More than 20,000 Mozambicans have been trapped near a huge natural gas project in the country’s Cabo Delgado province, more than a month since it was abandoned after an attack by militants.
People who camped outside the French energy company Total’s Afungi site have been unable to escape, despite fears of impending violence, and have limited food because the Mozambican government has blocked humanitarian access.
Total evacuated its staff immediately after the Isis-affiliated al-Shabaab group, which is not linked to the Somali group of the same name, attacked the nearby port city of Palma on March 24, killing dozens of people. He retired shortly thereafter, but has been burning houses in the suburbs around Palma and attacking fishermen, even beheading some, according to Cabo Ligado, a weekly report on violence in the area.
It is feared that the militants will launch a full-scale attack again. after ramadan ends next week.
At the end of April, Total declared “overwhelming force” suspend your operations on the Afungi site.
Mozambican forces control the town of Quitunda, north of Palma, built to relocate communities displaced by Total’s multi-million dollar liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, but have not allowed civilians to leave the area. Many people from the towns on the outskirts and from Palma took refuge in Quitunda. The UN refugee agency said on Friday that people trying to evacuate by boat had been physically assaulted.
About 40,000 people had fled on foot or by bus, and the World Food Program said it had been working to bring them food. But he had not been able to reach the people trapped in Quitunda and Palma because he did not agree with the government’s demands to distribute the aid.
Several humanitarian organizations working in Cabo Delgado said they could not officially comment on humanitarian access in the area, although they have been providing aid in other parts of the region.
Zenaida Machado, a Mozambique researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that despite al-Shabaab’s withdrawal, there were fears of further clashes between government forces and militants. He said shops and infrastructure in Palma had been destroyed by the fighting and that there were bodies in the streets, despite the army claiming it was in control of the situation.
“People resorted to looting abandoned stores and selling everything they had in order to feed themselves or to pay for the passage of the ship to take them to another place. People told us in some cases that they had to give money to army soldiers to get on planes, ”he said.
He said the government’s failure to help people evacuate had been a feature of the conflict. One option for the trapped has been to hide in the nearby mangroves where boats occasionally arrive, but at around $ 30 (£ 22) the fee to board can often be too much.
“We have heard of women who walk for 10 days alone with babies on their back, of people who walk in the bush, of people who sleep for days in the mangroves with their whole body in the water to hide from the insurgents,” he said.
“We have heard all kinds of stories but what we have not heard is where the security forces [have been] throughout that period. “
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network April report They said those who traveled through the woods seeking safety or in hiding had no food or water.
Joseph Hanlon, a Mozambique development professor at the UK Open University, said the Palma attack could be following a pattern of repeated attacks to wipe out the local population that prompted militants to seize the nearby port of Mocímboa da Praia last year. He said the army’s response may be to control the movement to block this tactic.
“The problem is that they have no way to feed these people. Quitunda does not have a water system. When it rains, the tanks fill up and people drink from them. So people now live off the water supplies of the local population, ”he said.
The militants have been gaining ground in the area for months. Small-scale attacks late last year led Total to suspend work at Afungi until it was promised a security cordon. The $ 20bn (£ 15bn) LNG project, to be completed in 2024, was about to restart when the Palma attack occurred.
The major gas and gemstone discoveries in Cabo Delgado a decade ago transformed it from a chronically underserved region to one the government is desperate to maintain control of.
But the local population feels they have not benefited, and resentment over the area’s underdevelopment is believed to have fueled the insurgency.
Total said they are not abandoning the Afungi project or the relocation of displaced villagers to Quitunda, but with work suspended “they cannot maintain the same level of employment or enter into contractual agreements for goods and services with suppliers.”
“Mozambique LNG remains committed to [the] handover of the Quitunda village and completion of the resettlement process, however, construction is currently on hold ”.
Because militant-controlled Mocímboa da Praia is located immediately south of Palma, displaced people have had to walk long distances to safety, including the provincial capital, Pemba.
According to the UN, the vast majority of displaced people have stayed in host communities.
Throughout the conflict, which has seen more than 700,000 displaced, families and villagers have provided shelter, resulting in dozens of people staying in overcrowded homes.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism