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A long way from home: The human toll of Mozambique’s war

‘Even if I tell them ‘I’m tired’ and ask them to go back home, what home? There is war there.’

Internally displaced women in Cabo Delgado collecting water. Social services are under strain in urban areas as a result of the influx of people fleeing the war.
Internally displaced women in Cabo Delgado collecting water. Social services are under strain in urban areas as a result of the influx of people fleeing the war. (Martim Gray Pereira/UNHCR)

A violent jihadist insurgency in northern Cabo Delgado has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their towns and villages. Most now live in the crowded homes of family and friends who have opened their doors with few questions asked – even though they are almost as poor as those they are sheltering.

Forty-five people are living in Gracinda Arde’s house in the Natite neighbourhood of the provincial capital, Pemba. All related, they escaped their village in Meluco district in January when al-Shabab arrived one afternoon, burning homes, shooting civilians as they ran, and beheading those they caught.

The extended family of brothers, sisters, and their children have all squeezed into Arde’s modest three-room home, sleeping on mats or thin pieces of fabric on a hard-packed mud floor.

Arde, in her sixties, has little to share. She makes some money selling charcoal and one of her Pemba-based sons, a taxi driver, helps out when he can. 

But it’s all a struggle – from food, to space, to the lack of mundane basics like soap and mosquito nets. When The New Humanitarian visited in the late afternoon, the family had eaten only once that day – a little cassava with moringa, a green-leafed vegetable.

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Gracinda Arde is sheltering 45 members of her extended family in her three-room home in Pemba.
Obi Anyadike/TNH
Gracinda Arde is sheltering 45 members of her extended family in her three-room home in Pemba.

Arde looks and sounds exhausted, but she is matter-of-fact: This is what you do for family. “Even if I tell them ‘I’m tired’ and ask them to go back home, what home? There is war there, where can they go?”

A ‘significant emergency’

More than 780,000 people have fled the almost five-year insurgency. Jihadism has framed and mobilised armed opposition to the perceived corruption and misgovernance of a distant central government in Maputo, feeding on grievance over the exploitation of the province’s rich natural resources by the politically connected.

Military intervention last year by troops from Rwanda, and the southern African regional bloc, sent in to prop up Mozambique’s woefully performing security forces, initially scattered al-Shabab. But the jihadists have since regrouped, are re-terrorising communities, and the number of people fleeing rural areas is rising again.

“This is still a significant emergency,” said Laura Tomm-Bonde, chief of mission of the International Organization for Migration. “It’s not going away and will only get worse.”

For Arde’s daughter, Joana Arlindo, trying to care for two children, this has already been a life-changing experience: “I’ve promised myself, from the bottom of my heart, when this all ends, I will give money to the first person in need that I see, thank God, and then go home.”

READ MORE: Going home?

The government this month authorised the return of residents to the northern town of Mocímboa da Praia, recaptured by Rwandan forces in August 2021, after two years of jihadist control.

It’s a cautious and limited start to a returns programme, although the town – the first to be retaken by Rwandan forces – is key to Mozambique’s liquefied natural gas industry. The government is yet to green light formal returns to other war-affected parts of Cabo Delgado.

There was a large degree of hesitancy over the idea of going home now among the displaced people The New Humanitarian spoke to in Pemba and Montepuez. Fear of potential forced returns by the government – to a region still deemed unsafe – was one reason for avoiding formal relocation centres, some said.

“I don’t want to go back at all, not even to do a reconnaissance,” said Ramada Joachim, the 35-year-old son of Gracinda Arde. “I’m afraid of being decapitated. If the war ends, then maybe we’ll go back, but right now, no.”

Assubiha Cala, who fled the town last year as it fell to al-Shabab, said: “If we go back to Palma, we’ll have to start from scratch as we’ve lost everything; our houses were destroyed. Even if we have to sleep on the floor here, at least we have something.”

For Rabia Saudi, living with 24 other people in a house donated by her grandmother in the Pemba neighbourhood of Meitz, “everything that has a beginning has an end, but I don’t know when the end to this [suffering] will be.”

Aid delays

Rather than the government’s formal “relocation” camps, more than two thirds of the displaced have settled in the local community. They register with neighbourhood committees, connected to the ruling FRELIMO party, which oversees the monitoring and distribution of assistance – providing a level of political and administrative control.

Arde had registered her extended family, but they were yet to receive any aid. She reminded her local committee but didn’t want to seem pushy. “I don’t think it’s my right, but if they give it to me, I’ll accept it,” she told The New Humanitarian. “Otherwise, I leave it all to God.”

“The problem is they don’t want to give us what we should receive.”

The delays in distribution are not all to do with the committees. From mid-last year, the World Food Programme, the main aid provider, was only able to deliver half rations, affecting both food and cash-based transfers. In January and February it was almost back to full rations, but further “pipeline breaks” are feared for this year as a result of donor underfunding.

There have also been repeated food for sex scandals, involving local committee officials and vulnerable women, and there is widespread community suspicion of aid profiteering – all made worse by the perceived lack of transparency over relief delivery.

“The problem is they [aid workers and the committees] don’t want to give us what we should receive,” said Assubiha Cala, who arrived in Pemba from the northern town of Palma last year. “They’ll say ‘Your name’s not on the list’. The whole idea is to keep the money for themselves.”

Cala lives with three other displaced families, pooling and sharing what they can. Those not on vouchers or cash-based programmes receive a monotonous diet of rice, maize, beans, and vegetable oil – another source of frustration, said Cala.

Ali Jalipa, a retired army officer, is the local committee chair for his Mieze neighbourhood, about 30 kilometres outside Pemba. He admits the registration system is not foolproof, but argues that committees need time to check that the displaced aren’t cheating – typically by signing up multiple times from the same household – and to keep an eye on potential al-Shabab infiltration.

“If you follow the rules, you should get registered [and eventually receive your aid],” he told The New Humanitarian.

But the displaced also have to contend with a degree of local resentment. The influx of 150,000 people into Pemba has almost doubled the town’s pre-war population. Rents are up, food prices have increased, and already shaky public services are struggling with the additional burden, deepening hardships for equally hungry host communities.

The toll of trauma

Remote and neglected, Cabo Delgado is one of Mozambique’s poorest regions, despite its mineral riches. Most of the displaced, the majority of them fishermen and farmers, have hoped to find work in towns like Pemba. But the war’s toll on business, followed by a tough COVID-19 lockdown, has punctured those aspirations.

Abudo Akimo was a cook for an international NGO in the northern town of Palma until it fell to al-Shabab in March last year. When he fled, he had no time to grab the documents and certificates he would need to show a prospective employer.

But it’s also the small indignities that weigh on his mind. “I don’t even have trousers to wear to go and find a job,” he fretted.

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Abudo Akimo lives with three displaced families in Pemba but only one is registered for food aid. Everyone shares what they have. Akimo collects crabs and shellfish as his contribution.
Obi Anyadike/TNH
Abudo Akimo lives with three displaced families in Pemba but only one is registered for food aid. Everyone shares what they have. Akimo collects crabs and shellfish as his contribution.

Psychosocial support is a huge gap in an overstretched humanitarian response. “Nearly everyone has witnessed or experienced some kind of atrocity,” said Tomm-Bonde. “It’s shocking when you think about that level of trauma.”

Delicacy is needed for hosts looking after rural kith and kin. “You’ve got to understand, regardless of what they do, they’re here because they’re suffering,” said Jalipa, the local committee chair, who has had a family living with him for a year. “You have to be patient – even if their child defecates in your compound.”

“I don’t even have trousers to wear to go and find a job.”

Culture shock can be another challenge, noted Pascoal Vanomba, who has taken in his uncle and his family after they escaped the violence in northern Muidumbe district. He has to constantly remind them that in Pemba, you pay for electricity and water.

“They just leave lights on,” said Vanomba, who works for a local NGO. “They are used to eating from the farm five times a day, so are always snacking, and they have these gender issues over what men and women can and can’t do. I used to live there, so I understand, but there has been some friction.”

Do unto others

The government has set up 80 formal “relocation” sites that shelter around one third of all the displaced. The typically small rural relocation centres like Nacaca, in southern Montepuez, offer space for new arrivals to build homes, using bamboo for roofs and wattle and daub constructed walls, with tiny adjacent plots for kitchen gardens.

The limited size of these sites means they are more readily integrated into the local community, which provides the land. But here as well, despite the general welcome extended to the displaced, tensions exist.

The plots provided are not enough to feed a family, but “when you try and farm [on more land, outside the settlement] the owners say you can’t, because an ancestor is buried here, or you have to give them money,” said Amade Ramos, 64, who arrived in Nacaca in February 2020.

He’s the community leader representing people from the northern district of Quissanga. Using a stick on the sand to calculate how many people he helped in Nacaca – either with food or a place to stay – the answer was 22. That included three young men who had arrived the day before from their village in eastern Meluco, recently attacked by al-Shabab.

The young men were out of luck. The camp committee said that at 3,000 people, Nacaca was full and couldn’t accept any more displaced – so there would be no food registration or land for them to build.

Ramos has taken them in anyway, providing a place to sleep and a promise he would try to influence the camp committee and get them registered. 

He said his philosophy is simple: He had to flee al-Shabab three times, and on each occasion was helped by strangers until he finally reached Nacaca.

“So, I’m just treating others as I was treated,” he told The New Humanitarian. “I know what they’ve been through.”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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