Dr Masimba Mavaza
A brief background of Palma
Palma is a coastal town located far north of Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique. It is very close to the Tanzanian boarder, 20 kilometres away.
Since the discovery of vast deposits of gas by Anardako (an American oil and gas exploration company), there was a lot of business activities in the previously fishing town.
Total took over from Anardako and a host of multi-national companies moved to Palma.
Palma is adjacent to Afungi peninsula where Total is building two gas liquefaction plants which they call trains.
However, since 2017 there was a rise of a terrorist organization which hides under Islam.
The terrorist group claim that it wants to establish Sharia law in its own Islamic State in northern Mozambique.
Palma and other districts are predominantly Islam and a lot of Moslems are against such nature of religious extremism.
In the past days, Palma was thrown into a devastating war caused by these extremists.
They are not willing to take over Mozambique, but they just want the now rich area of Cabo Delgado.
The atrocities being committed by these “vampires” are sickening and the rumour of their advancement towards any area is frightening.
Fungai Jonathan Mandinde, a Zimbabwean whose real name has been protected, tells a true account of how he survived the attack in Palma.
“I arrived in Palma early 2021 to join a booming construction business,” he said. “There had been a demand for accommodation for the workers on various support projects at Afungi.
“During late December and early January, there were two close call for terrorist attacks. At one moment we had to be evacuated to Afungi. Afungi is a heavily militarized estate which protects Total’s investment.
“Later on, it turned out that the threat was not as severe as previously anticipated. Total, through its sub-contracted companies, suspended some of its operations until mid-March 2021.
“On 22 March, Total made an announcement that it was to resume all operations at the Afungi site. Our bosses had informed us to speed up our construction and renovation work as there would soon be a huge demand for the accommodation.
“For the previous month or two there was a critical shortage of food. The government was restricting all food that comes to Palma. This meant less food for business and refugees. Palma had seen an influx of refugees coming from Mocimba de Pria. Mocimba de Pria had been taken over by the terrorists last year in March. The government recaptured the town mid-last year and lost it to the rebels again sometime in August last year.”
Mandinde said prior to the attack on Palma, there had been a lot of people coming in and they were taken as refugees.
“The events of 24 March 2021 was somehow unique as compared to other threats,” said Mandinde. “Whilst we were on duty at 1500hrs, there was a sudden outburst of gunfire around our premises.
“We could not see what was happening outside because of the high perimeter wall. We could feel that there was heavy exchange of gunfire between the terrorists and government forces.
“Everyone started to shout “El Shabab is here! El Shabab is here! El Shebab is the local name of these terrorists. There is no certainty if they are linked to the Somali terrible groups as well.”
Mandinde said they had been warned during the day by some locals that there was an imminent attack on Palma on that day.
Some claimed a group of terrorists had been spotted trekking down from a Quionga village moving towards Palma, he said.
“The initial exchange of gunfire between the terrorists and government forces lasted between 10 to 15 minutes,” said Mandinde. “For the next 45 minutes to one hour, there was dead silence.
“We all grouped together, wondering on what to do next. We were trapped in a place where there was nowhere to run and hide. We could only shift from one side of the premises to another depending on which side there was higher intensity of gunfire.
“As each hour passed by, the intensity of the gunfire increased. The initial fire came from rifles. Later we could hear the sound of machine guns. By 1900hrs it seemed the government forces had been run over as we could only hear the sound of machine guns.”
Mandinde said it was at that moment that some over speeding vehicles came to a screeching halt at the main gate of the compound.
“At first I thought it was reinforcement from the government,” he said. “The occupants of the vehicles started to fire mortars towards the buildings. It was at that moment that I realized that it was the terrorists and they were determined to kill all of us.
“All in all, there were over 75 workers inside the premise. There was also a few security guards and special police force, called rapid intervention force. They too were scurrying for cover. No one in the camp was safe.”
Fear and Triumph
Mandinde said the terrorists started to shout “Allah akbar” “Allah akbar”.
“At this moment, I could realize that my life was coming to an unexpected and painful end,” he said. “My colleagues started to run in all directions and looking for any kind of place to hide.
“The weird and most horrible war cry I have ever heard made my knees to tremble. I could feel a chill effect in my stomach, but I managed to gain an enormous amount of energy.
“Together with a group of seven colleagues, we sneaked out of the premises by climbing on trees and then jumping over the perimeter wall. We then crawled into the thick bush. The thorny bushes were a menace to our skins.”
Mandinde said at that moment, there was heavy bombardment in a direction from Palma to a village in Manguna.
“The beach was a no go area,” he said. “The terrorists were shooting the boats with long range guns. With my colleagues, we wondered on how we could leave Palma and find refugee at Afungi where there was better security.”
Mandinde said there was shooting everywhere, even in the bush they were hiding.
Armed vehicles were roaming every possible road and any movement proved to be a death trap, he said.
Mandinde said together with his colleagues, they covered themselves with tree branches and grass.
“We had to turn the work suits inside out to hide the reflectors,” he said. “It was my first time in my life to sleep in the bush with no bedding. The rain did not do us any favour. It poured on us for close to an hour non-stop.
“The following morning on 25 March, we tried to get to Afungi, but it was still a very risk adventure. We walked for several kilometers in order to find refugee in nearby villages.
“All the villages we tried to enter, we were welcomed by random gunfire. Not sure whether it was the terrorist or government forces, we eventually abandoned the idea of seeking refugee in the villages.
“At 1600hrs, we met the first group of some refugees. They told us of some shocking scenes they had encountered. Bombed buildings, headless bodies and dead bodies littered on the streets.
Mandinde said a helicopter was now hovering in the sky, but they decided not to call for help as that could be risky if there were terrorists nearby.
“We saw in another village a group of terrorists chopping off legs from their victims,” he said. “One terrorist was holding a dreadlocked head in his hand speaking in his language.
“I managed to take the video using my phone, but I was a distance, at the same time making sure that we will not be found.”
Mandinde said together with the refugees they had met earlier, they decided to travel to a nearby village town of Pundanhar.
It is about 45km away from Palma.
“Exhausted, thirst and hungry, we decided to sleep at 2100hrs, in the bush again,” said Mandinde. “Snakes, crocodiles and mosquitoes were a distant threat than the heartless men armed with machine guns and machetes.
“With a team of 14 refugees, we had to become our own security. Two people had to take turns to guard the rest whilst they were sleeping.”
Mandinde said they continued their journey towards Pundanhar the following morning, on 26 March.
“One of us, a Zimbabwean, had received a bullet on his shoulder and now he could not walk,” he said. “So, we quickly made a stretcher bed for him and carried him.
“We had to feed him with urine. He was very dehydrated. All we could think of was how to save him. We could not just let him die in the bush. All the mobile networks were shut down, it was difficult to call for help or to try to find other colleagues.
“We started the journey at 0300hrs whilst the shooting was still going on. It was a second day in a row we had gone without taking a bath and having something to eat.
“The journey itself was not an easy one. Occasionally we had to hide in the bush if there happened to be a vehicle coming in our direction. In all the cases it will be a plane or a helicopter.”
Mandinde said they drunk stagnant muddy water they collected from shallow ditches on gravel roads or drunk their urine.
He said they were met with gruesome scenes as they passed abandoned villages.
“In one village, we saw a body of a lady which was split into two,” said Mandinde. “The head was hanged on a nearby bush. There was blood all over. We walked silently and then we heard the sound of a car.
“We jumped in the bush and hid there. We could see villagers sitting down, with rebels pacing up and down. As we looked, we saw two people being tied, their right legs on another car and the left leg on another.
“We looked in horror as the cars were driven apart. We had an agonizing scream as the two were split apart by the two cars. It was horrible. We did not move, instead we just stayed in the bush for another night.
“The following morning, we made sure that the terrorists were gone. We then walked into the village. We left few guys in the bush with our injured colleague while we moved into the village.”
Mandinde said it was then that they saw the extent of cruelty the terrorists had left.
“We saw women bodies with big sticks shoved in their privates,” he said. “We saw torsos strewn all over the village. The village was smelling of death. We had to help ourselves to raw cassava, coconuts and water melons.
“We then rushed back to the bush in fear of being found by the terrorists in the village. It was on this journey that I realized how barbaric these terrorists were. All the way, there was a lot of burnt huts, small trucks and village schools looted and burnt to ashes.
“All the way you could find all sorts of items, from suitcases, pots to even motorbikes. I could only imagine that the suitcases would have become too heavy for the owners on such a long journey.
“The motorbikes could have run out of fuel and the owners would proceed with the journey on foot.”
Mandinde said they arrived at a deserted village town of Pundanhar late at night.
“We all agreed that it will be too risk to sleep in any house as there could be terrorists waiting in ambush,” he said. “We slept a few kilometers from the village town.
“Unfortunately, the following morning our injured colleague died. We just left his body near the road with the hope that he will be found and given a burial. We continued with our journey.
“The following morning at 0300hrs, we proceeded to a town of Nangade. All in all, the journey from Palma to Nangade is 105km. Along the way we met a lot of families and individuals fleeing the terrorists.
“Close to Nangade, we arrived at a villa where there were some people. The people were friendly and they provided us with water and water melons. Late in the day we finally arrived at Nangade.
“We found accommodation amongst good Samaritans. After four days on the run, I finally had a hot bath, hot meal and a bedding with a mosquito net. Mobile network still remained a challenge.
“The only available network was roaming from Tanzanian network. Electricity was also a challenge. The terrorists had cut power supply on Cabo Delgado northern districts.”
Mandinde said on 28 March, he finally arrived in Mueda., where there was a heavy military presence.
Here, all the mobile networks were working.
“I finally managed to communicate with some of my colleagues and family,” said Mandinde. “I bid farewell to my fellow refugees as I boarded home to Nampula where my family lived.
“I could barely believe that I had survived. It was a miracle that I was going home to be with my family. The journey to Nampula is long, but during that day it seemed to be a stone’s throw away.
“I am now safe, but there are scores of fellow Zimbabweans left trapped behind in Palma.”