By Staff Reporter

Scars inflicted on the more than 2 million people of Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado by the violent extremist conflict there will take long to heal.

It might take even longer, if the trust deficit between authorities and traumatised communities is not restored urgently.

Since 2017, more than 3,300 people have reportedly been killed by Ahlu Sunnah wa Jama’a (ASWJ), often in ways intended to shock and terrorise local communities.

The violence in Cabo Delgado has also generated over 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), out of a total provincial population of 2,3 million. Less well-recognised is that the violent extremist threat in northern Mozambique exploits underlying societal vulnerabilities of inequity, insecure land rights and distrust of authorities.

An effective response in Cabo Delgado, therefore, will require more than conventional security actions.

Understanding the local dynamics that have made this region vulnerable to destabilisation will be vital to an effective security strategy.

The risk of violence in northern Mozambique spreading to other parts of the country and southern Africa has prompted a series of external commitments to assist the Mozambican government in its fight against the insurgency. These include deployments by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Mozambique is a member, a 1,000 member-strong Rwandan force, and training missions by the European Union, Portugal, and the United States.

Rwanda’s deployment to Cabo Delgado followed a meeting among the presidents of Mozambique, Rwanda, and France. France’s largest petroleum company, Total, with an estimated $20 billion investment in Cabo Delgado, was forced to withdraw its personnel, stop its operations, and declare force majeure in April 2021 because of the security situation. Exxon Mobil has also put on hold plans to develop an even larger onshore facility.

Many described what they have experienced as a kind of genocide. They painfully describe the loss of their sons and daughters, who have been killed or kidnapped by the “machababos” (the youth), the local name for ASWJ members.

“First, we fled into the bush when Al Shabab attacked our village”, explains Jifa Nguile who is over 70 years old.

“But my sons then helped me and my granddaughters to flee first to Macomia and then to this place near Pemba, where we feel much more secure.”

She lives in a hut made from bamboo and mud with a simple plastic sheet as a roof. Although this is not much, she can take care of herself and her granddaughters.

According to the head of the WFP operations in Pemba, Cristina Graziani, aid agencies have seen a dramatic rise in the population in need.  “Just over a year ago, we supported some 30,000 people,” she explains.

“Now, we are dealing with the needs of over 750,000 displaced in the province. More have sought refuge in neighbouring provinces. The lean season is now approaching. It is a critical time for rural communities as they await the harvest.”

Many of the displaced have also settled in the city of Pemba itself, hoping to find casual work and access to education and health. But this has also placed a tremendous strain on the local health and education services, already struggling to provide for the existing population before the crisis. With EU humanitarian funding, the Mahate Health Station is now completely refurbished, well-stocked with medicines and has dedicated local staff.

“This project benefits both the displaced and the local community as they now have access to this improved facility,” he explains.

“The needs are tremendous with the staff dealing, at times, with nearly 1,000 consultations per day, mainly cases of malaria and paediatrics.”

Given that more than half the displaced are children, access to health services for their children is only one challenge for parents: education is another.

At Natite Primary School, in a crowded residential area in downtown Pemba, a dozen eight-year-old boys and girls in their blue and dark blue uniforms are hunched over rickety wooden school desks, slowly writing down their ABCs.

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