Maputo, Mozambique – The camera shows a crowd, before quickly zooming in on the faces of three women. They are all wailing.
Thrusting microphones in their faces, journalists try to elicit some comment, but the inconsolable women are hardly audible, their incoherent utterances interspersed by long cries.
They are among the thousands of people to have arrived in Pemba, the capital of the Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado, after fleeing a devastating attack last week on the town of Palma the left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.
The government has confirmed the deaths of dozens of people, including Mozambican and foreign nationals. Some were decapitated. Vehicles were also burned, state buildings destroyed and foodstuff looted. No exact figures, including information on how many members of government security forces or fighters were killed, have been released.
Since they fired the first shots in October 2017 in the town of Mocimboa da Praia, the group known locally as al-Shabab has killed, destroyed and ransacked a number of northern towns and villages in Cabo Delgado.
It would seem Mocimboa da Praia holds a great symbolic value for the ISIL-linked fighters: they went back in August 2020 and wrested away control of the town from government forces, holding it until today.
As the fighters rampaged through Palma, those not killed fled their homes, quickly filling the ranks of the region’s internally displaced who have left ghost towns behind. The three-year conflict has forced some 700,000 people from their homes, with more than 2,500 killed.
The majority of those fleeing Palma – home to an estimated 110,000 people, including 40,000 internally displaced people who had settled there after fleeing attacks elsewhere – made their way down south to Pemba in overcrowded vessels, cars and on foot. One group arrived on Thursday in a vessel with about 1,200 people on board, including 300 children and 400 women.
More than 3,300 people have fled to Nangade, Mueda, Montepuez and Pemba districts, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), while it is believed that thousands are still on their way.
Palma is home to about a 50,000-strong population, living just a few kilometres from the gates of Afungi peninsula, Africa’s largest liquified natural gas construction site, where French energy giant Total has embarked on a $20bn project.
There are still many questions surrounding the real reason driving the violence, although competing theories are being floated.
Poverty and a lack of jobs are thought to have played a significant part in the face of growing social grievances in a gas-rich region that is also known for its timber and rubies. Trafficking of drugs and disputes amongst local elites, as well as increasing radicalisation of youths, have also been cited.
As the numbers of internally displaced people grow, humanitarian workers warn the situation is dire and is beginning to affect Cabo Delgado’s neighbouring provinces. Some of the population fled west to neighbouring Niassa province, while others made the route down south to Nampula.
“It’s a very serious situation,” said Lola Castro, WFP’s regional director in southern Africa. “We’re talking about already desperate people who haven’t been able to plan for three consecutive years, others who have recently been displaced, who don’t have even food, water, shelter or anything. A huge humanitarian tragedy is unfolding before us.”
The fleeing population have also an added burden; not all of the families manage to flee together, leaving many of those who made it out to assume the worst for their loved ones.
But for now the priority is to feed, clothe and shelter the fleeing population. When they reach the shelters, they might have travelled days without food and water. Those who make it by road hide into the bush, staying alive by drinking river water and foraging for food, while those on boats may go days without either food or water.
And as they get to the shelters, they are likely to increase the humanitarian bill. “We don’t have enough resources to support the scale-up that is needed,” said Castro. The WFP alone needs $10.5m monthly to provide assistance for the internally displaced, and has been calling for funds to cover their basic needs.
Within Mozambique, citizens in the capital, Maputo, have started a drive to collect funds to help their compatriots.
Failure to secure the funding will pose a great challenge to humanitarian operations. It is estimated that some 950,000 people in Cabo Delgado and the neighbouring provinces of Nampula and Niassa are food insecure.
Meanwhile, foreign bodies and countries have offered to help the Mozambican government in its fight against the armed group.
So far the government has focused mainly on military aid. The United States has sent special operations forces to train Mozambican troops, while the former colonial power Portugal will deploy 60 military experts, also for training purposes.
Still, what is most needed right now is for the government to come up with a coherent plan to address the crisis, taking into account humanitarian aid, local development, job creation, and other factors.
If not, images like those of the crying women will tragically only increase in frequency.