When the slaughter began in Palma on March 24, when masked men started hacking at their victims with machetes, Issa Tarmamade was sitting among the ruins on the island of Ibo, worried that he and his island could be next. Tarmamade is a tough, wiry 71-year-old, white stubble on his cheeks and the remaining hair on his head clipped short. He is the administrator of the Ibo district, some 170 kilometers south of Palma, presiding over seven islands. Once a paradise for vacationers, it is now a region gripped by fear – and emblematic of the conflict that has gripped the entire country.
The fighters in the region, who fly the black flag of Islamic State, would like to see Tarmamade dead as well, since he is a representative of the state. Since 2017, they have been fomenting panic with machetes, firearms and RPGs in the province of Cabo Delgado, which includes Tarmamade’s seven islands.
“I’m in charge on Ibo,” he says. He is responsible for health, education, the economy and infrastructure. Essentially, he is the state. Several administrators just like him have already been killed, but Tarmamade says: I won’t back down. Other government officials flee to safety when danger looms, but Tarmamade once even turned back the helicopter that had been sent to evacuate him.
His district has already been attacked six times. But what took place in the north on March 24, not far from the Tanzanian border, shocked even him. The fishing town of Palma, with around 75,000 residents, became the scene of one of the most consequential attacks thus far in this increasingly brutal war. Insurgents descended on the town, plundering shops, setting fire to buildings and beheading and dismembering residents. Survivors told DER SPIEGEL of horrific scenes.
Since October 2017, there have been 858 attacks in the region, resulting in more than 2,800 deaths. Security experts estimate that some 1,000 jihadists are responsible, although some analysts believe that number could be as high as 3,000.
The violence in the north of Mozambique is the consequence of political disintegration. Following independence from Portugal in 1975, the country slipped into a brutal civil war, that only ended in 1992. The governing party FRELIMO solidified its power in the capital of Maputo, establishing corrupt networks with the help of the military, but neglecting the hinterlands. While the elite spent the ensuing decades enriching themselves and transforming the country into a narco-state, allowing drug smugglers and corrupt officials to amass immense profits, Mozambique remained one of the poorest countries in the world. The people survive primarily on agriculture, with rising poverty fueling anger with the government.
On the one side of the fight in Cabo Delgado are the insurgents, who go by the name of Al-Shabaab, meaning “the youth” in Arabic. They have no connection to the terrorist group in Somalia of the same name. They are heavily armed men filled with anger, rooted in the government’s neglect and in their own poverty. Some of them apparently have links to other Islamists in East Africa. The state is largely absent in this part of the country, making Cabo Delgado an ideal place for extremists to recruit.
On the other side is the corrupt government in the capital of Maputo and the provinces, a government that has long sought to defeat the rebels with the help of mercenaries from South Africa. Amnesty International has accused both the mercenaries and government troops of severe human rights violations, including executions, torture and mutilation.
The war is fueled by numerous political, social and religious conflicts. Muslim clerics have observed a creeping radicalization in parts of the population. Because only very few people benefit from the wealth of the province, which is home to a flourishing shadow economy, involving the smuggling of precious stones, expensive wood, wildlife and, especially, heroin. In 2010 and 2011, geologists discovered vast natural gas reserves off the northern coast, and Western companies began investing. But most people haven’t benefited from that development either. And their fury has translated into more recruits for the Islamists.
In 2018, the insurgents pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. It is doubtful, though, whether the links to IS are as tight as some experts and the U.S. government claim. Other experts believe the alliance between Al-Shabaab and IS is in fact rather loose.
“It isn’t a war over religion, it is a war over money,” says a priest in the provincial capital of Pemba.
But even if the violence didn’t begin as a religious conflict, fears are growing that the north of the country could become a breeding ground for Islamist terror in southern Africa. Furthermore, the danger is growing that the uprising could spread within Mozambique. The U.S. government has announced its intention to send special forces to train Mozambique troops, as has Portugal. Neighboring countries, meanwhile, are concerned that the terror in Mozambique could spill across the border if the kind of rebel violence seen on March 24 continues unhindered.
On that afternoon, the first shots were fired in the southern part of the city of Palma. A few employees from a construction company were on their way to the market to buy fish and drinks for dinner. As the insurgent attack began, a guard standing in front of a Standard Bank branch was cut into pieces by men with machetes. The construction company employees fled into the Amarula Hotel, which was soon filled with 200 people seeking protection.
There they remained for three days, surrounded by panicked people fearing for their lives. Outside, up to 300 masked insurgents marauded through the streets, setting fire to banks and government buildings. They held up the severed head of a woman’s husband in front of her face and yelled: “Run!” The fighters were calling out “Allahu akbar!”, or God is great. “We will follow you all the way to Pemba,” yelled others.
Shots echoed through the streets. Helicopters belonging to the South African mercenary company DAG evacuated hostages from the Amarula Hotel complex and fired at the attackers with heavy machine guns.
On the third day, one group decided to flee the hotel. They wanted to head for the coast in a convoy of cars, hoping to later escape by ship. Instead, though, they drove into an ambush and were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles. The ones that made it through the ambush drove past two trucks standing abandoned on the side of the road. On the cab of one of them lay the severed head of a man. Blood ran down the cab.
“Everyone who heard about it was afraid,” says Issa Tarmamade. He says he can’t understand the brutality of the men who are his opponents in this war.
The conflict in the north has been further inflamed and lent strategic importance by the natural gas fields off the coast. They are among the largest in Africa. Companies under the leadership of the French multinational Total are investing $20 billion in a natural gas liquefaction facility on the Afungi Peninsula, just 10 kilometers from Palma, and in the exploitation of two gas deposits. There are also additional projects under the control of the U.S. company ExxonMobil and the Italian firm Eni. The Total project has since been suspended, with the company announcing the withdrawal of all of its personnel from Afungi.
The attack in Palma was a stab in the heart for the country’s elite, who had already begun dreaming of an African Qatar taking shape in Cabo Delgado. But instead of raking in billions in natural gas profits, the men from the governing party FRELIMO must now stand by and watch as the conflict spins out of control and the country’s economic perspective suffers a severe setback.
The Mozambique army appears to be hopelessly unprepared. Often, soldiers tear off their uniforms and flee into the bush when the insurgents attack. The United Nations has warned that the security situation in the country has massively deteriorated. Around 700,000 people have been displaced thus far, with only very few daring to return home.
Since 2019, the rebels have also been carrying out attacks in Tarmamade’s district of Ibo. Around 27,000 people from the mainland have sought protection in his district, bringing stories with them of expulsions, rape, suffering and murder.
It is 16 days after the attack and Tarmamade is standing on the beach of the provincial capital of Pemba following a crisis meeting with the governor. He’s worried. Rumors of an impending attack on the port city, which has long been considered safe, continue to grow louder. More and more international businesspeople, who were hoping to benefit from the gas money in Palma, are leaving the country.
Tarmamade is concerned that the rebels could find their way to his island. But, he says, he won’t budge. “I am like a captain,” he says.
He walks across the beach to his boat. Palm trees bend over the sand. Tarmamade is preparing to sail across to the island of Ibo with a couple of assistants to check out the situation there. The trip will take seven hours, towards the war and the fighters that are hiding in the bush.
The boat fights its way to the north, through the increasingly heavy seas. “You have to know how people are doing,” says Tarmamade. “If they’re not doing well, they could join the rebels.” The conflict has its roots, he says, in the lack of a future many people see for themselves. It has its roots in poverty and the lack of education – and not in fundamentalism.
Tarmamade has recognized how best to confront the insurgents: It is vital, he believes, to make the people understand that the state is there for them. Because there is hardly a province in Mozambique that is as poor as Cabo Delgado, despite its wealth of natural resources. It is home to the largest ruby deposit in the world in addition to a graphite mine and gold – not to mention the natural gas off the coast. But most people in power don’t care much about the people.
On top of that is the drug smuggling. According to Mozambique expert Joseph Hanlon, who teaches at the London School of Economics, up to $800 million worth of drugs might pass through the country every year. Up to $100 million of that money may end up in the pockets of corrupt officials. The primary hub in the country for heroin and amphetamines from Afghanistan is Cabo Delgado.
The government’s refusal to allow foreign troops into the country likely has to do with its concern that doing so could reveal its role in the illicit trades in the province. Some analysts believe that the insurgents may also be involved to some degree.
On the island of Mefunvo, his first stop, Tarmamade buys bread for a group of children. He listens to the concerns of the elderly, who complain of malaria and lament that too few fish are being caught. Without assistance from the UN World Food Program, hunger would become a significant problem on the islands. But Tarmamade also knows that a bit of bread isn’t enough. He is currently having two schools built in an effort to improve future prospects.
Tarmamade travels through the islands of his district three times per week, speaking with residents and the displaced. He wants the people to know that he is there and he wants to find out if anyone has seen any suspicious newcomers.
“The people are poor and desperate,” he says. Frequently, he continues, they are unable to understand the consequences of their actions. “I always tell them: Don’t let yourselves be enticed. They’ll kill your families. It is your villages that they are burning.”
The modus operandi of the fighters from Al Shabaab is horrifying. They don’t just kill security personnel and state representatives, but also target civilians and burn entire villages to the ground. Survivors choose between two words when relating the murderous machete killings perpetrated by the insurgents: beheaded or chopped.
In the early evening, following the passage to the main island of Ibo, Tarmamade walks through the refugee settlements – a collection of stone huts and plastic sheets. When he stops to ask a family about their experience, the grandmother is sitting at the entrance to the hut. “Bababa,” she says over and over again, pounding her right hand rapidly like a blade onto the palm of her other hand. Her daughter says the insurgents slaughtered six members of their family. The old woman continues chanting “bababa.”
Tarmamade says he frequently hears such stories, and each time he feels as though it happened to him. The insurgents show up in the villages, tell residents to disappear and then kill some of them. “Their goal is always to drive people away.”
In contrast to the Islamic State in the Middle East, the insurgents in Mozambique don’t appear interested in developing a caliphate, where they can exert control over as many people as possible. Rather, they are pursuing a scorched-earth strategy, depopulating entire regions. Frequently, they also abduct boys and girls. They take the girls to rape them. And they train some of the boys to become fighters.
The next day, Tarmamade heads off with a military escort to the neighboring island of Quirimba, which was attacked by jihadists a year ago in the early morning hours of April 10, 2020. Forty-five buildings were burned to the ground and at least one civilian was killed.
A young woman is sitting in front of a hut in a village on the north coast of the island. She is 18 years old and is wearing an orange top over a wrap skirt, which she uses to wipe the tears from her eyes. In front of her is a grate on which fish are drying that were caught by her brother.
Ancha Bundau’s old life came to an end one year ago. She used to love dancing and singing with friends. She was in love with a man and pregnant with his child, though she was still in school. Then, the rebels arrived.
They attacked at 11 in the evening. Two men grabbed Bundau and pulled her into the school, where others already cowered in fear. At sunrise, the men drove their hostages to the beach, most of them women and girls. Helicopters belonging to the South African mercenaries were circling overhead and firing on a boat full of plundered food.
To escape the mercenaries, the rebels dispersed among the hostages. With the tide out, the group was able to walk to the mainland – 17 rebels and 32 captives. They wandered through burned down villages. Over and over again, the jihadists said: “We want to defeat your government. We want our black flags to fly over Mozambique.” After three days, says Bundau, they reached the insurgents’ camp.
There were “more than 100 men” there, she says, wiping away her tears. All of them were heavily armed. “First, the leaders chose the women they liked.” Then, the rest of them were shared out. “They did bad things to us.” She doesn’t say more.
Like the other women, she, too, was forced to marry one of her kidnappers. She had to cook, and pray five times a day. “Women, they said, had to serve their husbands.” She obeyed, out of fear for her own life and that of her unborn child. The kidnapped boys were either trained as fighters or used as forced laborers, chopping wood, cleaning and preparing the food that had been plundered. Those who refused to obey were beaten. Those who were able to pray in Arabic received better treatment.
After four weeks, she couldn’t take it any longer. She took off into the bush one night, spending days wandering blindly, hungry and thirsty, until she reached an abandoned village. There, she lost her child.
She ultimately reached the town of Macomia, but continued her flight when that city, too, came under attack. Only months later was she able to find her way back home. Now, she is going to school again – she wants to be like the others. But she cannot forget the words of her kidnappers: “We will come again.”
Her brother was also able to escape. He is now sitting next to his sister, hunched in the doorframe. “They are like wild animals,” he says. “Insane, killing for no reason.” Those who talked back to them, he says, risked being beaten, shot or beheaded.
Two girls and four young men were able to escape following last year’s attack, says Issa Tarmamade. He never heard anything more from the others. His boat heads silently through the mangrove forests and back to Ibo.
That evening, sitting on the terrace of the colonial villa where he lives, he looks out over the sea. He despairs at the rebels’ silence, that they make no demands. Because without demands, there can be no negotiations. “They say almost nothing,” he says. They reject the state and demand the introduction of shariah law, of course. But beyond that?
There is little knowledge about who the insurgents are, and how they are organized. Not much is known about external influences or foreign fighters either.
Tarmamade seems tired. He has been in politics for a long time – a good guy, say people on the islands. His current job as district administrator on his home island will be his last, but he didn’t imagine it turning out as it has.
He says he wanted to look into fishing and growing coffee. What is happening around his islands now reminds him of events in the Niger River delta. Ever since oil was found there, the region has struggled to find peace. The environment has been destroyed and law and order has collapsed. Nowhere in Africa, Tarmamade says, have oil and gas been good for the people.
He gazes out over the water. And then says: “I wish the gas had never been found.”
Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL