The Mozambican government should immediately assist civilians to move to safer areas. These civilians are trapped by fighting in Cabo Delgado province, Human Rights Watch said today. More than 88,000 people have been displaced from the embattled Palma district following the March 24, 2021 attack by Ansar al-Sunna, an armed group linked to the Islamic State (ISIS). Government security forces have imposed restrictions that have prevented tens of thousands from leaving, placing them at risk from fighting and aid shortages.
Many civilians have sought refuge in Quitunda village, about five kilometers from the town of Palma, where they lack water, food, and other basic services. People who managed to escape Quitunda said that government soldiers prohibited people from leaving the village, and physically assaulted those caught trying to flee.
Thousands of Palma residents who managed to reach Pemba, the provincial capital, traveled by foot, walking several days in the bush. Others went by boat, spending days at sea without food or water, while others took government rescue planes, in some cases only after paying bribes to soldiers to secure seats.
“Government forces have international legal obligations to assist people threatened by fighting and food shortages to move to safer areas,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Mozambican authorities should immediately allow civilians to leave Cabo Delgado combat zones and ensure humanitarian aid reaches those in need.”
From March to July, Human Rights Watch spoke by phone with 32 people, including displaced people, relatives of trapped Palma residents, humanitarian workers, army officials, and journalists. Human Rights Watch corroborated their accounts by analyzing satellite imagery of fighting in the town of Palma and massive fires in the surrounding areas since late April.
During the March 24 attack, gunmen identified as Ansar al-Sunna from their clothes, language, and weapons burned homes and farms. Witnesses said that the attackers killed at least seven people, including the witnesses’ relatives and neighbors.
Since the attack, Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by government security forces, including restricting people’s movement and beating and mistreating them.
Despite government forces’ claims that they had regained control of Palma after more than 10 days of heavy fighting, residents said that Palma remained insecure. Some people who had returned to the town had to flee again due to renewed attacks.
People who fled Quitunda and Palma for Pemba in May and June said that government soldiers had tightly restricted movement. These soldiers also beat and mistreated some people trying to flee. “Soldiers didn’t allow us to leave Quitunda, but there is nothing there, no food, no medicine, and the water is dirty,” a 28-year-old man said. “When aid arrives occasionally, we fight each other for it. I tried to flee Quitunda three times before. Soldiers caught me and whipped me hard.” He said he escaped after befriending a soldier who helped him in exchange for his civilian clothes so that he too, could leave.
The persistent insecurity and government restrictions have continued to hinder the access of humanitarian groups operating in Cabo Delgado province. A senior official from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, MSF), who visited the region, reported that bureaucratic hurdles impeded aid delivery. A World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson said on July 1 that it had suspended food distribution to Palma district in March and was assessing the security risks of providing assistance to people in isolated regions in Palma, Macomia, Mocimboa da Praia, Muidumbe, and Quissanga districts.
Two senior army officials said in May and June that the army was not allowing people to leave because it believed armed group members were hiding among them. “If we allow them out, they can cause the same type of mess in other cities,” one officer said. “Just imagine if they go to Pemba or Montepuez. The same thing applies to humanitarian agencies and workers. If we allow foreigners to start going to Quitunda, these bandits will use the opportunity to embarrass our government just like they did [in Palma].”
Under international humanitarian law, government forces and non-state armed groups are obligated to protect citizens under their control and remove them from the vicinity of military operations. All sides need to facilitate aid delivery. The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the Kampala Convention) obligates African member countries to provide assistance to internally displaced people by meeting their basic needs, including allowing and facilitating rapid and unimpeded access by humanitarian organizations.
On May 4 Human Rights Watch shared its findings and requested comments in an email to the Mozambican Ministry of Defense but has not received a response.
The Mozambican government should ensure that security forces deployed to Palma respect the rights of people caught amid the fighting, Human Rights Watch said. These security forces include foreign troops from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Standby Force and Rwanda. Respecting the rights of people means moving them from conflict areas, ensuring access to aid, and providing reparations for abuses.
“Tens of thousands of civilians are at immediate risk of violence and displacement without the basic necessities to survive,” Segun said. “The Mozambican authorities need to facilitate access to aid agencies to tackle the growing humanitarian crisis.”
For more details about the conflict and human rights abuses in Palma, please see below.
The Conflict in Cabo Delgado Province
Since October 2017, the Islamic State-linked group Ansar al-Sunna, also known locally as Al-Shabab or mashababos (the local popular name for Al-Shabab), has attacked villages, killed more than 2,500 people, and destroyed property and infrastructure, including schools and health centers, in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique. More than 800,000 people have been displaced since April 2020 following an escalation in violence. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reported that 46 percent of displaced people are children, many of them unaccompanied.
Mozambican academics say that Ansar al-Sunna members include nationals from Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Middle Eastern countries. The group began to show the signs of radicalization in late 2011, when – claiming to be “the true Muslims” – they prohibited their children from attending state schools and urged people to disobey Mozambican laws. The Mozambican president, Filipe Nyusi said that the group has since been able to recruit thousands of fighters across Niassa, Nampula, Zambezia, and Cabo Delgado provinces.
Analysts in Mozambique and abroad assert that while religion plays an important role in indoctrination, mobilization, and recruitment of Ansar al-Sunna militants, the region’s widespread social, economic, and political problems are major drivers of the violence.
Ansar al-Sunna pledged allegiance to ISIS in April 2018. ISIS acknowledged the group as an affiliate in August 2019, and since then has claimed responsibility for several of the group’s attacks. In the past three years, the armed group has carried out more than 800 attacks against the local population and government military targets in Cabo Delgado’s northern districts. Security analysts believe that fighters who carried out the March 24 attack, the group’s most recent, came from Mocimboa da Praia, a port town south of Palma that is used for cargo deliveries to oil projects. The group has controlled Mocimboa da Praia since attacking the town in August 2020.
On March 25 the Defense Ministry announced an army operation to restore order and security in Palma. After more than 10 days of heavy fighting, Mozambican government forces claimed they had regained complete control of the town, although many civilians were killed and wounded.
On April 4 the Mozambican Armed Defense Forces (FADM) flew a group of Mozambican and foreign journalists into Palma to show that it had driven out Ansar al-Sunna and restored order. Two journalists told Human Rights Watch that the town’s infrastructure, including banks, hospitals, and government offices, had been destroyed. Footage from Televisão de Moçambique and Sky News corroborated their accounts.
The journalists also said that during the visit they heard army generals and the Cabo Delgado governor encouraging people to return, in speeches that two Mozambican television stations later broadcast. However, four months later, the government has been unable to account for hundreds of missing people and the total number of casualties remains unknown.
Despite insisting that the situation is under control, the Mozambican government has requested international support and military assistance, mainly from the United States, the European Union, the Southern Africa Development Community, and Rwanda. On June 23, after months of deliberations, SADC approved the deployment of its Standby Force to Mozambique. In July, the EU announced a military training mission to Mozambique, and Rwanda has deployed 1,000 soldiers to Cabo Delgado.
On July 25 President Nyusi confirmed reports that a joint Rwanda and Mozambique military operation had raided one of the main Ansar Al-Sunna bases in Auasse, Mocimboa da Praia. Media reports suggest that dozens of fighters were killed during the operation. Various military sources told Human Rights Watch that as of late July, there were ongoing operations against Ansar Al-Sunna in Diaca, Nanili, and Auasse villages in Mocimboa da Praia.
Fighting in Palma and Secondary Displacement
Fighting across Palma district intensified in late April and continued through May and June, said people in Quitunda, who could hear heavy gunfire in the town of Palma. Clashes between government forces and Ansar Al-Sunna were so intense from June 22 to 24 that some feared it would reach them. “For two days, we were so scared that we couldn’t sleep,” said one man who fled to Pemba. “We could hear ‘boom boom’ [gunfire] very close. Some people left the village and went to hide in the bush.”
Many fled Palma on April 26. A woman named Hadija, who, like others interviewed, Human Rights Watch decided not to identify by full name for her safety, said that people walked to Quitunda and hid on the beach to wait for a boat to Pemba, while others walked north in the direction of Tanzania. A video shared with Human Rights Watch, said to have been taken on April 26, shows a group of women carrying children and loads. The person filming the video is heard saying that the women are crossing the Rovuma River by Ntony, toward Tanzania.
A woman who identified herself as Anchia described fighting in Palma and seeing bodies with gunshot wounds and many beheaded. During the night of April 24, Ansar Al-Sunna fighters came to her neighborhood and set some houses on fire while ordering other people to stay inside their homes. Human Rights Watch was unable to determine why the group targeted some houses and not others.
“We heard people screaming and crying outside,” Anchia said. “In the morning, when we left the house, the mashababos had beheaded many people, including my brother-in-law and his son, who was just a boy.” Her husband then gave her money and told her to take their two younger children, hide by the beach, and wait for a boat to Pemba. Anchia has not seen or heard from her husband or oldest son since.
Thousands of people fled Palma and went to Quitunda. The number of people in Quitunda, a community originally designed to house 300 families displaced by liquefied natural gas projects, is not known and the ongoing hostilities may have doubled the number of displaced people there.As of April 15, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that 11,104 displaced people were living in the local primary school. One month later, the media reported that more than 20,000 people were sheltering there.
Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch confirmed the dramatic increase in tents and crowds in the village since late March. Comparison over months shows the upsurge in tents, structures, and people particularly since the end of May.
A 33-year-old man described a deteriorating situation: “We do not have water, people are falling sick, food is not coming. I don’t know how long it will take before we die of hunger, disease, or are killed by the mashababos.”
Telecommunications in Palma remained disrupted until July, making it hard to get on-the-ground information, including about the extent of government control.
Human Rights Watch used satellite imagery to monitor the extent of the damage over time. As of May 3, about 800 buildings in Palma appeared damaged, including 140 at an apparent encampment for displaced people erected in February-March and most likely destroyed by fire between April 26 and May 3. At the end of July, at least 1,000 buildings and structures appeared damaged.
While 80 percent of the damage happened before May 3, additional damage was also visible on satellite imagery at the end of May and June with dozens of buildings and structures destroyed. Most of the affected buildings have damage signatures consistent with arson and a smaller percentage of affected buildings have damage signatures consistent with artillery fire. In late June, Palma was still under attack and not safe for civilians. The government has not presented evidence that it is seriously investigating allegations of abuses in the region. On July 20 in Maputo, the deputy national director of national defense policy at the Defense Ministry, Maria Isabel Francisco, responded to a Human Rights Watch question and said the ministry was investigating reports of abuses by the security forces in Cabo Delgado. But she did not provide details about the status of any investigations.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has said that all African governments, consistent with international human rights law, should “effectively investigate and publicly disclose information about human rights abuses, and bring to justice, including through prosecution, perpetrators of human rights abuses.” Governments should “provide full and effective remedy including reparation to people who have suffered physical damage, any other damage or people who have suffered violations of their human rights as a result of an act of terrorism or acts committed in the name of countering terrorism.”
Civilians’ Flight from Combat Zone
Some civilians have managed to flee the Palma district since the attacks in March, particularly when fighting intensified in April, May, and June. In May, the International Organization for Migration recorded six boats transporting 172 people from Palma to various locations in Cabo Delgado. Human Rights Watch interviewed 23 displaced people who had escaped from Palma to Pemba, largely without help from the authorities.
Hadija, 22, was seven months pregnant when she left Palma on April 26. She said:
I ran away with my 2-year-old son and mother-in-law. We hid in the mangroves for two nights until a boat came. We were hiding from the mashababos and soldiers because the soldiers did not want us to flee. The boat owner charged 3,000 meticals [US$48] for each person. We spent 12 days at sea, moving from island to island, before reaching Pemba. On the sixth day, I started to feel a lot of pain and bleeding. The women in the boat helped me deliver my baby, who was very weak and small. He died.
Acuambe, 25, was also in the advanced stages of pregnancy when she arrived at Pemba’s Paquiteque beach on May 22. Two volunteers who assisted her said that she was very dehydrated and “couldn’t even stand on her feet.” Acuambe described her suffering from lack of food, water, and government inaction in her pregnant state:
I thought I was going to die. The women in the boat told me to be strong for my son. They gave me all the food and water they had. The last two days of the trip, we did not have any food or water. Many times, helicopters flew over us in the direction of Palma. We shouted, waved our hands … at them. But I think they never heard us. I am just glad I made it.
Exploitation of Fleeing Civilians
Human Rights Watch interviewed six people by phone who arrived in Pemba on June 16, on boats carrying more than 100 people, mostly children, from Quitunda. All of whom said they witnessed government soldiers demanding bribes from people trying to flee. They said that security forces deployed to Palma forced distressed residents to pay bribes to get space on rescue flights. Amad, 24, said he could not afford the bribe for his whole family:
I was in Palma during the March 24 attack. I, my brother, and his wife ran to the local airport that was heavily guarded by soldiers. They did not let us in. So, we hid in a farm nearby for four days. We ate cassava when we were hungry. When the situation seemed calm, we approached the soldiers. They demanded 5,000 meticals [$80] from each of us. My brother and I decided to pay [only] for his wife because we didn’t have enough money.
Abobacar, 34, decided to take a boat after he failed – despite paying a bribe to a soldier – to secure a spot on one of the supply planes flying in and out of Quitunda:
A soldier called Arnaldo asked for 3,000 meticals [$48]. I gave him the money in two installments, but he never told me when we were going to fly out. I got tired of waiting and decided to try the boat option.
Rachid, 26, said that a soldier called Luis asked for 2,000 meticals [$32] from each of the four members of his family, but disappeared without providing any information on how to board any plane:
He took the money, told me to wait while he would go ask his boss. We waited for hours. He never came back. As we were waiting, two older soldiers, … passed by and saw us there. One of them told us to go to the queue and write our names on the list to fly out. We were saved by the grace of Allah.
The BBC in May reported similar bribery allegations from people seeking to flee Palma district.