Displaced Mozambicans recall terror of new jihadist attacksThu, 29 Feb 2024 19:34:43 GMT

When gunmen arrived in her village for the second time, Alexandrina Calisto realised it was time to take her terrified family to join the latest wave of people fleeing Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province.The lawless region has been prey to a jihadist insurgency for more than six years, but in recent weeks there has been a surge in violence that has sent more than 70,000 people fleeing on foot, by bus and boat.According to the UN migration agency IOM, those escaping attacks in six districts of the province — a mineral-rich area already prone to catastrophic flooding and, last year, a cholera outbreak — numbered 68,156 between February 8 and 27 alone.UN agencies have begun to register the displaced people for emergency food supplies. But NGO leaders warn that after months of conflict and disaster, the terror of the attacks has begun to take a mental toll on the population. On February 20, 30-year-old Calisto fled with her mother, sister and three children after armed men entered their home. Mozambican soldiers arriving at the scene told her it would be safe to return, but when she tried, the gunmen launched an attack.The men were armed with “knives, rifles, pistols, and weapons to kill people”, Calisto said, describing how the gang burned vehicles. “We began to defend each other’s lives, and then we had to flee,” she told AFP.- Mental toll -Now the family is in Namapa, just south of Cabo Delgado, a small town that is quickly filling with thousands fleeing violence that the Maputo government has long tried to play down, including on Thursday. In the capital Maputo, Defence Minister Cristovao Chume denied that any district headquarter towns had been overrun, and stressed that the overall situation was stable. “What happened is that small groups of terrorists who left their bases went further south and attacked some villages and created panic,” he said.”If, say, two or three armed terrorists arrive in a village where there are no police or armed forces, and shoot in the air, burn two or three cars or houses in the area… the message is spread very quickly and creates panic not only in those villages but also creates national and international panic.”But aid groups said the situation has been simmering for a while, and that residents face mental trauma.”In reality the trend of new displacement is not only in the recent weeks, we have seen the resuming peak of displaced already in November,” said Francesca Zuccaro, NGO Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) deputy head of mission.People in some districts have been displaced multiple times, she told AFP in a telephone interview.  “Within a population that is involved in conflict for more than six years… the impact on the mental health is the one that is striking,” Zuccaro said.Cornelio Alberto was at a local market when an armed group arrived.”They arrived at the market at three in the afternoon,” he told AFP, explaining the gunman walked the crowd out of the village towards a nearby river.”We fled to the jungle and ran, we slept in the jungle” and “the next day, we walked and arrived at Namapa”. Alberto, a father-of-five who fled with his children, wife and three brothers, said they had not eaten much in days. In 2021, forces from Rwanda and the SADC regional bloc arrived to help Mozambique’s forces put down the insurgency. At first, they appeared to have some success in stabilising the situation. Almost 5,000 people have been killed and almost a million have been forced to flee their homes.- ‘Beautiful country’ -The insurgency, which has claimed links to the Islamic State group, survived and attacks have resumed — although the government has rebuffed calls for a state of emergency and the SADC portion of the force is due to withdraw in July.On Wednesday, the chair of the European Union’s political and security committee, senior US diplomat Delphine Pronk, reassured Mozambique of the pair’s “strong relations” during a working visit.In 2021, the European Union established a military mission to train Mozambican troops. The EU will, she said, “help your armed forces… to fight the terrorism in the northern parts of your beautiful country.” But the minister, Chume, while attempting to reassure the visitors, suggested that the EU “simply supporting Mozambique in training people and providing non-lethal equipment is not enough” and asked for weapons. “The terrorism we have in Mozambique is international terrorism,” he said. “The European Union could share with Mozambique the effort given to other countries that also suffer from the same phenomenon, and provide lethal equipment.”