Insurgents have beheaded “scores” of people in several days of attacks that began Oct. 31 in Cabo Delgado, a province in the East African country of Mozambique. The Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), is sending emergency aid to the area following reports that extremists massacred over 50 people and are displacing thousands.
“Over 12,000 people have arrived here in the past two weeks,” Sister Blanca Nubia Zapata told ACN. “We can’t keep up. Women and children are arriving, and older people who have been walking for days. Some have died on the way, on the roads and the forest tracks.” ACN is giving €100,000, which is roughly equivalent to $118,650 USD, to support the Diocese of Pemba (Pemba is the capital of Cabo Delgado) and the neighboring dioceses. The aid package also includes hygiene products, blankets, food, clothing, and trauma counselling.
Zenaida Machado, who conducts research on Mozambique for Human Rights Watch (HRW), spoke to France 24 News on Nov. 10 about the situation in the country. She said that the recent attacks and beheadings had been taking place for about a week in Muidumbe, a district in Cabo Delgado, but pointed out that the violence in the province actually began in 2017. According to ACN, the insurgents have ties to the Islamic State and are responsible for over 600 attacks and as many as 2,000 deaths. ACN also says that 310,000 people have been displaced due to the conflict, although news outlet Deutsche Welle (DW) puts this number at 435,000.
In a report on Nov. 11, DW corroborated Sister Zapata’s account, saying that at least 11,000 refugees had arrived in Pemba over the past three weeks. Said Zapata, “It seems as though they are trying to evict the entire population of the northern part of Cabo Delgado province, expelling the ordinary people without the slightest vestige of compassion.”
Media outlets, such as the BBC, have widely reported that extremists beheaded over 50 people on a soccer pitch in Muatide, which is a city in Muidumbe. ACN says that this information has been confirmed by police and France 24 says that witnesses reported the story to local media. VOA News said it confirmed the story with survivors of the beheadings, which occurred between Nov. 6 and Nov. 8 and which Cabo Delgado’s governor denied.
Other outlets, however, have been cautious in repeating the story. Says DW, “Verifying information from Mozambique’s troubled Cabo Delgado is exceedingly difficult. Journalists and human rights organizations have little or no access to the remote area.”
But while CNN also said it could not verify the report about the beheadings on the soccer field, CNN did speak to an eyewitness who escaped Muidumbe and confirmed that extremists were beheading “scores” of people and leaving their bodies in ditches. The witness said he knew at least five of the people who had been murdered. A local priest from Muidumbe also spoke to CNN and said he knew refugees who had told him their entire families had been killed.
Machado told France 24, “It’s important to note that these beheadings are not completely new in this conflict that started in 2017. Beheadings have been used by the insurgents as a weapon of war, and many people have been beheaded in the past three years.”
Violence in Mozambique has displaced 350K+ people in the last 3 years. Amid increasing attacks, @UNHumanRights calls for more protection for civilians in Cabo Delgado: https://t.co/2jh1VE4wIk@zenaidamz of our grantee @HRW explains the situation: https://t.co/BLaGehoOmL
— Open Society Foundations (@OpenSociety) November 13, 2020
Very little is known about those driving the conflict apart from the fact that they have ties to the Islamic State, said Machado. We do not know the number of people who have been beheaded since the conflict began, nor do we know whom the insurgents are targeting and why. But she added, “What I can tell you at this stage is that this group started as a small group of locals that attacked some police station. Then they moved into attacking village, beheading civilians, but specifically target people in those villages.”
She said it “was a surprise” when, in late 2018, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks in Cabo Delgado. And while the conflict in the region started out small, it has now grown to the point where extremists are able to take over entire towns, such as the port city of Mocímboa da Praia, which insurgents have held since August.
Machado believes there are several factors that could be contributing to the unrest in Cabo Delgado province, a region rich in natural gas. One of them could be religion, but she also believes that poverty and long-term unemployment could be significant factors as well. Tribal tension could be another component, as there are two major tribes in the area that have had unresolved hostility for centuries. Government authorities, which have struggled to contain the conflict, bear responsibility as well. Machado says security forces have been known to arbitrarily detain people, including journalists, and that HRW has documented “abuses from security forces, especially in counter-terrorism operations.”
Regina Lynch, Director of Projects for ACN, believes the international attention for the situation in Mozambique is long overdue: “They have burnt down churches and destroyed convents, and also abducted two religious sisters. But almost nobody has paid any attention to this new focus of terror and jihadist violence in Africa, which is affecting everybody, both Christians and Muslims alike.”