(Johannesburg) – An armed group linked to the Islamic State (ISIS) has since 2018 kidnapped and enslaved more than 600 women and girls in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province, Human Rights Watch said today. Mozambican and regional forces have rescued some of them, but many remain missing.
The group, known locally as Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah (ASWJ) and Al-Shabab (or mashababos) forced younger, healthy-looking, and lighter-skinned women and girls in their custody to “marry” their fighters, who enslave and sexually abuse them. Others have been sold to foreign fighters for between 40,000 and 120,000 Meticais (US$600 to US$1,800). Abducted foreign women and girls, in particular, have been released after their families paid ransom.
“Al Shabab’s leaders should immediately release every woman and girl in their captivity,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They should take all necessary steps to prevent rape and sexual abuse by their fighters, end child marriage, forced marriage, and the sale and enslavement of women and girls at their bases and areas of operation.”
Between August 2019 and October 2021, Human Rights Watch remotely interviewed 37 people, including former abductees, their relatives, security sources, and government officials, and monitored media reports about kidnappings. They said that Al-Shabab abducted women and girls during attacks in various Cabo Delgado districts, including Mocímboa da Praia in March, June, and August 2020, and Palma in March 2021.
A 33-year-old woman said that Al-Shabab fighters assaulted her aunt, a local official, and forced her at gunpoint to identify all the houses containing girls between ages 12 and 17 in Diaca town, Mocimboa da Praia. The woman counted 203 girls but did not know whether the fighters abducted all the girls. “Some mothers were begging the fighters to take them instead of their daughters,” a 27-year-old man said. “But one of the mashababos said they didn’t want old women with children and diseases.”
A 34-year-old former abductee from Mocimboa da Praia said he was forced to select the women and girls for sex with the fighters on their return from military operations. “Those [women] who refused were punished with beatings, and no food for days.”
On April 30, the African Union Commission’s special envoy on women, peace, and security, Bineta Diop, called on the Mozambique government, regional bodies, and the international community to “act swiftly and provide adequate support” to women and girls who had been held and mistreated by Al-Shabab.
In recent years, the Mozambican authorities have made some progress rescuing hundreds of kidnap victims from the group’s bases. However, the authorities have kept those liberated incommunicado for weeks or longer without access to relatives, ostensibly for security screenings.
In October, an official in the Cabo Delgado governor’s office told Human Rights Watch that the army was holding hundreds of people, mostly women and children, freed from the group’s bases in the Complexo Desportivo de Pemba (Pemba Sports Complex). The soldiers were holding them to separate civilians from suspected fighters. The official said that those held in the facility were receiving medical attention, including psychosocial (mental health) support, but did not specify the nature of the help or who was providing it.
Mozambican authorities and international and regional partners, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC), should provide rights-respecting, gender-sensitive, child-sensitive, and dignified reintegration and rehabilitation services, including comprehensive post-rape care, to rescued women and girls, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should fully investigate and appropriately prosecute Al-Shabab leaders and fighters for abductions, child and forced marriages, rape and sexual violence, enslavement, and other gender-based crimes in violation of international and Mozambican law.
Al-Shabab’s abuses against women and girls also contravene regional and international human rights law and violate international humanitarian law. Specialized international and regional treaties on women’s and children’s rights, including the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol), ensure the right to be free from sexual and gender-based violence, including reproductive violence. Under these instruments, the Mozambique government has obligations to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for abuses as well as provide timely, accessible, and effective remedies to victims and survivors.
“An unknown number of women and girls remain in captivity in Mozambique, facing horrific abuses daily, including enslavement and rape by Al-Shabab fighters,” Segun said. “Mozambican authorities should intensify efforts to rescue and reintegrate survivors into their communities, and promptly ensure their humane treatment and access to medical and psychosocial services.”
For more details about the humanitarian crisis and abduction of women and girls in Cabo Delgado, please see below.
Humanitarian Crisis in Cabo Delgado Province
Since October 2017, Al-Shabab has attacked numerous villages, killed more than 2,500 people, and destroyed extensive civilian property and infrastructure, including schools and health centers, in Cabo Delgado. More than 800,000 people have been displaced since April 2020 following an escalation in the violence.
In April 2018, the armed group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. In August 2019, ISIS acknowledged the group as an affiliate and has since claimed responsibility for several of its attacks. In the past four years, Al-Shabab has committed more than 1,000 attacks against government military targets and civilian population centers in Cabo Delgado’s northern districts of Macomia, Mocimboa da Praia, Muidumbe, Nangade, Palma, and Quissanga.
On June 23, 2021, after months of deliberations, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) approved the deployment of its Standby Force to Mozambique, SAMIM. The next month, Rwanda, which is not a SADC member, sent 1,000 soldiers to Cabo Delgado under a separate agreement with the Mozambican government. Since then, Mozambican troops backed by Rwandan and SADC forces have regained some areas controlled by Al-Shabab in Mocímboa da Praia district, and drove fighters out of Palma town.
The names of former abductees are pseudonyms to protect their privacy.
The media reported that on November 3, 2018, Al-Shabab fighters raided and looted shops and markets in Unidade village, Macomia, and burned 45 homes, a school, and a mosque. Two sisters, “Anchia,” 23, and “Lurdes,” 19, told Human Rights Watch in August 2019 that they fled the attack with other villagers and hid on their family farm. Late that night, six men armed with machetes and AK-47 assault rifles discovered them. Anchia said the leader, called Abdul, asked her and her sister about their husbands and children. When she responded that they were both unmarried, the man replied, “You will be my wives and I will give you children.”
The armed men then forced the two women to walk for hours. They arrived about midday on November 4 at a camp hidden in the bush around the town of Quiterajo. They said they saw about 30 other women and girls in the camp, some of whom the camp leader sold as brides or offered to fighters for sex or to be their “wives.” The camp leader, whom they called “sheik,” gave Anchia and Lurdes to Abdul, who moved them to a nearby camp, where they lived with him for six months.
We lived a normal life: praying, cooking, going to the farm, and taking care of children [from other women in the camp]. One night, in early May , government forces arrived in the camp. We ran to hide by the riverbank. When we returned in the morning, the soldiers had killed four men, including Abdul, and taken the other people in the camp.
The sisters fled to Pemba. There, they have lived with a church woman and helped her with house chores while the church group gave them food and clothes. Lurdes described the long-term consequences of their abduction:
I don’t want to look for our relatives here in Pemba because I don’t want them to know that I am pregnant [from Abdul].
Reports of women being kidnapped in Macomia continued into October 2021.
Mocímboa da Praia Town
Mocímboa da Praia town has experienced at least three Al-Shabab attacks, accompanied by the abduction of women and girls, starting in March 2020. The armed group briefly occupied the town in June 2020 but seized full control in August 2020 after intense fighting with government forces. Joint Mozambican and Rwandan forces regained control of the town in August 2021. The fighting displaced more than 6,000 people.
“Muna,” 36, who arrived in Pemba from Mocímboa da Praia on October 26, 2020, said that Al-Shabab abducted his wife and three daughters from the town during the March 2020 attack:
Fifteen mashababos armed with guns came in two Isuzu vans and found me, my wife, and my three daughters hiding at the back of the house. One of them grabbed my younger daughters, ages 12 and 14 years. Another one grabbed my 17-year-old daughter and started touching her breasts. I got angry and I threw a stone at him, which made them hit me so hard that I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I was in pain and alone. My girls and my wife were gone.… There is not one day that I don’t think of them.
Four other people who fled to Pemba said that before leaving Mocímboa da Praia, they saw Al-Shabab fighters drive between 30 to 100 adolescent girls in vans toward the southern side of town.
“Fatimah,” 43, said that Al-Shabab fighters kidnapped her 14- and 16-year-old daughters on March 23, 2020:
We hid under the beds when we saw the mashababos driving in vans along our street. Things happened so fast. They forced open our front door, came inside the room, and took the girls. I ran outside to try to stop them. But my daughters were already in the van with many other girls.
A month later, when the fighting had temporarily ceased, Fatimah’s husband received a phone call from someone claiming to be an Al-Shabab leader, who demanded a 1 million meticais ($15,000) ransom to release his two daughters. After he paid the ransom, the girls were released and the family fled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Fatimah said her daughters remain deeply traumatized: “The younger one doesn’t talk to men, not even her father. She has nightmares at night and refuses to go to school.” She said that the girls were receiving counseling from a local religious group.
Al-Shabab fighters abducted more women and girls during a June 2020 attack on Mocímboa da Praia. Media reports said fighters kidnapped eight girls, but a local businessman and a religious leader said that they thought the number was higher.
“Assumana,” 33, said that during an Al-Shabab attack, fighters forced her 54-year-old aunt, a community leader, to point out the houses of girls between ages 12 and 17:
In the morning on June 29 , four mashababos, one of whom was a former neighbor, came to our house looking for my aunt. They called her by her name and told her that if she wanted her family to be spared, she had to collaborate with them. They ordered her to take them to all the houses of families with girls. My aunt refused and cried, begging for mercy. One of the men slapped her face and pointed an assault rifle to her head. She had to obey them.
Assumana said that the girls were forced onto two big buses and driven north toward Pundanhar town. The aunt confirmed that the fighters had forced her to identify more than 200 girls, but she did not remember more details. She has since been receiving mental health services, according to a psychiatrist with knowledge of her case.
“Faizal,” 27, said that during the June 2020 attack, the Al-Shabab fighters “told me and the other men to lie down on the floor. The leader of the group kept repeating that they had not come there for us, the men. They only wanted young women and girls.”
The abductions continued after Al-Shabab took control of Mocímboa da Praia in August 2020. Local residents said that Al-Shabab fighters kidnapped hundreds of women and girls, including two Brazilian nuns. The nuns were released 24 days later, on September 6. There was no information about whether a ransom was paid.
“Sara,” 24, who was kidnapped in Mocímboa da Praia on August 8, 2020, said that fighters took her and other women and girls in trucks and buses to the forest. Once Al-Shabab gained control of the town, they brought the captives back to abandoned houses there. She said:
They separated us according to age and skin color. The darker women were given tasks to clean, cook, farm.… Sometimes, when [the fighters] returned from fighting, they would choose some of them for sex. The light-complexioned women were their favorite for brides. The Indians, whites, and mulattas [mixed race] like me were kept separate. They said our relatives would pay for us.
Sara was held for 22 days before fighters took her in a series of vehicles to Montepuez, more than 300 kilometers away, where her husband was waiting. He had paid one million meticais ($15,000) for her freedom.
Two men, “Gani,” 38, and “Ashaf,” 34, whom Al-Shabab kidnapped in August 2020 from Mocimboa da Praia, said that they were forced into helping the militants sexually abuse kidnapped women and girls who were detained in abandoned houses in the town. Gani said:
We separated the young women and girls from the other women, and took them to another house, where once – sometimes twice – a week, mashababo fighters arriving from their battles, would sleep with them or take those they wanted to another place until the morning. Some older women [were forced to] help us to exclude [from the group of sex slaves] those women who were having their monthly period or were sick.
Sometimes, two or three fighters wanted the same woman. To avoid them fighting among themselves, I would force the women to go [have sex] with all of them for the sake of peace. If they refused, I would beat them or punish them with isolation, no food, no bath. But most women were obedient.
On March 24, 2021, Al-Shabab fighters raided the gas-producing town of Palma, killing and wounding an unknown number of civilians. Several witnesses said that they saw bodies on the streets and residents fleeing as fighters fired indiscriminately at people and buildings.
Five days after the attack, the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP) claimed their allies in Mozambique had taken control of Palma, which security sources confirmed to Human Rights Watch. “Rute,” 32, a nurse, said that she hid at a farm on the outskirts of town for two days when the attack started. On March 26, as she tried to leave for Afungi, where displaced people were being evacuated, 15 armed men in uniform caught her:
I initially thought they were soldiers. But when I saw the red bands on their heads, I realized they were Al-Shabab. They gave me food and water and took me to the mosque downtown, where some men were being held hostage. They took one man and cut his throat in front of me and told me... “This is what will happen to you if you try to flee.
That night, the fighters took Rute to join hundreds of other women and girls kept in four houses in a neighborhood in the town center. As government forces aerially bombed Palma on March 29, the fighters drove the women and children in three trucks through the forests of Pundanhar. They then forced them to walk in the rain from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. when the road became impassable for vehicles, until they reached Mocímboa da Praia.
A man known as Sheikh Omar or “Rei da Floresta” (King of the Jungle), was in charge of the camp where Rute lived for six weeks, cleaning, farming, and cooking for the Al-Shabab fighters. She said that she pretended to be infected with HIV-AIDS to avoid being sexually abused or picked as a wife. Sheikh Omar eventually released Rute and four other apparently sick women near the border with Tanzania.
“Grace,” a 27-year-old Zimbabwean national who had been abducted, said that Al-Shabab transported her from Palma to Mocímboa da Praia on March 29. She said she was released in June:
Many foreigners were released after their families paid ransom. I think [Al-Shabab] eventually realized my family didn’t have the money they wanted. At the orders of Sheikh Omar, I was moved to the women workers’ house. We were treated like slaves. Among [the workers] were women with children and non-Muslims who had difficulty learning the Quran [during the indoctrination sessions]. We cooked, went to the farm, cleaned… sometimes Omar would call us “useless infidels.
“Farida,” 26, said young, healthy women were given as “gifts” to the fighters while women who were sick were sent to the women workers’ house. Others were sold to men from Tanzania who were part of the ASWJ Tanzania cell:
There were many fighters – some young men, boys whom I recognized from Palma. They had disappeared from the town around November 2020. When they returned to the camp from fighting [elsewhere in the province], Sheikh Omar would give them gifts of kidnapped women [for sex]. He would personally screen the women and separate out the ones who were sick.
Six people who fled Mocímboa da Praia after the Mozambican and Rwandan forces retook the town said that they observed several pregnant young women and girls, and others with children apparently fathered by the fighters also fleeing the town.
“Samira,” 18, fled Al-Shabab bases in Mocímboa da Praia and arrived in Macomia town alongside several other women and girls on September 15, 2021 She said she had been kidnapped from Macomia and then forcibly married to a fighter from Tanzania in June 2020:
We were four wives. He took two of them to Tanzania, but the other woman and I stayed in the village camp near Mbau. When fighting began around the end of July or early August, the fighters told us to run. I couldn’t run much because I was pregnant, so I hid in the bush for three days. Then a group of displaced people found me and brought me back to Macomia.
Mozambican Government Response
The Mozambican authorities have made little progress in rescuing kidnapped women and girls, relative to the estimated numbers of people abducted.
On January 13, 2021, Mozambican police chief Bernardino Rafael presented 15 women and 6 children rescued by government forces to reporters. He said Al-Shabab had taken them during an attack on Matemo island, Ibo district, on January 6.
In July, Mozambican army commander Cristóvão Chume said government forces had rescued 120 women and children from an Al-Shabab camp in Palma. In October, the BBC reported that joint Mozambican and Rwanda forces had rescued some women in Pemba.
In September, SAMIM rescued three older women from an Al-Shabab base, south of the Messalo River, and handed them over to Mozambican authorities. Rwandan troops reported in October that they rescued an undisclosed number of women across Cabo Delgado, one of whom had allegedly been kept as a sex slave for more than a year.
In some cases, the women and girls appear to have been re-victimized by their rescuers. Three relatives of survivors and a government source said that government forces were holding rescued women and girls against their will inside the Complexo Desportivo de Pemba (Pemba Sports Complex).
“Charifo” said in October that he tried to visit his wife, who was kidnapped in 2019, after learning she was at the sports complex, but soldiers turned him back, telling him he could not see her yet. “How long should I wait?” he said. “My children and I have waited too long.”
Nasiima, whose 16-year-old daughter was abducted in Palma in 2021, described the complex’s atmosphere of secrecy: “My daughter has been inside there for two weeks now. They won’t release her. They won’t tell us anything. We can’t even get near the place because it is heavily guarded by soldiers. Why are they punishing us like this?”
As of November, Mozambican authorities continued to hold incommunicado hundreds of people rescued by the joint Mozambican, Rwandan, and SADC forces across Cabo Delgado province at the Pemba sports complex.
To Al-Shabab (ASWJ) and other non-state armed groups
- Immediately release all civilians, especially women and girls, in its custody.
- End all abductions, kidnappings for ransom, child and forced marriages, enslavement, and sale of women and girls.
- Appropriately punish all commanders and fighters responsible for rape, sexual abuse, child and forced marriage, and exploitation of women and girls.
To the Mozambique government
- Ensure humane treatment for all those rescued from armed groups. Provide their family members with timely information about their whereabouts and access while in government custody.
- Provide adequate, accessible medical and mental health and psychosocial support services to survivors of rape, sexual abuse, child and forced marriage, kidnappings, and other abuses in the armed groups.
- Facilitate referrals and access to emergency medical treatment and mental health and psychosocial support services for women and girls in camps for internally displaced people.
- Ensure that medical facilities treating former abductees have procedures in place to respond to sexual violence, including screening and medical supplies to provide comprehensive, accessible post-rape care in accordance with World Health Organization (WHO) standards.
- Provide specialized training for health care and social service providers to ensure care, treatment, and support to survivors of armed groups abductions.
- Investigate and prosecute in fair trials members of non-state armed groups who are responsible for sexual violence and other crimes against women and girls.
To the International Community including SADC, the African Union, United Nations, European Union, and United States
- Press the Mozambican government to ensure the humane treatment and prompt release of all women and girls rescued from armed groups.
- Support the provision of accessible post-trauma, psychosocial and mental health services for all the kidnapped women and girls, especially the victims of sexual violence and abuse.
- Ensure that any support to the Mozambican security forces to assist kidnapped women and girls is fully consistent with international human rights standards.
- Support investigations and appropriate prosecution of members of non-state armed groups responsible for sexual violence and other abuses against women and girls.