More than 1,000 survivors of a deadly attack last week on the city of Palma in northern Mozambique reached the port of Pemba safely by boat, some of them crying on arrival after spending days hidden in the forest.
Aid workers traveled to the crowded port in the provincial capital of Cabo Delgado on Thursday to donate food to displaced people disembarking from the green and white ferry. Police and soldiers kept control of crowds of people excited to see relatives, while others continued to despair without any news.
Moved Mariamo Tagir arrived on the ferry, said she spent seven days in the bush, crying every day. “I don’t know where my son is… it’s very painful,” Tagir told Reuters news agency. “The situation is really bad, a lot of dead.”
A woman wearing a blue denim apron and a pink mask sat on the floor at the port, staring blankly, one hand clutching a fence, waiting for her son. Another woman consoled him as she cried in tears, according to the AFP news agency.
The government of Mozambique has confirmed the deaths of dozens of “defenselessCivilians during the March 24 raid on Palma, which marked the dramatic escalation of an armed campaign that ravages in Cabo Delgado, rich in gas since 2017.
Palma is home to some 110,000 people, according to United Nations estimates, including some 40,000 internally displaced people who have settled there after fleeing attacks by ISIL-linked fighters elsewhere. The area adjacent to the city is home to a number of multi-billion dollar natural gas projects.
On Wednesday afternoon, a United Nations Migration Agency tracker showed more than 8,100 people had been displaced, nearly half of whom were children. About 20 percent had arrived in Pemba, with others in the districts of Mueda, Montepuez and Nangade in Cabo Delgado.
However, the extent of the losses and displacements remains uncertain. Most of the communication lines were cut off after the attack began.
Aid groups believe the attack displaced tens of thousands of people. Hundreds, including many foreign workers, were evacuated by air.
There is “unfortunately no sense of a return to normal,” Juliana Ghazi of the UN refugee agency told AFP.
Thousands of displaced people
The ferry – organized by the French energy major Total in coordination with the Mozambican government and the UN – docked around 8 a.m. (6 a.m. GMT) in Pemba.
Total, which has a gas project on the Afungi peninsula near Palma, said in a statement that there were nearly 1,200 passengers on board, mostly women and children.
A humanitarian official said the government was controlling people arriving in Pemba to prevent infiltration by armed groups.
Military operations were underway on Wednesday, according to footage shot by local news channel TVM, which showed soldiers carrying rocket-propelled grenades and rifles into the area, as well as reinforcements arriving by helicopter.
“I cannot say at the moment that we have the whole village under control,” army spokesman Chongo Vidigal said in the video, adding that the security forces were however present in the port area.
The African Union (AU) called for coordinated international action to jointly fight against the “urgent threat to regional and continental peace and security”.
In a statement, AU President Moussa Faki Mahamat expressed “deep concern” over the presence of international groups in southern Africa, calling for “urgent and coordinated regional and international action”.
The Southern African Regional Development Community (SADC) held emergency talks in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare on Wednesday to discuss the violence.
Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi pledged regional aid, but gave no details. He said that the “integrity and sovereignty” of SADC member states should be ensured and that they should be protected from aggression.
But Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi called the attack “not the most important”.
The fighters are known locally as al-Shabab, but have no known affiliation with the armed group of the same name in Somalia. The United States last week declared the Mozambique rebels a “terrorist” group and announced that 12 military trainers had been deployed to assist the navies in the southern African country.
Portugal, Mozambique’s former colonial power, said on Tuesday it was stepping up military cooperation by sending 60 troops to help train Mozambican special forces.
Prior to last week’s attack, escalating conflict killed more than 2,600 people – half of whom were civilians – and forced nearly 700,000 people from their homes.
Rights groups say Cabo Delgado fighters carried out summary executions, beheadings, raids on villages, looting and destruction of infrastructure, including schools and medical facilities. Government forces have also been implicated in serious human rights violations during operations in the province, including arbitrary arrests, torture, abuse of force against civilians and extrajudicial killings.
Last month, global rights watchdog Amnesty International accused fighters, government security forces and private military companies of “war crimes”.