Mozambique: in Palma, "so many people died"

Photo: Emidio Jozine

A week after the violent jihadist attack that hit the city of Palma, in the north of the country, tens of thousands of people have taken refuge in Pemba. Evacuees tell of the chaos and uncertainty about their loved ones.

By: Estacio Valoi, with Cecile Andrzejewski

In a black T-shirt, with a small bottle of water under his arm and a lost look in his eyes, Eusebio still doesn't understand what happened a week ago in Palma. Last weekend, the coastal town in northern Mozambique fell to the jihadists’ local Al shabab after several days of fighting. The terrorists arrived at about 2 p.m., I left work at 4 p.m.," he said. It was on my way home that I saw people running in my direction, they were shouting at me 'don't ask what's going on, and just go! ". I continued on my way, did stop trying to understand what was happening when, suddenly, I heard shooting. Shooting and shooting. "He spent five days in hiding, without eating or drinking. In his trip by sea on a boat evacuating people, he could not take anything with him. "Today, I am like this, I am empty," he says, lowering his eyes. Behind him, dozens of people in the same situation, in the town of Pemba, more than 200 kilometres south of Palma, where the inhabitants who were able to flee the violence are gathered. According to the United Nations, more than 8,000 people have managed to escape from Palma on fishing boats, on foot, by ferry or by humanitarian flights.

Convoy of 17 vehicles

A worker from the oil and gas company related who was also where Eusebio was, still can't believe he survived and can't stop thanking God. He was on board a convoy of 17 cars fleeing the city. "Only seven made it out. We managed to get out of the attack zone, but many of our colleagues died. So many people died. "He walked through the forest for 45 kilometres before being evacuated to Pemba. Another tells how he hid in the ocean: some with him had boarded a boat; others stayed in the water, ready to dive in case the attack reached them.

Read: Mozambique: "The shebab's passage to violence has made them attractive to marginalized youth"

In the town of Pemba, families also crowd around to watch for a familiar face, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of their own who has managed to escape. Here a niece, there a mother. The last time I spoke to my relatives on the phone was on March 24," recalls a man on the port. They told me that the situation was bad, Palma was completely under fire, bullets everywhere. "He arrived in Pemba yesterday and is fighting his anxiety as best he can, railing against the authorities for not giving any information. “We are waiting for our families. We are waiting for a boat. We want to see our children!" exclaims his neighbour, who has been waiting for eight days. We suffer, we don't know if they are alive or not. We are here day and night. "In the crowd, the sadness of some, still without news, mixes with the joy of those who have found their loved ones. Hunger, thirst and tiredness can be seen on the faces. Anguish too, in front of the uncertain future that is taking shape for these displaced people who have lost everything.

Activities on gas Total

For three years now, the province of Cabo Delgado, where Palma is located, has been the scene of jihadist attacks that have already left more than 2,600 people dead and 680,000 displaced. But the scale of last weekend's battle was unprecedented in this conflict between the government and armed Al-Shabab groups. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the action. "This insurgency was built on a mix of violent extremist groups fuelled by marginalization, frustration and unemployment, which have seen massive investments in gas. The Palma attack was well planned," says Liesl Louw-Vaudran, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

“There is no indication, however, that the insurgents are seeking to take control of [Total's] project or that they could even harness the gas. Rather, we must take into account the growing frustration and resentment caused by this massive investment. ”

- Liesl Louw-Vaudran, senior researcher

The date chosen was not a coincidence. Palma is located ten kilometres from a huge gas project led by Total and due to be operational by 2024. For safety reasons, gas activities had already been suspended last December. However, operations were due to resume on March 24, the day the attack began. "However, there is no indication that the insurgents are trying to take control of the project or whether they might even exploit the gas. It's more about the frustration and growing resentment over this massive investment," continues Liesl Louw-Vaudran. Among the people evacuated from Palma, there are foreigners. Libération had access to the list of passengers on one of the ships that arrived in Pemba on March 31. On board were about 20 French people, most of them Total employees, but also British, Portuguese and Italians.

Special Forces

While evacuation operations for thousands of survivors are still underway, the African Union has called for urgent action. We have known for a long time that the solution must come from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union," said Liesl Louw-Vaudran. Southern Africa is very different from French-speaking West Africa; there will be resistance to any European intervention. Maybe in the short term, you will find British or French Special Forces, after the Palma attack. But in the long term, it's up to SADC to get its security chiefs and intelligence services together. "In the meantime, in Pemba, among the crowd of evacuees, a man who refuses to give his name, still terrorized by what he has experienced, sighs: "We are being held hostage by the terrorists. The Mozambican government must ask other countries for help, because they have promised to attack the district of Mueda [also in Cabo Delgado province]. "Exhausted, he leaves murmuring condolences for those who have already lost their lives.


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