Faced with a stark choice; capture or death, 18-year-old, Yussuf Abdullah chose to fight. He battled the swiftly advancing heavily armed Rwandan special forces.
The rusty gun Abdallah was carrying jammed. It couldn’t fire. Today the frail-looking teenager, also wounded on the leg, is in the custody of Mozambican government troops. The irony here is that the same gun Abdallah had been using, was acquired from government troops as they fled from an attack by insurgents.
The first attack was in October 2017. Along their trail, the insurgents took hostages from village after another, and ammunition from abandoned army detachments.
The insurgents picked Abdallah from Nampula province, just across from Cabo Delgado about 12 months ago. He and others were fishing when the insurgents kidnapped them. Taken through crude training, the teenager would reach stage of combat. He was given the gun that would eventually lead to his capture.
Rwanda took a skeptical world by surprise; first by an overnight announcement and deployment of 1,000-strong military and police early July to Cabo Delgado. By end August, despite being in a province far larger than the whole of Rwanda, the visiting troops took the last insurgent-held village town of Mbau on August 20.
This same rural region was the headquarters of the Jamaat Ansar al-Sunnah insurgency’s supposed founder Bin Omar and spiritual leader Sheikh Hassan. Mbau was the group’s ‘ideological, spiritual and command’ headquarters, said the Rwandan commanders.
At the site, now controlled by Rwandan forces, we find Brig Gen Pascal Muhizi who is leading operations in the area. He tells us there are no specifics as to how the insurgency’s leaders looked.
The ragged mud-iron sheet houses, a national telecoms tower and palm trees is what is visible. Under a huge tree, like nearly all trees in Mozambique, is tactical office of the Rwandan commander.
New frontline of the insurgency
According to information collected from about a dozen rescued hostages, none ever saw the face of the insurgency’s leaders. They were always covered from head to toe, leaving small space around the eyes.
To reach this outpost, you leave the main highway taking a sand road through a forest. We drove for about 2 hours to reach. Along the way, The Chronicles writer is one of a few lucky to be traveling in a Rwandan Police Armoured Personal Carrier (APC). The other journalists including international broadcasters are traveling in Toyota Pickups. At the front, in between and at the back is a heavily armed convoy.
A Rwandan police senior officer gives directions via radio on how to drive on sand. ‘All drivers maintain the foot on the Accelerator, don’t stop,” he beams out. At some point, one of the Pickup trucks gets stuck. It’s a dangerous area, so the troops don’t allow us out of the vehicles. After about 25mins, we continue, finally arriving at the rendezvous spot.
Rwandan forces dislodged the fighters from their headquarters within a day of fierce combat. As they retreated south, the insurgents destroyed many of the houses.
In a prepared briefing, the Rwandan commander said the group moved to Messalo river where they tried to put up another fight. The river is about 25km away. The “huge number” of insurgents and family members attempted to cross the river, many of them killed by their pursuers and some drowning. They crossed over to the other side which is under the control of SADC forces.
Under agreements that govern foreign forces on Mozambican territory so far, the Rwandans cannot cross river Messalo. They hold over all areas north of the river, with their Mozambican hosts.
Since taking over this Mbau base, the Rwandans have had to fight off ambushes. No casualties so far. After about 2hours, the Rwandan commander tells us he had pre-scheduled field operation. The troops were headed down to the river to continue operations and patrols.
As we head back, the Pickup trucks and APCs have to struggle navigating through the sand road. Finally we are back on the tarmac highway headed to Mueda district. First along the route is another town called Diaca. Here, a few people have returned. Small children are fetching water from a borehole. There is no school. The only health center was completely destroyed by the insurgents when they took control.
Our convoy drives for another 120km towards Mueda, which was not occupied by the insurgency. But along the tarmac highway, which is falling apart and the bush has eaten away much of it because very little traffic has used it for years, there is very little to show for the decades of independence.
Total’s city in the middle of nowhere
Back to the first case of Abdallah, who was the first to be captured as Rwandan forces arrived. He was being held at Mozambican-controlled Mocímboa da Praia Airport. The small airfield was destroyed by the insurgents. Everything was set ablaze as they retreated.
Several kilometers away is a ghost town, which links up with the strategic sea port of Afungi. There was the second biggest base for the insurgents. They destroyed everything here as well. Cargo trucks still have fresh fire burns. The few wooden boats, are thrown around, but all burnt.
Completely destroyed cargo containers are all over the area at this sea port. Three malnourished men are seated on the ground, whom the Mozambicans tell us are recently captured insurgents. In one of the containers, there are two elderly women laying inside, also suspected to be insurgents.
Kilometers further away is the district of Palma, where most of the villages are also empty. In some, their former residents are slowly returning. We visit mass grave with dozens of victims left behind by the insurgents. We encounter two men who narrate what happened and how they survived the mass slaughter in which the insurgents took only young boys to use as fighters, and girls as sex slaves. The rest were killed.
Amarula Lodge is testament of a time before the insurgency began. The region’s elite enjoyed gym and swimming pool services here. Today, what was the manager’s office still has a board on which photos and briefs on each employee are pinned. The pool is filled with filth, the rooms have some items, the gym has most of the fitness equipment. Only batteries were removed from the vehicles in the compound, and remain intact, except for broken glasses.
The fact that the lodge still has its property is one simple proof that ordinary Cabo Delgado residents do not have a habit of taking what doesn’t belong to them. In some societies across Africa, this lodge would have been looted and stripped bear by the returning IDPs. What would be left today would be concrete walls.
We spent an entire day moving from village to another, town to the next. For Praia de Palma town, most of the residents have returned to nothing. In the roadside market, people are very clearly struggling to make ends meet. A small girl is selling pieces of uncovered sandwiches, which she constantly counts – maybe to make sure she doesn’t forget. She picks one and chews on it.
A young man is selling paraffin, which is commonly used for lighting in rural parts of Africa. The product is in mineral water bottles. A full 1.5litre bottle goes for 74 Mozambican Meticais (or about $ 1.16). It’s a fortune here. He tells us the fuel is smuggled in via a border with Tanzania, located about 2hours drive north. He however complains that the Tanzanian smugglers dilute the fuel, which affects the final product.
All around Palma district, like across all of Cabo Delgado, due to the discovery of huge gas reserves, signs of foreign construction companies are throughout. Road construction equipment is abandoned in many places. The large facilities remain untouched, with cars and trucks. The facilities are unguarded, another sign that even if locals are returning, they have not gone to loot the facilities.
In a camp located in Afungi which houses those who are adamant to return to their homes, there are malnourished kids. Parents look distressed, unsure where the next meal will come. The site of the IDP camp was originally a residential facility for some employees of French gas and oil giant TotaI, part of its multi-billion dollar liquefied natural gas project. Some houses are occupied by the displaced, but not enough for all. So some live in makeshift structures.
Visit of President Kagame
Inside the camp’s market, there is nothing much, apart from 3 small sacks of charcoal, paraffin and food items. Most of the Stalls operate hair salons. In one, we find 21year-old Juma. As he plays music of Tanzanian star Diamond and American rappers, he has little to say because life here is a nightmare. You must be safe here at least, we tell him. Under a tree is a group of men, some wearing the Taqiyah, and woman, some covered up with Hijab.
There is no sign of nongovernmental organizations in Palma or other regions of Cabo Delgado which we visited. Neither is the UN.
For two days, travelling hundreds of kilometers, covering Afungi-Palma- Mocímboa da Praia and other areas, there was no civilian vehicle traffic. For a single time, we encountered a civilian bus in Praia de Palma as it prepared to go to Tanzania border. The other civilian vehicles were a convoy of trucks and cars escorted by Mozambican police. Such scenes are only possible today as the region slowly goes back to normal.
The major highways appear to be recently built, as investments to prepare for gas extraction and exports. Region has a relatively large airport in Afungi. There is also a massive site dotted with pre-fabricated structures imported directly from France by Total. Inside it is a city in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by savannah forest cover and sand. Before the Rwandan army arrived on July 9, the insurgents were just 7km away preparing to take over the facility and airport. It probably suggests had the Rwandans arrived a day later, they would have found this site no more.
The French expats and their Mozambican employees left when the insurgency intensified. Today, dozens of expensive SUVs, Pickup trucks and other vehicles remain intact, but have not been driven in quite a while. The offices, and residential rooms are more like mansions. The rooms have air-conditioning that runs 24 hours. Since the region has no power, as electric lines and substations were ransacked by the insurgency, this Total facility has a standby generator running all day and night.
Some few expats are in the compound as they have since returned. Also strolling around are Mozambican police and army units which guard the sprawling complex. There are few Rwandan soldiers, who appear to have been there due to the presence of the visiting international journalists among whom was The Chronicles. The food eaten here are French delicacies, which have obviously been brought in from Paris.
From Cabo Delgado province, we move southward to Pemba, a major seaside urban center. It looks a tourist hotspot, though not now, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Inside a decade-old naval base, under the scotching sun, VVIP convoys stroll in. They are carrying Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame being hosted by Mozambican counterpart Filipe Nyusi. They were here to meet the troops, at a parade of Rwandan army special forces, Rwandan police elite units, and Mozambican army.
President Kagame thanks them for job a well done. ‘President Nyusi told me that the people you helped to go back to their homes are very happy for your presence,’ said Kagame. He added that despite peace and stability returning to Cabo Delgado, the much harder work starts now; maintaining security and reconstruction.
The Mozambican leader thanked Kagame several times. Both in military combat attire, Kagame can be seen towering over him.
In Pemba, life is very normal. The few people mingling around a 4-Star hotel, are the few having the best of what Mozambique has to offer. Randomly selected interviewees call the insurgents ‘bandits’, others call them terrorists.
Select local journalists from Maputo were airlifted to Cabo Delgado the time we were there. Travelling with the military’s national spokesman, the journalists took pictures of a large cache of weapons which had been recover from the insurgents after the Rwandans arrived. The Mozambican media was seeing the destruction for the first time.
Meanwhile, speaking at a press conference with his Mozambican counterpart on Saturday, President Kagame said the country cannot stay forever in Cabo Delgado province.
“As much as we cannot be here forever, I think the problem we are dealing with, with our friends in Mozambique, cannot stay here forever too,” Kagame
“Every time, every step, we are assessing what needs to be done… The need to stay and for how long, that comes out naturally as progress is made.”
Asked who had invited Rwandan troops in to help quell the insurgency, Nyusi said it was Mozambique.
Kagame also witnessed military exercises of the Mozambican army as the country marks annual Army day September 25. He also gave a speech in the stadium to a national audience. As he left, Kagame walked with Nyusi to greet people seated on the other side of the pavilion. They reacted with excitement and applause.