Mozambique: Focus on fighting ‘terrorists’ ignores real humanitarian needs in Cabo Delgado

Jonathan Whittall is based in Johannesburg and is the Director of the Analysis Department at Doctors without Borders (MSF).

12 May 21

Three important developments took place in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province in less than six weeks, all of which will have a significant future impact on human lives.

US government designates armed opposition group as 'terrorist' organisation

First, in mid-March the United States government designated an armed opposition group operating in Cabo Delgado as a ‘terrorist’ organisation and sent military advisors to train the Mozambique army on counter-terrorism measures.

A fortnight later, the town of Palma – close to a multi-billion dollar gas project run by the French company Total – was attacked by an armed group in a high profile and brutal assault that killed a still unknown number of people and displaced at least 30,000.

And in early April, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries “condemned the terrorist attacks in strongest terms; and affirmed that such heinous attacks cannot be allowed to continue without a proportionate regional response”.

SADC deployed a “technical mission” to Mozambique that has recommended the deployment of 3,000 troops from the region.

An aerial view of the 25 de Junho camp for internally displaced people in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province which has seen armed conflict resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being displaced.

Much of this recent attention on Cabo Delgado was fuelled by the claims of the opposition groups link to the Islamic State (IS) and the killing of foreigners in the attack on Palma.

"Cabo Delgado might not be a forgotten conflict, but it certainly is a neglected humanitarian crisis"

While the conflict has been going on since 2017, it has received very little political attention from regional governments or international actors – except those interested in Mozambique’s gas reserves or private military contracts.

Patients wait in a clearing under a tree to be seen by a medical team providing consultations out of a mobile clinic which MSF is running in the Nicuapa reallocation site for internally displaced people fleeing armed conflict in Cabo Delgado.

Much less attention has been given to the growing number of displaced people – now over 700,000 – and the critical humanitarian crisis facing the province.

"A neglected humanitarian crisis"

Cabo Delgado might not be a forgotten conflict, but it certainly is a neglected humanitarian crisis.

And now, with the attention from the SADC region and the Mozambican government’s international backers fixed almost exclusively on ‘fighting terrorism’, the solutions being proposed may once again overlook the urgent need to save lives, and alleviate the suffering, of scores of conflict affected communities.

A mental health session is conducted with people who have sought shelter in the Nangua camp for internally displaced people. These sessions are used to help those displaced by the armed conflict in Cabo Delgado.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled violence and insecurity and they have ended up living in over-crowded camps or being hosted by local communities with already limited resources.

People have experienced significant trauma: a decapitated husband, a kidnapped wife, a son or daughter from whom they have no news.

Many walk for days to find safety after hiding in the bush, often without food and water.

Others remain in locations where humanitarian actors cannot reach because of the ongoing insecurity.

"The humanitarian response in no way matches the scale of the needs"

While the reasons for this conflict might be multifaceted and complex, the consequences of the violence are strikingly simple: fear, insecurity and a lack of access to the basic needs for survival, including food, water, shelter and urgent healthcare.

A mental health session is conducted with people who have sought shelter in the Nangua camp for internally displaced people. These sessions are used to help those displaced by the armed conflict in Cabo Delgado.

Restrictions impeding a scale up of the humanitarian response 

Meanwhile, significant restrictions are placed on the scale up of the humanitarian response due to the ongoing insecurity and the bureaucratic hurdles impeding the importation of certain supplies and the issuing of visas for additional humanitarian workers.

Having recently returned from Cabo Delgado, I have seen first-hand how the scale of the humanitarian response in no way matches the scale of the needs.

An MSF car is seen at the Nangua camp for internally displaced people in Metuge where MSF is providing medical and water, sanitation and hygiene support for the displaced communities living in the camp.

What does seem set to scale up is the regionally supported and internationally funded counter-terrorism operation that could further impact an already vulnerable population.

In many conflicts, from Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan, I have seen how counter-terrorism operations can generate additional humanitarian needs while limiting the ability of humanitarian workers to respond.

Firstly, by designating a group as ‘terrorists’, we often see that the groups in question are pushed further underground – making dialogue with them for humanitarian access more complex.

Patients are seen inside a mobile clinic set up and operated by MSF in Nicuapa, a camp for internally displaced people who have fled fighting in parts of Mozambiques Cabo Delgado province.

While states can claim that they “don’t negotiate with terrorists”, humanitarian workers are compelled to provide humanitarian aid impartially and to negotiate with any group that controls territory or that can harm our patients and staff.

Many aid organisations shy away from this in places where a group has been designated as “terrorists” out of fear of falling foul of counter-terrorism legislation.

Lucille Trutta, Watsan Manager for MSF in Pemba is seen at a site where she and her team are building new latrines which form part of MSF’s water, sanitation and hygiene response.

For Doctors Without Borders (MSF), successfully providing impartial medical care requires reserving a space for dialogue and building trust in the fact that our presence in a conflict is for the sole purpose of saving lives and alleviating suffering.

Reaching the most vulnerable by working independently 

Yet, counter-terrorism operations try to bring humanitarian activities under the full control of the state and the military coalitions that support them.

MSF logistical team unload supplies at the Nangua camp for internally displaced people where they are working on developing water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure like latrines in order to stop the spread of diseases like Cholera in the camp.

Aid is denied, facilitated or provided in order to boost the government’s credibility, to win hearts and minds for the military intervening, or to punish communities that are accused of sympathising with an opposition group.

The most vulnerable can often fall through the cracks of such an approach, which is why organisations like MSF need to be able to work independently.

Physician, Nazario Jaime, is seen during a consultation with a patient living in the Nicuapa site in Cabo Delgado province. The camp is now home to internally displaced people who have been forced to flee fighting in Mozambique’s northern most province.

The reason why humanitarian workers cannot be aligned with a state and its military backers is that often states and those affiliated with them are clear targets of armed opposition groups.

Being aligned to a state that is fighting a counter-terrorism war would reduce our ability to reach the most vulnerable communities to offer medical care.

MSF Response

At MSF we know this can come at a time when we are needed the most.

Map detailing the MSF response to the crisis in different localities of Cabo Delgado

In counter-terrorism wars around the world we often see civilian casualties being justified due to the presence of ‘terrorists’ among a civilian population.

Entire communities can be considered as ‘hostile’, leading to a loosening of the rules of engagement for combat forces.

It is in these situations that we have often seen hospitals destroyed and entire villages razed to the ground in attacks that fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets.

Commmunities are often trapped between indiscriminate violence by armed groups and the counter terrorism response from the state.

A woman and her child living in a camp for people who have been forced to flee their homes due to armed conflict in Cabo Delgado are seen at a mobile clinic operated by MSF in Nicuapa, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique 2021/04/12.

The current focus on ‘terrorism’ clearly serves the political and economic interests of those intervening in Mozambique.

However, it must not come at the expense of saving lives and alleviating the immense suffering facing the people of Cabo Delgado.

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