Luisa Victor heard the war before she saw it. “I was chatting with a friend,” the 28-year-old mother of five tells the Telegraph. “Then we heard gunshots in the same hour. Everyone knows that war begins with a signal.”
Moments later, armed insurgents stormed Ms Victor’s village in Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province of Mozambique. They burned houses to the ground, beheaded people and captured women and children, including Ms Victor and her baby.
“I was scared and shaking, and I was crying,” says Ms Victor. “I couldn't look at them.”
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Ms Victor spent a full month last year imprisoned in the insurgents’ headquarters deep in one of Cabo Delgado’s forests. She was held as a domestic slave and witnessed the fighters’ violence.
“We saw them beheading men,” she says. “They would hold them by the ears and tie them to a post. They would behead them and take the heads and bring them inside the house to show us. They said, ‘this is the work that we do.’"
A brutal insurgency has been escalating in Cabo Delgado since 2017. Nearly 3,000 people have been killed and another 800,000 displaced by the fighting.
The group, known locally as Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ) or al-Shabaab, reportedly pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State in 2018.
The United States government officially designated it as a global terrorist organisation – Isis Mozambique – in March this year.
Opinions differ on how strong the connections are between Mozambique’s insurgents and Islamic State’s central leadership.
Underlying the conflict in Mozambique are a host of other factors, such as decades of neglect by the central government, battles over natural resources, and a thriving black market.
These are often overlooked in favour of the more mainstream narrative that Africa is becoming the next frontier for Islamic terrorist activity.
While in captivity, Ms Victor listened to the insurgents’ conversations.
“They said, ‘the purpose of this war is to move everyone out of here because it's going to be built up, and we are going to work with the white people who are building here. This place will become beautiful, and all of you will live somewhere else,’” Ms Victor recalls.
While it was impossible for the Telegraph to verify Ms Victor’s account it points to some of the insurgents’ underlying motivations: to benefit from the region’s riches – something that has long been denied them by the government and foreign investors who have been profiting from Cabo Delgado’s vast quantities of timber, precious metals and stones, and one of Africa’s largest natural gas reserves.
But the region, largely overlooked since before independence, also has some of Mozambique’s worst health, education and employment indicators.
This marginalisation has created the perfect conditions for a festering insurgency to take hold.
“All these [youth], that for decades were involved in the illegal exploitation of natural resources ... were cut [out] by the government, because the government wanted to formalise the exploitation of these natural resources,” says João Feijó, a researcher at the Rural Environment Observatory (OMR) in Mozambique.
“At the same time, these radical movements were arriving and installing in the north of the country, organising themselves in cells, trying to recruit [the youth]. The tension was capitalised by these violent groups.”
Cabo Delgado’s regional authorities declined the Telegraph’s request for an interview.
Between 2010-2011, vast quantities of natural gas were discovered off the northern coast of the province. In 2019, French energy giant, Total, confirmed a $20 billion investment and announced plans to begin delivering liquified natural gas from Mozambique by 2024.
But if local people expected to benefit, they were sorely disappointed, analysts say.
“[Local youth] felt unprotected by the government because there were thousands of...Mozambicans from the south and foreigners that were arriving and getting the best jobs,” says Mr Feijó. “And they didn't have the opportunities for education so they could not compete.”
Cabo Delgado’s insurgency appears to have grown around the natural gas projects. In March this year the insurgents mounted their most ambitious assault yet — on the city of Palma, home to the burgeoning natural gas industry.
Hundreds of heavily armed terrorists took over the entire town, law and order collapsed, and thousands of civilians fled. The protracted battle drew widespread media attention.
After the attacks Total withdrew staff and suspended its operations.
Beneath the soil of Montepuez, a cool, mountainous region in the southwest of Cabo Delgado, lies a treasure trove. In 2009, a local farmer discovered a ruby deposit in the area, inspiring other locals to begin digging.
In 2011, Montepuez Ruby Mining (MRM) Ltd. — a partnership between the Mozambican company Mwiriti Ltd. and the British company Gemfields Ltd. — was formed. MRM acquired a 25-year concession, granting it exclusive mining rights in a large area of Montepuez and now yielding revenues of $100-120 million per year.
But local artisanal miners have been sidelined, saying they are often chased away, captured or jailed while working, despite some having government licenses to work in certain areas.
“I was shocked because we were captured with all the documentation they had given us from the Republic,” says Jamal*, a miner who had been granted authorisation.
But MRM says that the miners break the law by digging on concessioned land.
“Under Mozambican law, it is illegal to carry out mining on a licence held by another party,” the company said in a statement to the Telegraph. “As such, artisanal miners seeking to mine within the MRM licence area are in breach of Mozambican law and are sometimes arrested by Mozambican police.”
In 2017, disturbing videos emerged of Mozambican police officers and plain clothes security guards beating a group of artisanal ruby miners.
“When they were beating us, they said, ‘we're prohibiting you from coming to the mine. Go and farm. We don't want you to take the rubies ... We are beating you so you don't come back here. It doesn't matter if we kill you,’" says Benjamim*, one man identified in the video.
Mr Benjamim still bears the scars from the burns he received that day.
“When I saw what they were doing to me, I cried, ‘mommy’ and I pleaded with them,” Mr Benjamim says. “For someone to be burnt while they're alive, isn't that a crime?”
In a statement MRM said the workers in the video, who were contracted to the company, were in “flagrant violation of the policies and procedures of both MRM and Gemfields”.
“Following investigation, disciplinary action was taken and the five individuals who were identified in the investigation are no longer contracted to MRM.”
MRM says it began providing human rights training to Mozambican authorities in 2017. That same year, the company was awarded best social responsibility practices by the government of Cabo Delgado.
In 2019, Gemfields settled a lawsuit brought by UK-based firm Leigh Day, on behalf of 273 locals. While Gemfields made no admission of liability, it did recognise that violence had occurred near Montepuez.
But miners say that the abuse has continued. In a remote artisanal ruby mine deep in the bush, men shovel mud out of a pit several metres deep. They speak in hushed voices. Just that morning, security forces had caught them, confiscated their equipment and burned their food.
“I am mining for rubies without documentation because we don’t have another choice,” says one miner, 26-year-old Roselio*. “We trusted the government, but they're the ones that treat us badly.”
Mr Roselio unscrews a small torch and tips out its contents, revealing glinting shards of pink and maroon gems. “The stones cause problems,” he says. “White people want the stones. We want them too.”
At a nearby gold concession, another illegal miner, 25-year-old Janito*, worded his complaints more strongly.
“As you can see, these people around us are very angry,” he says, as the men crowded around him nod in agreement. “We blame the bosses of our country. If they didn't want their children [their people] to suffer, they wouldn't give the best of our country to foreigners. They would leave it to us.”
MRM strongly denies that the discontent festering around the mines could be contributing to the insurgency, saying it is more than 200km away from the affected area.
In addition to the battle over natural resources, a thriving black market is adding to the sense of grievance felt by many local people.
Timber from Cabo Delgado’s forests is one of Mozambique’s major exports, with more than 90 per cent of Mozambique’s wood shipped to China.
Just outside Montepuez, Chinese timber companies line a main street, with stashes of freshly cut wood piled up behind high walls and guarded gates. Some estimates say that nearly half of the wood being shipped to China is illegal.
Efforts have been made to stop the illegal logging, including government seizures of illegal shipments and a memorandum of understanding signed between the governments of China and Mozambique. But in Montepuez’s lush forests, butchered tree stumps felled by illicit loggers show the trade is continuing.
Some analysts believe that this could be fuelling insurgent activity.
“Since the war started, it's not possible for these established connections [traditional timber networks] to operate anymore. Now it's in the land of al-Shabaab. So it's possible that they are cutting the wood and selling it to Tanzania, and then [from] Tanzania, it goes to the Asian markets,” says Mr Feijó.
According to a report by British diplomat Sir Ivor Roberts for the Counter Extremism Project, al-Shabaab draws “its followers from communities with a long history of exploiting Mozambique’s traditional smuggling routes.
The group benefits from a diverse illicit trade portfolio, which includes the export of timber, gemstones and wildlife products and the largescale import of narcotics, especially heroin.”
The heroin trade is the most notorious of the illicit networks operating in Mozambique. Heroin is estimated to be Mozambique’s largest or second largest export, with between 10-40 tonnes or more moving through Mozambique, which lies on an international drugs corridor, annually at an export value of around $20 million per tonne.
Opinions differ on if and how much the insurgents might be profiting from this illegal trade. While some experts have yet to see a connection, others are confident that the insurgents are using it to finance their activities.
In the end, however, it’s displaced people like Luisa Victor and her children who are suffering the most.
Ms Victor escaped from her kidnappers after she was sent to fetch water. She spent several days trekking through the forest with her baby until she reached a village where she received help. Today, she lives in a host community, dependent on the kindness of locals and help from humanitarian organisations.
“We sleep on the floor. We have no mat. We have nothing. Nothing,” she says. “I just want to go back home.”