The population of Pemba, Mozambique, has doubled since 2017. Islamist insurgency in the country’s far north has driven some 80,000 refugees south into the city to join relatives in overcrowded homes or to seek shelter in displacement camps, said Marina Mariane Vilela of the Christian aid group Iris Global. “Every day you see more people walking the streets with their belongings on their head,” she said.
Insurgent attacks in the oil-rich region this year have killed more than 1,000 civilians and displaced more than 300,000 people. Nearly 1,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Tanzania, potentially spreading the conflict through the region. International aid groups warn the insurgency is provoking a humanitarian crisis, depriving tens of thousands of people of food and livelihoods.
A local rebel group called Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama started attacking the port town of Mocímboa da Praia in October 2017. As attacks intensified in February, Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa of the Catholic Diocese of Pemba warned of an impending crisis. “The villages are being left empty, and people are not planting their crops,” he told Aid to the Church in Need. “That means that there will be hunger, and we will have thousands of internally displaced people.”
In August, the militants seized Mocímboa da Praia after several days of fighting. The extremists blocked access to major roads and other nearby towns, complicating aid efforts in the region. By last week, more than 7,000 people had arrived at a new displacement camp in Pemba, said Judy Atoni, the country director with Food for the Hungry.
Atoni’s team has worked with other partners to drill wells, refurbish water pumps, and encourage small-scale farming among the displaced. Iris Global partnered with the government and other aid agencies to provide water and sanitation, as well as gender-segregated bathrooms in some of the camps.
The UN World Food Program last week warned that nearby communities will continue to face crisis levels of food insecurity into early next year as attacks drive more people out of their homes. Cabo Delgado already has the second-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the country. More than half of children younger than 5 could face physical or cognitive delays due to poor nutrition.
“This is a region that produces both crops for commercial as well as for the subsistence of the farmers there,” World Food Program spokesman Tomson Phiri told Voice of America. “And we know that when there is violence, and if the farmer is not guaranteed to be there to harvest, they hardly put any seeds into the ground.”
Mozambican Foreign Minister Verónica Macamo sent a letter last month asking her European Union counterpart for help training forces to fight the insurgency and terrorism. But an EU parliamentary resolution pushed the country to work on what it calls the root causes of terrorism, including poverty, rights violations, corruption, and unemployment.
Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at U.K.-based Chatham House, acknowledged the country’s military was struggling and cited recent reports of human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings. South Africa, the region’s most stable country, declined to send military aid while it battles the continent’s worst COVID-19 outbreak and a severe economic crisis. “I think this is one of the reasons Mozambique in the end has decided it’s got to look for foreign training and improve its counterinsurgency that way,” Vines said.