More than 20,000 Mozambicans have been trapped near a huge natural gas project in the country’s Cabo Delgado province, more than a month since it was abandoned after a militant attack.
People camped at the gates of French energy company Total’s Afungi site have had been unable to escape, despite fears of imminent violence, and have limited food because the Mozambican government has blocked humanitarian access.
Total evacuated their staff immediately after Isis-affiliated group al-Shabaab – which is not linked to the Somali group of the same name – attacked the nearby port town of Palma on 24 March, killing dozens of people. It withdrew soon afterwards but has been burning houses in suburbs around Palma and attacking fishers, including beheading some, according to Cabo Ligado, a weekly report on violence in the area.
There are fears militants will launch a large scale attack again after Ramadan finishes next week.
In late April, Total declared a “force majeure” to suspend its operations in the Afungi site.
Mozambican forces control Quitunda village, just north of Palma, built to relocate communities displaced by Total’s multibillion-dollar liquified natural gas (LNG) project, but have not let civilians leave the area. Many people from outlying villages and from Palma sought refuge in Quitunda. The UN refugee agency said on Friday that people trying to evacuate by boat had been physically assaulted.
About 40,000 people had fled on foot or by bus, and the World Food Programme said it had been working to get food to them. But it had been unable to reach people stuck in Quitunda and Palma because it would not agree to government demands to distribute the aid itself.
Several humanitarian organisations working in Cabo Delgado said they could not officially comment on humanitarian access in the area, though they have been providing aid elsewhere in the region.
Zenaida Machado, Mozambique researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that despite the withdrawal of al-Shabaab, there were fears of more fighting between government forces and militants. She said shops and infrastructure in Palma had been destroyed by the fighting and dead bodies were lying in the streets, despite the army claiming it was in control of the situation.
“People resorted to looting abandoned shops and selling everything they had so they could feed themselves or pay the boat fare to take them to another place. People told us in some cases they had to give money to army soldiers to get on planes,” she said.
She said the government’s failure to help people evacuate had been a feature of the conflict. One option for those trapped has been to hide in nearby mangroves where occasionally boats arrive, but at about $30 (£22), the fee to board can often be too much.
“We have heard of women walking for 10 days alone with babies on their back, of people walking through the bush, of people sleeping days in the mangroves with their whole body in the water to hide from the insurgents,” she said.
“We have heard all types of stories but what we have not heard is where the security forces [have been] in all of that period.”
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network’s April report said those travelling through forests looking for safety or in hiding had no food or water.
Joseph Hanlon, a development lecturer specialising in Mozambique at the UK’s Open University, said the Palma attack could be following a pattern of repeated attacks to clear out local people that led to militants seizing the nearby port town Mocímboa da Praia last year. He said the army’s response may be to control movement to block this tactic.
“The problem is they have no way to feed these people. Quitunda has no water system. When it rains, tanks fill up and people drink from them. So people there now are living from the local people’s water supplies,” he said.
The militants have been gaining ground in the area for months. Small-scale attacks at the end of last year led Total to suspend work at Afungi until it was promised a security cordon. The $20bn (£15bn) LNG project, due to be completed by 2024, was about to restart when the Palma attack happened.
Major gas and gemstone discoveries in Cabo Delgado a decade ago transformed it from a chronically neglected region to one the government is desperate to maintain control of.
But local people feel they have not benefited, and resentment over the area’s underdevelopment is thought to have fuelled the insurgency.
Total said that they are not abandoning the Afungi project or the relocation of displaced villagers to Quitunda but with work suspended they “cannot maintain the same level of employment or enter into contractual arrangements for goods and services with suppliers”.
“Mozambique LNG remains committed to [the] delivery of Quitunda village and completion of the resettlement process, however the construction is currently on hold.”
Because militant-controlled Mocímboa da Praia lies immediately south of Palma, displaced people have had to walk long distances to safety, including to the provincial capital Pemba.
According to the UN, the vast majority of displaced people have been staying with host communities.
Throughout the conflict, which has seen more than 700,000 displaced, families and villagers have provided shelter, leading to dozens of people staying in overcrowded homes.