, Regional Director Jesuit Refugee Service Southern Africa, Lelis Quintanilla, Denis Hurley Peace Institute Mozambique and Bernhard Weimer,
Independent journalist and researcher, Mozambique.
Archbishop Saure said the displaced people were deeply traumatised massacre survivors who had witnessed horrors such as the beheading of their friends and family members. They were grateful for the help they were receiving but they longed to return to their homes.
Sister Biasibetti said the insurgents had decimated school and health infrastructure in the conflict area. More than 2 000 children were separated from their families leaving them vulnerable to malnutrition. And there has been a sharp rise in sexual abuse and human trafficking and abductions for the purpose of forced marriages. And then, some of the people who were supposed to be helping them at food distribution points were demanding sexual favours from women in exchange for food.
Tim Smith said that in recent visits to resettlement camps in Cabo Delgado and Nampula he was impressed with how well they managed the distribution of food to the people. But as all of the food was donated — by United Nations agencies, non profits, and churches — he was concerned about the sustainability of the supply of food.
Lelis Quintanilla said there was still a stream of new arrivals at resettlement centres each week
“Each family has its own story of fear and terror to overcome. But the thing that terrifies them the most is the uncertainty about their future. When, if ever, will they be able to return? Will they lose their lands if they return? Will their homes be there?
“Also, how will they become self sufficient again? Either here at the resettlement camp or back home? Will their children be safe? Will they receive an education? Will the children ever recover from the trauma they have experienced? “
Talking of education, she said that at the resettlement camp in Nampula where she works, children are actually going to school but they have no school supplies and there are three teachers for 1 800 children — that is 600 children per teacher.
She said health conditions varied from place to place but cholera, malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition were prevalent. The one illness they don’t even talk about is Covid, she said. Medical facilities are scant and access to water is also a challenge with typically a few water points serving thousands of people
She said that with an eye on sustainability and creating a better and healthier environment for the displaced people they are moving ahead with a project aimed at providing emergency support to new arrivals for six months and then moving them into a development mode where they are equipped to support themselves on the land. Part of the project involves providing houses resembling the homes they left behind in order to give them a sense of belonging.
Bernhard Weimer said the conflict in Cabo Delgado is complex and there is no consensus on its causes. Research is complicated because the conflict zone is a no-go area. He said the area is rich in offshore oil and mineral resources and it is also the most underdeveloped part of Mozambique. He said that business alliances have been formed between international investors and domestic elites at the cost of locals who were sometimes driven from their land in the interest of business enterprises and who do not appear to be in line to benefit from future developments in the area.
Middle East Islamist group ISIS has on occasions claimed that the insurgents who include Tanzanians, local militants and other foreigners, are its affiliate in the region and in March the US State Department designated them as a foreign terrorist group called ISIS Mozambique. There have also been reports of the group, also known as Ansar al-Sunna or al-Shabab, pledging allegiance to ISIS. The terrorists’ beheadings and abduction of women as sex slaves or forced wives are also reminiscent of jihadist movements like ISIS and Boko Haram in Nigeria. But Weimer points out that many of their victims are Muslims and he agrees with researchers who conclude that the conflict is not religious in essence.
“I suggest it is an ongoing war with different purposes,” he said. The complexity of the situation and the number of different players makes peace negotiations difficult and so he does not believe that “in the long term militarisation of the situation provides the solution”, he said.
He said the recent influx of some 2 300 foreign troops into the area — from South Africa, Botswana and Rwanda — may even increase suffering.
He advocated a search for a solution that addresses humanitarian, development and peace building.
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