Hell in Cabo Delgado

An Amnesty report has provided first detailed account of killing fields of northern Mozambique

THE first detailed accounts of atrocities and war crimes have emerged from the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado, where a raging militant insurgency has claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians and devastated towns and villages.

Fighting has intensified in the region since an armed group known locally as Al-Shabaab first attacked the northern port of Mocímboa da Praia in October 2017, resulting in widespread destruction, indiscriminate killings, the displacement of more than half-a-million people and a worsening humanitarian crisis for those who have fled southwards to the town of Pemba.

Abuses by the insurgents, who are unrelated to the Al-Shabaab group in Somalia, have been described in a new report by Amnesty International as “horrific”. The report, in particular, details a barbaric and increasingly common method of summary execution: chopping.

“The group’s fighters deliberately kill civilians, burn villages and towns, and commit heinous acts of violence with their machetes with such regularity that residents use two separate words, ‘beheaded’ and ‘chopped’, to differentiate between the methods of murder; the first is a beheading, the second a quartering, as one would cut apart an animal being butchered.”

The Amnesty report (downloadable here) is based on interviews with scores of survivors. It reveals the civilian population has also suffered gross human rights violations and abuses at the hands of government security forces in the area and private military contractors, the Dyck Advisory Group, or DAG.

The latter, a South African-registered company, was founded Colonel Lionel Dyck, described by Amnesty as “a white 76-year-old former commander of the Rhodesian African Rifles and Zimbabwe Parachute Battalion, who fought in both the Rhodesian Bush War and later for the newly independent Zimbabwe”.

Until he was hired by the Mozambican government to fight Al-Shabaab, Dyck worked in landmine clearances and anti-poaching campaigns. 

While the DAG, which is said to deploy about 30 mercenaries in the area, assist the authorities in a variety of functions, including the training of local Mozambican police, their most visible role has been in direct combat with Al-Shabaab fighters, using armed helicopters.

According to eyewitnesses, DAG operatives have indiscriminately machine-gunned crowds of people from the air, dropped hand grenades and other ordnance on civilians, and repeatedly targeted civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and homes.

One woman, who witnessed the fighting in Mocímboa de Praia in June last year, told Amnesty: “Two helicopters came, one shooting and dropping bombs. One group [of civilians] that was running raised their hands and they were not shot. But another group that was with the bandits did not raise their hands and they were shot. Many people died there.”

In another incident that month, DAG helicopters destroyed a hospital in the town as they targeted Al-Shabaab fighters hiding inside the facility. A witness, trapped in her home near the hospital for six days by the fighting, said the helicopters shot “everything and everyone”.

“For them, it was no longer possible to know who was who,” she told Amnesty. “The majority of terrorists were in the hospital, thinking the helicopters could not attack. But one helicopter realised this, so they decided to bombard the hospital, that’s how the hospital was completely destroyed.”

Amnesty accuses DAG of “repeated, reckless targeting” of civilians. Its East and Southern Africa regional director, Deprose Muchena, said, “By firing indiscriminately into crowds, attacking civilian infrastructure, and failing to distinguish between military and civilian targets, they have clearly violated international humanitarian law. They must now be held accountable for their actions.”

The group called on the South African government to take action against the DAG if it had violated any domestic laws, including the Foreign Military Assistance Act, legislation that was introduced following the botched 2004 Equatorial Guinea coup attempt led by British mercenary Simon Mann.

On Tuesday, the company released a response to Amnesty’s allegations, saying their report was of “great concern” as DAG had “detailed human rights policies and standard operating procedures in place to govern all our operations and we take our obligations and responsibilities seriously”. 

It added that the matter is be investigated by a “panel of experts”, both in South African and Mozambique, and further comment will be released when “facts are established” by the investigating team.

Dyck, meanwhile, has denied Amnesty’s allegations. He told The Times of London: “All my men sign contracts with strict human rights clauses. We have been in this game a long time and know what we can and cannot do.”

He did however describe the atrocities in Cabo Delgado as “unlike anything I have seen before”, including the mutilation of body parts and cannibalism. He predicted “a catastrophe for the entire region” of southern Africa unless Al-Shabaab are stopped.

Amnesty’s report does not mention this, but a fourth party may be involved in the conflict. Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s foreign minister, is quoted by The Times as saying that Portugal, Mozambique’s former colonial rulers, were already “very active” in fighting the insurgents and “had soldiers, feet on the ground”, in the province.

It is clear from the Amnesty report, however, why the Mozambican government had hired the DAG. Their own forces are simply incapable of containing a situation that, according to the authoritative Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, or ACLED, had resulted in more than 1 300 civilian deaths and displaced, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, about 530 000 people — more than a quarter of the province’s population.

Typical of other militant Islamist terror campaigns on the continent, the insurgents have abducted young women and children, including girls as young as seven.

“Most often,” Amnesty said, “Al- Shabaab targets teenage girls, though boys are also taken to be made into new fighters. Further investigation is needed into the scale of these abductions and the violations that Al-Shabaab has committed against children they have captured, including sexual violence and potential use in hostilities.”

In response, the Mozambican government forces have carried out attacks of their own, not only against Al-Shabaab, but also against civilians accused of collaborating with or supporting the insurgents. 

“These government forces, which include the military and police, have conducted extrajudicial executions, committed acts of torture and other ill-treatment, and mutilated the bodies of their victims,” Amnesty said.

The DAG were hired after security forces lost a number of battles, often running away, abandoning their weapons and stripping off their uniforms to escape combat. In some cases, government soldiers reportedly dressed and disguised themselves as women to escape detection by insurgents.

Amnesty claims the most serious abuses by the Mozambican security forces are recorded on video and in photographs. In September last year, the organisation obtained and verified videos and photographs that show the attempted beheading, torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners; the dismemberment of alleged Al-Shabaab fighters; possible extrajudicial executions; and the transport and discarding of a large number of corpses into apparent mass graves. 

“Four videos depict the torture of detainees; three prisoners are tied with their arms behind their back, and then kicked and beaten with sticks or rifles by several soldiers. Meanwhile, other soldiers mock the prisoners and encourage the assault. The prisoners are either completely naked or stripped naked from the waist down, and then their genitals are beaten with sticks. In another video, after the beatings, a soldier leans down and uses a knife to cut off a victim’s ear.

“A fifth video and a related photograph reveal how some victims’ bodies are mistreated after death and possibly the killing of an injured man. The photo shows approximately 15 bodies in the back of a pick-up truck — all bound, blindfolded and half-naked — with many bearing new bruises and open wounds. The video shows bodies in a mass grave, and soldiers going from body to body, sawing with a long knife to slit the throats of live victims or attempt to behead the corpses. In one case, the victim may have still been alive during the decapitation, as one man is heard crying for his life while a soldier yells back in Portuguese: ‘Ah, shut up!’”

Some of this material has been shared on social media, Amnesty says. Mozambique’s defence ministry later claimed such video material was the result of image manipulation by Al-Shabaab in a bid to tarnish the image of the Mozambican armed forces. Amnesty claims this has been contradicted by verified evidence.

Al-Shabaab’s savagery, meanwhile, continues unchecked. They regularly attack urban areas, targeting both soldiers and civilians. According to Amnesty, the insurgents routinely kill civilians, loot their homes, and then burn them down using petrol.

One 75-year-old man who fled the fighting in Naguvala, a coastal village near the town of Quissanga, said that civilian men there who had resisted the attack were “beheaded” and “chopped”. The man described the latter as being “divided like a cow” at an abattoir. Sometimes these beheadings occur en masse; in November last year, it was reported that more than 50 civilians had been killed at a football pitch in Muidumbe.

These atrocities, Amnesty claims, are carried out to intimidate the local population. A former truck driver told them, “On that road [to the town of Palma] I could see every day dead corpses. These corpses were chopped and beheaded. They could take parts of a human body ... and take photos. They shared them via WhatsApp. That was to show the people what they were doing. I saw many bodies. I was scared.”

One woman described how, on July 23 last year, the bus on which she and her husband were travelling had been attacked by Al-Shabaab fighters in the village of Nguida. They shot up the bus, and when it stopped, the passengers were ordered from the vehicle, one by one, and shot as they exited. She was shot once in the chest and severely wounded, and her husband was hit as well. 

“At that time,” she recalled, “one of the bandits left … to go get the machete to use it on the wounded people. Later, he said we don’t need to chop them all, we can leave them to bleed and suffer. The leader of the bandits asked all the people about why they are trying to run away. They were running back to Macomia. ‘You can run back but we are coming and we will do the same thing to Macomia as we are doing here.’ The chief said this.”

According to Amnesty, this woman, who was seven months pregnant at the time, survived only because the insurgents believed she was going to die from her wounds anyway. Her husband died on the way to the hospital, and she gave birth two months later.

Amnesty’s report also details the background and roots of the conflict in Cabo Delgado. Despite its significant natural resources, which include minerals and a vast reservoir of liquid natural gas, the province ranks as one of the country’s poorest by virtually every poverty measure, including economic opportunity, malnutrition, transport, health, education, and access to clean water, electricity, and sanitation.

Very little of the income generated by multinational corporations extracting resources there, including France’s Total, the UK’s Gemfields and Italy’s Eni, finds its way into the pockets of locals, and this has contributed to the “sense of resentment and outrage” that drives the jihadist insurgents.

Although Amnesty labels them Al-Shabaab in their report, it notes the insurgents are known by several other names. Their official title is Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah, or ASWJ, but they’re also known as Ansar al-Sunna or the Mozambican arm of a group calling itself the Islamic State’s Central African Province, or ISCAP. 

Al-Shabaab is primarily a home-grown group, one that developed as long-term under-investment in the Muslim-majority province by the central government continued. While Islamism has been growing in Cabo Delgado for decades, the armed insurgency, and its use of jihadist ideology as a recruitment tool, did not gain traction until the arrival of multi-billion dollar extraction industries.

The current uprising by Al-Shabaab began on October 5, 2017, with a raid on police stations in Mocímboa da Praia.  The following year the group took to social media to pledge allegiance to IS. This pledge was finally acknowledged in a video released by IS’s official Amaq News Agency in June 2019.

That Amaq video claimed that jihadists in both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique formed the Central Africa Wilayah, or branch, of IS. Amnesty, however, states there are no links between the two — no training, no moving of weapons, for instance  — other than sharing the name.

While international observers often describe the IS as “infiltrating” Mozambique, there is no evidence that the insurgents in Cabo Delgado are composed of, or led by, foreign fighters, Amnesty says. “While a few Ugandans have been identified within Al-Shabaab’s ranks, and several Tanzanians hold important mid-level positions, the armed group remains largely a local organisation, with local concerns, that has pledged loyalty to an outside umbrella group.”