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The Mozambican government should immediately assist civilians to move to safer areas. These civilians are trapped by fighting in Cabo Delgado province, Human Rights Watch said today. More than 88,000 people have been displaced from the embattled Palma district following the March 24, 2021 attack by Ansar al-Sunna, an armed group linked to the Islamic State (ISIS). Government security forces have imposed restrictions that have prevented tens of thousands from leaving, placing them at risk from fighting and aid shortages.
Many civilians have sought refuge in Quitunda village, about five kilometers from the town of Palma, where they lack water, food, and other basic services. People who managed to escape Quitunda said that government soldiers prohibited people from leaving the village, and physically assaulted those caught trying to flee.
Thousands of Palma residents who managed to reach Pemba, the provincial capital, traveled by foot, walking several days in the bush. Others went by boat, spending days at sea without food or water, while others took government rescue planes, in some cases only after paying bribes to soldiers to secure seats.
“Government forces have international legal obligations to assist people threatened by fighting and food shortages to move to safer areas,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Mozambican authorities should immediately allow civilians to leave Cabo Delgado combat zones and ensure humanitarian aid reaches those in need.”
From March to July, Human Rights Watch spoke by phone with 32 people, including displaced people, relatives of trapped Palma residents, humanitarian workers, army officials, and journalists. Human Rights Watch corroborated their accounts by analyzing satellite imagery of fighting in the town of Palma and massive fires in the surrounding areas since late April.
During the March 24 attack, gunmen identified as Ansar al-Sunna from their clothes, language, and weapons burned homes and farms. Witnesses said that the attackers killed at least seven people, including the witnesses’ relatives and neighbors.
Since the attack, Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by government security forces, including restricting people’s movement and beating and mistreating them.
Despite government forces’ claims that they had regained control of Palma after more than 10 days of heavy fighting, residents said that Palma remained insecure. Some people who had returned to the town had to flee again due to renewed attacks.
People who fled Quitunda and Palma for Pemba in May and June said that government soldiers had tightly restricted movement. These soldiers also beat and mistreated some people trying to flee. “Soldiers didn’t allow us to leave Quitunda, but there is nothing there, no food, no medicine, and the water is dirty,” a 28-year-old man said. “When aid arrives occasionally, we fight each other for it. I tried to flee Quitunda three times before. Soldiers caught me and whipped me hard.” He said he escaped after befriending a soldier who helped him in exchange for his civilian clothes so that he too, could leave.
The persistent insecurity and government restrictions have continued to hinder the access of humanitarian groups operating in Cabo Delgado province. A senior official from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, MSF), who visited the region, reported that bureaucratic hurdles impeded aid delivery. A World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson said on July 1 that it had suspended food distribution to Palma district in March and was assessing the security risks of providing assistance to people in isolated regions in Palma, Macomia, Mocimboa da Praia, Muidumbe, and Quissanga districts.
Two senior army officials said in May and June that the army was not allowing people to leave because it believed armed group members were hiding among them. “If we allow them out, they can cause the same type of mess in other cities,” one officer said. “Just imagine if they go to Pemba or Montepuez. The same thing applies to humanitarian agencies and workers. If we allow foreigners to start going to Quitunda, these bandits will use the opportunity to embarrass our government just like they did [in Palma].”
Under international humanitarian law, government forces and non-state armed groups are obligated to protect citizens under their control and remove them from the vicinity of military operations. All sides need to facilitate aid delivery. The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the Kampala Convention) obligates African member countries to provide assistance to internally displaced people by meeting their basic needs, including allowing and facilitating rapid and unimpeded access by humanitarian organizations.
On May 4 Human Rights Watch shared its findings and requested comments in an email to the Mozambican Ministry of Defense but has not received a response.
The Mozambican government should ensure that security forces deployed to Palma respect the rights of people caught amid the fighting, Human Rights Watch said. These security forces include foreign troops from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Standby Force and Rwanda. Respecting the rights of people means moving them from conflict areas, ensuring access to aid, and providing reparations for abuses.
“Tens of thousands of civilians are at immediate risk of violence and displacement without the basic necessities to survive,” Segun said. “The Mozambican authorities need to facilitate access to aid agencies to tackle the growing humanitarian crisis.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Human Rights Watch (HRW).