Mozambique jihadists lay siege to once sleepy villages
Until last week, Mozambique’s northern district of Macomia was a remote and peaceful place, surrounded by dense tropical forests.
Today, that tranquility has been brutally shattered and replaced by fear and suspicion.
Macomia has become the latest target of a shadowy jihadist force that has terrorised the country’s far north since last October, claiming more than 30 lives.
In the coastal village of Naunde, seven people were hacked to death and 164 houses were set alight. Two days later, extremists attacked Namaluco, 20 kilometres away, killing five.
“We do not sleep. We stay up at night to defend ourselves,” said a villager, a homemade bow-and-arrow in hand.
“If I hit an attacker with this arrow, he’ll die immediately — the arrows are tipped with snake venom,” he said, asking not to be named.
The people of Macomia are now living lives tainted by fear.
“It’s hectic here. We don’t know what to do,” said Hassam Rabuna, a local leader of ruling party Frelimo.
Macomia is located in the predominantly Muslim province of Cabo Delgado, where more than 30 people have died in machete and knife attacks since October, including 10 who were beheaded.
Locals and authorities call the assailants Al-Shabaab, although the group has no known link to the notorious Somali Islamists of that name, nor has it issued any claim of responsibility or demands.
According to academic researchers, the group wants to impose Sharia law in the province.
It is believed the organisation staged its first attack on a police station and military outpost in the town of Mocimboa da Praia. Two officers died and 14 attackers were killed.
In the following weeks, at least 300 Muslims, including Tanzanians, were arrested, several mosques shuttered — and suspicion began to fall on the region like a leaden lid.
“It’s our children who are carrying out these attacks,” said a shop security guard in the area.
“They sold their houses and market stalls to move to the bush and start to kill innocent people. Someone promised them money.”
Peasant farmers around Macomia district and its main town, which goes by the same name, have now begun to arm themselves with improvised weapons, including bows and arrows.
Local authorities teach them to be vigilant, “to sharpen their surveillance”, said Rabuna.
“We are defenceless, we need weapons to defend ourselves,” he added.
The army has been deployed in force in an effort to smother the group’s ability to act.
Soldiers armed with assault rifles are guarding Macomia’s only bank, its single fuel station and guest house, and the town’s electricity substation.
Rumours of collaboration and summary justice abound, say local people.
Some residents said that villagers across the district have inexplicably disappeared since the beginning of the security operation or described instances of arbitrary detention.
Among those detained were relatives of young people alleged to have joined the jihadists, they say. Police in Cabo Delgado declined to comment on alleged mass arrests.
“We believe that many innocent people were killed and buried in mass graves,” said another local man.
“The military is angry with the attacks and all people suspected of collaborating with the attackers by giving them food and information are detained and often disappear.”
The army seem in no doubt about their mission. “This is war,” one soldier said.
Women are suspected of working with the male jihadist attackers, acting as informers and supplying the forest-based fighters with food and logistical support.
“There are women who were arrested and taken to Pemba (the provincial capital) because they helped provide food to the attackers,” said an elderly man living in the area.
They were later released and returned to Macomia, he added.
“Then they disappeared. Where are they?” he asked.
“Here in the village if you’re seen buying bread in large quantities, people suspect you want to take it to the attackers and you can be arrested,” said a woman who sells maize, also known as corn, in Macomia town.
As fears have mounted, life has already become more difficult in an area that is already acutely under-developed.
Some schools have closed, hospitals have shuttered and medical and teaching staff have fled. In the region’s most isolated villages, some residents have even fled their homes.