(Johannesburg) – Armed men linked to Mozambique’s main opposition party, the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), have raided at least two hospitals and two health clinics over the past month. The attacks on the medical facilities, which involved looting medicine and supplies and destroying medical equipment, threaten access to health care for tens of thousands of people in remote areas of the country.
“RENAMO’s attacks on hospitals and health clinics are threatening the health of thousands people in Mozambique,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “RENAMO’s leadership needs to call off these attacks on health facilities immediately.”
In the most recent attack, on August 12, 2016, about a dozen gunmen who identified themselves as RENAMO entered the town of Morrumbala, in the central province of Zambezia, at about 4 a.m., several witnesses and local authorities told Human Rights Watch. The men first raided a police station, freeing about 23 men detained there, and then looted the local district hospital.
A nurse who was there said that the men opened fire at the building. “I was in the emergency room when they fired gunshots through the windows,” he said. “We were hiding beneath chairs, beds…anything we could find.”
The nurse and two Zambezia-based reporters who arrived at the hospital just after the attack said that the gunmen had looted medicine from the facility’s main pharmacy.
On July 30, a group of armed men who identified themselves as RENAMO entered the village of Mopeia, in Zambezia province, at about 3 a.m., two local residents said.
The armed men first raided the house of a local official of the governing FRELIMO party, who is the chief nurse at the local Centro 8 de Março health clinic. When they did not find him, they went to the clinic. A doctor who visited the clinic the following day said the gunmen burned patients’ medical records and stole vaccines, syringes, and medicines. The clinic stores essential medicines, including antiretroviral medicines for HIV/AIDS patients, for a population of over 8,000 people, he said.
The armed men then went to Mopeia’s main hospital, about eight kilometers from the clinic. A nurse at the hospital said that she saw about 15 men in dark green uniforms enter the main ward in the early morning, most of them armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles. They entered the ward where patients were sleeping, threatened patients and medical staff, ordering them to leave the hospital, and carried away medicines, serum bags, bed sheets, and mosquito nets. The nurse said none of the patients or medical staff were hurt.
Together, Mopeia district hospital and Mopeia village clinic serve over 100,000 people, local health authorities said.
On July 31, about a dozen armed men who identified themselves as RENAMO raided the village of Maiaca, Maúa district, in the northern province of Niassa. The administrator of Maúa, Joao Manguinje, told Human Rights Watch that the gunmen attacked the local health clinic and the police station. They took five kits of HIV tests, four boxes of syringes, and over 600 vials of penicillin, he said.
Manguinje also alleged that on July 24, RENAMO gunmen had raided the health clinic in the nearby village of Muapula, where they stole, among other things, five obstetric kits, over 200 tetanus vaccines, and over 300 vials of penicillin. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify this attack.
Mozambican authorities say that RENAMO gunmen have carried out similar attacks on health clinics over the past month in Sofala, Manica, and Tete provinces, in central Mozambique, but Human Rights Watch was not able to verify those reports.
The RENAMO party, which has offices in the capital, Maputo, has neither confirmed nor denied carrying out the attacks. However, the party leader, Afonso Dhalkama, who is believed to be hiding in the Gorongosa bush, in the central province of Sofala, told the Mozambican private television station, STV, on August 5 that he had given orders to attack some areas of Zambezia province. He did not specify the targets or mention medical facilities.
Dhlakama said the attacks were a “military strategy” aimed at dispersing government soldiers who are surrounding RENAMO positions in Gorongosa bush, about 200 kilometers south of the villages that were attacked. Several districts of Tete, Zambezia, Manica, Sofala, and Niassa provinces have had recent armed clashes between government forces and Renamo fighters.
“RENAMO’s raids on medical facilities seem part of a repugnant strategy to damage health facilities and loot medicines,” Bekele said. “What they are succeeding in doing is to deny crucial health services to Mozambicans who need them.”
After the 1992 peace agreement that ended Mozambique’s 16-year civil war, RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama was allowed to keep a 300-man private armed guard. Successive failures to integrate other RENAMO fighters into the national army and civilian life have encouraged former fighters to join the private guards and to camp in old RENAMO training grounds. RENAMO, a political party that currently holds 89 seats in parliament, is now believed to have an armed force of more than double what it was permitted.
Over the past four years, tension has increased between RENAMO and the governing party, FRELIMO, including an increase in armed attacks by RENAMO and counterattacks by the government. The parties signed a new peace agreement in 2014, but RENAMO says the government has failed to integrate RENAMO fighters into the national army and police in accordance with the agreement. The government says RENAMO has refused to hand over a list of its militia to be integrated into the security forces because it wants to use them as leverage for political negotiations. FRELIMO won elections in October 2014, but RENAMO says it wants to govern the six provinces in which it claims it received more votes.
In February 2016, Human Rights Watch documented abuses committed by government forces in Tete province, where RENAMO enjoys support among the population, including alleged summary executions and sexual violence. At least 6,000 people fled the area for neighboring Malawi. The Malawi office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that most of these people have now returned home, following assurances of safety by the Mozambican government.
In May, Mozambican and international media reported the discovery of several unidentified bodies near Gorongoza, between the provinces of Manica and Sofala. Human Rights Watch called on the Mozambican authorities to investigate the gravesite thoroughly, to identify the victims, and to hold perpetrators to account. The government says it launched an investigation in June, but it has not yet announced any findings.