More than 1,000 survivors of a deadly attack last week on the town of Palma in northern Mozambique have safely reached the port of Pemba by boat, some of them crying on arrival after spending days hiding in the forest.
Aid workers on Thursday were at the crowded port in the capital of Cabo Delgado province to give food to the 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.
An emotional Mariamo Tagir, who arrived on the ferry, said she had 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, many dead.”
A woman wearing a blue denim pinafore and pink face mask sat on the ground at the port, with a vacant stare, one hand clutching a fence, waiting for her son. Another woman consoled her as she broke down in sobs, according to AFP news agency.
Mozambique’s government has confirmed the deaths of dozens of “defenceless” civilians in the March 24 raid on Palma, which marked the dramatic escalation of an armed campaign that has wreaked havoc in gas-rich Cabo Delgado since 2017.
Palma is home to some 110,000 people, according to United Nations estimates, including some 40,000 internally displaced people who had settled there after fleeing attacks by ISIL-linked fighters elsewhere. The area adjacent to the town holds a number of multibillion-dollar natural gas projects.
As of Wednesday afternoon, a UN migration agency tracker showed more than 8,100 people had been displaced, almost half of them children. Roughly 20 percent had arrived in Pemba, with others turning up in the districts of Mueda, Montepuez and Nangade in Cabo Delgado.
However, the full scale of the casualties and displacement remains unclear. Most means of communication were cut off after the attack began.
Aid groups believe the attack has displaced tens of thousands of people. Hundreds, including many foreign workers, have been evacuated by air.
There is “no sense of normalcy returning, unfortunately”, the UN refugee agency’s Juliana Ghazi told AFP.
The ferry – organised by French energy major Total in coordination with the Mozambican government and the UN – docked at around 8am local time (06:00 GMT) in Pemba.
Total, which has a gas project on the Afungi Peninsula near Palma, said in a statement that there were almost 1,200 passengers on board, mainly women and children.
A humanitarian official said the government was screening those arriving at Pemba to prevent infiltration by armed groups.
Military operations were ongoing on Wednesday, according to footage shot by local news station TVM, which showed soldiers carrying rocket-propelled grenades and guns in the area, as well as reinforcements arriving by helicopter.
“I can’t right now say we have the whole village under control,” army spokesman Chongo Vidigal said in the footage, adding that security forces did, however, have a presence in the port area.
The African Union (AU) has called for coordinated international action to jointly address the “urgent threat to regional and continental peace and security”.
In a statement, AU Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat expressed “utmost concern” at the presence of international groups in southern Africa, calling for an “urgent and coordinated regional and international action”.
The regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) held emergency talks in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, on Wednesday to discuss the violence.
Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi pledged regional help, but gave no details. He said the “integrity and sovereignty” of SADC member states should be assured and they should be protected from assault.
But Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi played down the attack as “not the biggest”.
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 Mozambique’s rebels to be a “terrorist” group and announced that 12 military trainers had been deployed to help the southern African country’s marines.
Portugal, Mozambique’s former colonial power, announced on Tuesday that is stepping up its military cooperation by sending 60 soldiers to help train Mozambican special forces.
Before last week’s attack, the escalating conflict had killed more than 2,600 people – half of them civilians – and forced almost 700,000 people from their homes.
Rights groups say the fighters in Cabo Delgado have 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 grave human rights abuses during operations in the province including arbitrary arrests, torture, wrongful use of force against civilians and extrajudicial executions.
Lat month, global rights watchdog Amnesty International accused the fighters, government security forces and private military companies of “war crimes”.