For more than three years, northern Mozambique has been ravaged by violence and destruction, as a local Islamic insurgency has grown in intensity and brutality. More than 1,300 civilians have been killed, according to one estimate, and some 668,000 have been internally displaced — nearly half of whom are children.
The violence has been centered in Cabo Delgado, one of the poorest regions in Mozambique. For years, the region was largely ignored by the central government, until large reserves of oil and gas were discovered offshore. As international oil companies have moved into the area, fighters have stepped up their attacks, terrorizing villagers, burning homes, destroying farms and publicly beheading women and children.
The group executing the attacks, known as al Sunna wa Jummah, has pledged allegiance to ISIS, and on Wednesday the U.S. State Department officially designated it as an affiliate of the Islamist extremist group.
But the government of Mozambique, in trying to put down the movement, has also been implicated in the violence. According to a recent Amnesty International report, government forces have carried out attacks against civilians accused of collaborating with the militants. “These government forces,” the report concluded, “… have conducted extrajudicial executions, committed acts of torture and other ill-treatment, and mutilated the bodies of their victims.”
The Mozambican embassy did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.
Journalists are not usually granted access to the area, but Neha Wadekar accompanied an aid group to Cabo Delgado in November and was able to speak to survivors of the brutal campaign. She wrote about what she saw in an article this week for The Daily Beast.
“I think the tragedy here is that the civilians, the people who live there, are really facing violence from different directions,” she said in an interview with Weekend Edition Saturday.
Wadekar spoke with host Scott Simon about the victims she met on her trip, the origins of the violence and the criticism that has been leveled against the government in Mozambique. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited in parts for clarity and length.
What did [survivors] tell you?
I mean the stories are heart breaking. We spoke with a 10-year-old girl named Maria and she remembers the day that the attackers came into her village. They started burning houses down, they started looting. Maria was separated from her family during the violence and she told me that the attackers forced her and the other villagers to sit and watch as they beheaded people that they had grown up with, people that they knew. After she fled, she fled into the forest, and her foot got caught in an animal trap, like a hunting snare. Eventually she was rescued … Maria recovered from her wounds, and she also had malaria in the local hospital, and that was when she discovered that both her mother and her father had been beheaded in that attack.
That’s just one of the many, many stories that I heard while I was there, all of them with the same level of brutal and senseless violence.
Who are the attackers? Or is there one answer to that?
There are many answers to that. Outsiders, the countries that have been named have been Kenya, Tanzania and others. So outside influences and started preaching against the version of Islam that was practiced in Cabo Delgado at the time and they began preaching, radicalizing in the mosques up there. And I spoke with some civil society leaders who told me that, you know, there were folks in these mosques who told the government something is going on here, something is going wrong and that these concerns were just not addressed urgently by the government. And so what ended up happening is that you have a local population — primarily young men, primarily unemployed — who hear this radical version of Islam and that’s how people say that this started.
And then, of course, if you fast track it a few years, in 2019 ISIS, the Islamic State, claimed credit for its first attack. And that really changed the dynamics. This went from being a kind of local issue of violence by citizens who were unhappy or felt left out or left behind to becoming really an international geopolitical problem.
Amnesty International issued a report this month that they’ve been able to independently verify that the Mozambican military and government hired mercenaries who have also committed brutalities.
I think the tragedy here is that the civilians, the people who live there, are really facing violence from different directions. First you have the militant groups … who are committing gross atrocities against the local population, but then the real tragedy here is that the people who are supposed to protect them, the government, the police forces and the security forces of the government have also been accused — and these accusations were confirmed by Amnesty International in their report — of human rights violations.