Nassim’s red 125cc motorcycle hurtles down a narrow dirt road. The driver knows this little road like the back of his hand that connects Chiponde, in Malawi, and Mandimba, in Mozambique. He commutes between the two border posts at least eight times a day. “Most of the people near this border are Mozambicans fleeing the war,” says the motorbike taxi driver, between two round trips.
Since the start of the conflicts in northern Mozambique, this border has been the main crossing point for civilians leaving their country for Malawi. Fleeing the fighting, a family of 17 passed through here on December 23, 2021 and then found refuge in the small village of Matiti, about ten kilometers from the border.
Originally from the district of Lichinga, they fled the fighting that had spread from the northeast of the province of Cabo Delgado to the west of the country. Since October 2017, this conflict has pitted jihadist insurgents from the Ansar al-Sunnah movement, known locally as Al-Shabab, against the Mozambican government. The insurgents want to enforce Sharia, or Islamic law. Its members reject the authority of the state, schools and the health system. According to humanitarian organizations, at least 3,500 people have been killed, 600 women kidnapped and 800,000 people displaced since the start of the conflict. The testimonies collected also bear witness to beheadings, sexual crimes and all sorts of abuses.
“What I saw is horrible”
The eldest of the family, Namanya Anderson, 86, says the conflict in their home area left them no choice but to leave. With several young children to support, the family could think of nothing else. “Al-Shabab fighters were cutting off people’s heads for no reason in nearby villages. Such a butchery was committed only five or ten kilometers from our home, so we had to leave, ”says the grizzled grandfather of several children.
Chrissy Ngundumu, dressed in a blue tunic and jewelry, said she narrowly escaped rape. “What I saw was horrible,” she said. “The fighters ripped off the women’s clothes and made them run naked down the street.” Carrying her youngest daughter, wrapped in a cloth, on her back, she explains that none of her eight children or four grandchildren will return to Mozambique. She sincerely hopes that they will be educated in Malawi, even if it is not currently possible without identity papers.
A little further on, a young couple from the same family recounts their journey, an incredible exodus. Aeness Awali, a 24-year-old Mozambican, recounts the countless means of transport they had to take and the lack of food.
“The children were screaming all the time because they were hungry. People were laughing and making fun of us on the way,” says the young mother, looking stern.
Her husband, January Anderson, a farmer, had refused to take up arms against the insurgents. “I don’t know how to use a weapon. I’m doing everything I can now to help out on this farm,” he says, pointing to a cornfield. No one in this family thinks tensions in Cabo Delgado are likely to ease. While waiting for their regularization in Malawi, they were able to obtain the status of “war refugee” at the Chiponde border post.
There are virtually no official records of the number of Mozambicans in the country today (according to UNHCR data for 2022, there are 86,427 refugees in Malawi). “The capacity to hold a census is very limited, explains Régio Conrado, doctoral student in political science and lecturer at Sciences Po Bordeaux. “In the case of refugees in Malawi, the situation is usually ignored because, since the war, Malawi has become accustomed to refugees.
During the civil war that ravaged Mozambique between 1977 and 1992, people flocked to Malawi in the hundreds of thousands. Even today, crossing the porous border between the two countries remains one of the best ways to escape the atrocities of Cabo Delgado.
As Éric Morier-Genoud, a historian specializing in Mozambique, explains, these refugees can no longer go to Tanzania, located in northern Mozambique. “They are arrested by the government and put on buses to return to Mozambique,” he said. Since the Tanzanian government’s ban on Mozambican refugees, most are now seeking refuge in Malawi. “A number of large camps are likely to emerge in the coming months,” explains the historian.
Guerrillas and child soldiers
Cabo Delgado province, one of the poorest in Mozambique, has a population of 2.3 million, 58% of whom are Muslim. The jihadists recruit many fighters in this area where there is a strong feeling of marginalization among the local population. The Al-Shabab movement behind the atrocities became militarized in Mozambique in 2016. The insurgency began in earnest in 2017 and gradually turned into guerrilla warfare.
In June 2019, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for its first attacks in Mozambique. A month later, Al-Shabab pledged allegiance to IS. On March 24, 2021, the jihadist assault and capture of the port of Palma claimed the lives of 55 people and weakened the troops of Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi. Most recently, on March 16, 2022, insurgents claimed an attack on the eastern island of Matemo in which seven soldiers were killed.
In recent months, the jihadists have retreated to the forests of Cabo Delgado and Mecula – areas they know well – where they can train hundreds of child soldiers in training camps.
“One of the precepts of jihadism is that after puberty, an adolescent can take part in combat and take up arms,” explains Wassim Nasr, a specialist in jihadist movements. Continued fighting prevents Mozambican civilians from returning home for several reasons. The first is that they cannot return while the insurgents are still terrorizing the population. The second, as Wassim Nasr explains, “is that if they were to return, some civilians would be considered jihadists by the Mozambican government”.
In July 2021, following the escalation of the insurgency, the government signed a bilateral agreement with Rwanda under which Kigali confirmed that it would send 1,000 Rwandan troops to Cabo Delgado province to fight against jihadists. They were deployed in the districts of Palma and Mocimboa de Praia. This foreign intervention serves to strengthen the position of Rwandan President Paul Kagame in southern Africa. Although he gives the impression that he is in control, the fighting continues nonetheless. According to Conrado, lecturer at Sciences Po, Rwanda “is trying to sell its model in southern Africa. The objective is to eliminate external dangers in the region and to expand politically,” explains the specialist, who was still on the ground in Cabo Delgado in 2021.
Another reason for Rwanda’s presence in Cabo Delgado is the region’s rich subsoil, which hosts one of the largest gas reserves in the world, highly coveted by global energy giants like Italy. ENI or the American Exxon. On March 24, 2021, following the terrorist attack in the city of Palma, the French group TotalEnergies suspended its largest project to date. Since the military intervention in the area, plans have been made to resume drilling and production is expected to start in 2026.
“Reclaiming coastal cities, like Palma, from the jihadists allows foreign investors to continue what they had started,” explains Thierry Vircoulon, coordinator of the Central and Southern Africa Observatory of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). “It’s an offshore gas project but it still requires a secure coast.” The return of foreign capital does not bode well for civilian populations who have fled the terrorist threat. “The risk is that islands of security will emerge around gas projects, with the continuation of guerrilla warfare around them,” warns Morier-Genoud, the historian specializing in Mozambique.
Malawi, while hosting the refugees, is not involved in the military effort in Cabo Delgado. “It’s a microstate with a very small army and limited security capabilities,” says Vircoulon. “The best he can do is control the borders because the jihadists are able to cross them.” The risk of the spread of the Islamist insurrection is real, according to Morier-Genoud: “A few years ago, the sectarian movements instigating the insurrection were also influential in the regions of Nampula and Niassa, up to the border with Malawi.
In front of their refuge in Malawi, Namanya Anderson and her family have installed a small pot on a stove. “That’s why the others aren’t here,” says the eldest of the family. “They left to do odd jobs, so they could buy food.” Sitting cross-legged, he calmly observes the children playing in the yard. Despite the difficult living conditions, he is aware of what he saved by leaving Lichinga.