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Story Publication logo October 1, 2021

Mozambicans Fleeing IS-Affiliated Insurgents Feel Failed by Government, Exploited by Big Business


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This project will explore the drivers behind the escalating insurgency in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique.

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The Southeast African nation of Mozambique is being terrorized by "Al Shabaab," an ISIS-affiliated insurgency that has killed 3,000 people and displaced many more. With the support of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Neha Wadekar and filmmaker Ed Ram report from Mozambique on the drivers of this conflict.

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Read the full transcript below:

Judy Woodruff: The Southeast African nation of Mozambique is being terrorized by Al-Shabaab, an ISIS-affiliated insurgency that has killed 3,000 people and displaced many more. We first reported from there earlier this year. And, with the support of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Neha Wadekar and filmmaker Ed Ram recently returned to Mozambique to report on the drivers of the conflict.

Neha Wadekar: Islamic insurgents have been pushing for control in Cabo Delgado, Northern Mozambique, since 2017. In their own videos, they pledge allegiance to the so-called Islamic State and show off their weapons. They build their territory by terrorizing towns and villages. The conflict has displaced more than 800,000 people. Families flee beheadings and horrific violence, and human rights workers struggle to keep up with the flow of people and reach those trapped in the middle of the conflict zone. A hundred miles south of the fighting, people displaced by the violence live here with local families, and the host community is flooded with newcomers. In this village, we meet 28-year-old Luisa Victor. Luisa and her baby were held captive for a month after insurgents attacked her village.

Luisa Victor, Escaped Insurgent Captivity (through translator): I was scared and shaking, and I was crying. I couldn't look at them.

Neha Wadekar: Before escaping, Victor witnessed the insurgents' brutality.

Luisa Victor (through translator): We saw them beheading men. They would hold the men by the ears and tie them to posts. Then they would behead them and take the heads and bring the heads inside to show us. They said: "This is the work that we do."

Neha Wadekar: Many of the displaced people we met during our two weeks in Cabo Delgado said they'd also witnessed beheadings and obscene violence. Their stories made us want to understand the motives of the insurgents, beyond the narrative of Islamic extremism. Cabo Delgado is rich in natural resources. But while most local people still live in extreme poverty, it's large international companies that profit from the region's wealth. The insurgency has grown around one of Africa's largest foreign investments, a $20 billion natural gas project run by French energy giant Total. In March, the insurgents mounted a significant attack in Palma, where the project is located, prompting Total to suspend its operations.TotalEnergies told "PBS NewsHour" that it's committed to ensuring that local communities benefit from the project. The same preconditions for the insurgency that exists around the gas project are also growing around one of Cabo Delgado's most infamous industries, mining. We trekked deep into a forest near Montepuez, Cabo Delgado's major mining area, to gain access to illegal gold and ruby mines. Multinationals, including the U.K.-based company Gemfields, have bought rights from the Mozambican government to extract precious minerals and stones from this area. These miners say that the presence of large companies has left them little choice but to dig illegally.

Janito Basilio, Illegal Artisan Miner (through translator): We blame the bosses of our country. If they didn't want their people to suffer, they wouldn't give our country's wealth to foreigners. They would leave it to us. As you can see, these people around are very angry.

Neha Wadekar: Reports suggest that requests from big businesses for mining concessions have increased as the conflict has escalated, an indication that mining companies are benefiting from the insurgency. The men in this mine are working under tough conditions and say they're often beaten and chased away by security forces. Being pushed out of the mineral industry is one of the many reasons why the people of Cabo Delgado province are unhappy with their government. In Montepuez's famous ruby mines, the conflict between illegal miners and multinationals boils down to a simple problem.

Roselio Fanteleao, Illegal Artisan Ruby Miner (through translator): White people want the stones. We want them too.

Neha Wadekar: And experts on the conflict are concerned that it's this anger with the government in Cabo Delgado that's fueling the insurgency. Joao Feijo works for the Rural Environment Observatory, which aims to contribute to the sustainable development of rural regions like Cabo Delgado.

Joao Feijo, Rural Environment Observatory: Montepuez has, in fact, all the conditions for the insurgents to install. These mining projects only increase social differentiation, so it creates this sense of anger, social tension, and revenge.

Neha Wadekar: In a statement, Gemfields told "PBS NewsHour" that a country's gemstones are not resources to be looted purely for personal gain and said the suggestion that mining has contributed to the insurgency is absurd and misleading. In addition to minerals and natural gas resources, there is also a large timber trade in Cabo Delgado, where trees are cut down legally and illegally and shipped to China. Experts suspect that insurgents could be felling trees in the land they control and selling wood to fund their operations. And the more money the insurgents make, the more villages they can attack, sending dozens of people each day south to Pemba, Cabo Delgado's capital city. Insurgents control the roads further north, so many people flee the fighting by boat.

Nazira Sumaila, Displaced (through translator): My children and I were seasick. We were vomiting. Everyone in the boat was vomiting.

Neha Wadekar: Nazira Sumaila and their family complete their long journey to her mother's house, relief as the loved ones are reunited. Fatima Saidi, Nazira's mother, had been waiting for her daughter and grandchildren, with no news.

Fatima Shale Saidi, Mother (through translator): We spent almost two months without even going home waiting for my children to arrive at the beach.

Neha Wadekar: Back on Pemba's beaches, it's not just people arriving by boat. Cabo Delgado is a key point along international drug trade corridors. Drugs arrive in Pemba's port on cargo ships or are transferred to small fishing boats and brought to shore. One drug dealer was willing to speak with us, under the condition of anonymity. Where do the drugs come in from?

Man: If we talk about heroin, it's coming from Pakistan. And cocaine can come from Brazil or Colombia.

Neha Wadekar: Can you give us details about when they come in at the port?

Man: They pack in like the same bag of rice, the same bag of sugar. They're bringing it by ship. They're using the sea. And they load in Pemba. Then they divide in different countries.

Neha Wadekar: Heroin is estimated to be Mozambique's second-largest export. Huge quantities of drugs are transported down to South Africa and on to Europe, and analysts blame high-level corruption.

Joao Feijo: It's not possible to make a business like this without the involvement of the Mozambican big man, from the government and from the army.

Neha Wadekar: Interest in preserving this secretive Black market economy makes Cabo Delgado fertile ground for the insurgency to thrive. We wanted to ask the government about the marginalization of miners, the drug trade, and multinational business interests, but the Cabo Delgado regional authorities declined our request for an interview. In July, Rwandan troops deployed to Mozambique to help the government regain control. And they now claim to have taken back most of the territory once held by the insurgents. But many who have been displaced by the conflict won't feel safe going home until security is restored. Luisa Victor is still living in a host community 100 miles away from her village.

Luisa Victor (through translator): We have nothing, nothing. I just want to go back home.

Neha Wadekar: That's what everyone we spoke to said they want. In a region shattered by war, it seems the interests of big business have jeopardized the security of the people of Cabo Delgado. For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Neha Wadekar in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique.


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