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Mozambique: Hundreds continue to flee weeks after Islamic State fighters attack

Women carry their belongings off a boat as they arrive at Paquitequete beach in Pemba on May 22, 2021, after fleeing Palma by boat with forty nine other people

Six weeks after it was raided by Islamic State-linked fighters, the northern Mozambican town of Palma remains deeply traumatised and hundreds of its residents flee each day, survivors and aid workers say.

The insurgents swooped on the coastal town on March 24, killing dozens of people and triggering an exodus that included workers on a multi-billion-dollar liquefied natural gas (LNG) project.

The raids marked a major intensification in an insurgency that has wreaked havoc across Cabo Delgado province for over three years.

The violence pushed France’s Total to suspend work on the nearby LNG scheme, one of Africa’s largest. The dead include several expatriate oil workers.

After days of fighting, the government said its forces had driven out the extremists and that calm had returned.

But many people still feel unsafe and are leaving the area.

In recent days, hundreds have landed in the provincial capital Pemba on privately-organised rescue boats, a volunteer registering the displaced told AFP.

Viaze Juma, 34, a mother of four, arrived on Friday from Afungi, a peninsula near the heavily-guarded gas plant and five kilometres south of Palma, where thousands sought refuge during the attack.

“It’s good that now I’m out of Palma. I’m safe but my house was burned down,” she told AFP.

On the day Juma made it to Pemba, the United Nations announced that the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) had breached the 30,000 mark.

‘Very unstable’

Four days later, on Tuesday, that number had shot to 36,288 — almost half of Palma’s 75,000 inhabitants.

Further inland, in Mueda and Nangade, up to 40 families arrive each day on foot, aid workers say.

The true picture of the security situation in Palma remains obscure.

Although cellphone communications and electricity — cut off on the day of the attack — have been restored, access to the town is still restricted for both the media and humanitarian organisations.

But the flight of tens of thousands of civilians in a month-and-a-half — 6,000 of them in less than a week — shows that order has not yet been fully restored.

“The situation in Palma is very unstable, (with) shooting at night,” said an aid worker in Mueda, around 180 kilometres (110 miles) southwest of Palma.

“It’s a place where you cannot sleep thinking you are going to wake up with no problems,” added the worker, who asked not to be named.

Two weeks ago, a resident who had returned to his home after fleeing the attack was found beheaded, local police said.

A Pemba resident, Issa Mohamede, told AFP his relatives in Palma confirmed night time “shootings and (that) some houses were seen burning in Malamba neighbourhood” late last month.

‘People don’t feel safe’

“It is clear the situation is volatile” in Palma, said a Pemba-based aid worker, adding that “the reason people are still fleeing is because things are not okay, people are still trying to evacuate.”

The number of IDPs “continues to increase by the day,” said Mozambique chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Laura Tomm-Bonde.

Prior to the March attack, there were already close to 700,000 people uprooted from their homes in the vast and poor Cabo Delgado province.

Receiving a $100-million World Bank grant last week for infrastructural projects, President Filipe Nyusi vowed to “restore normalcy” and end the “barbaric”, “malicious” terror attacks.

Maputo-based security expert Calton Cadeado, who closely monitors the Cabo Delgado crisis, said the military-patrolled downtown Palma was relatively calm but that the town’s fringes remained “vulnerable”.

There are fears that the end of Ramadan in mid-May could see a resurgence in attacks, analysts say.