Mozambique: Palma residents hungry, desperate in wake of insurgent attacks

Isaria Saíde is illiterate and does not know how many days have passed since the rebels attacked the town of Palma, in the province of Cabo Delgado, in northern Mozambique; her only concern is finding shelter for her family and food.

“Hunger! I’m hungry, I’m suffering!” she told Lusa. “I’m sleeping in the street, in the bush. I’m in a bad way here in Palma.”

She stands in the middle of the main street of Palma, trying to sell fish and crabs she has caught, but with no one to buy them.

It has been 20 days since Islamist insurgents invaded the town. Palma remains inert, with people only slowly returning to its streets.

Isaria did not see the rebels destroy the town because when they arrived she fled hurriedly before wandering for several days in the bush and between the villages of Quiuia and Quirinde.

“I am illiterate, I don’t know how old I am,” she says, explaining that she also doesn’t know how many days she was hiding in the bush – a detail that she regards as unimportant when hunger is her main concern.

Isaria has seven children and four grandchildren to feed and today none of them has eaten. But leaving for the district capital Pemba, for example, is not in her plans.

“I have nothing to eat, I’m suffering a lot,” she repeats, clearly desperate. “All the people are bad here.”

She often goes to the beach to catch fish, which are small, with the help of one of her children, in the hope that they will serve to satisfy the hunger pangs and perhaps to earn some money.

Isaria, who says that the government should intervene, repeats that she is sleeping in the open. The rain that fell all day in Palma is, she says, a sign that more difficult days and nights lie ahead.

Hunger and helplessness also dominate Abdul’s existence. He was forced to sell his mobile phone for 200 meticais (€2.74) to buy curry and other food, for 150 meticais.

With only 50 meticais left, he had no money left to buy rice or flour, for example. He carries two coconuts and a few small fish wrapped in plastic – today’s meal for the family.

Asked how he will feed his family tomorrow, he replies: “God knows.”

Abdul and Isaria’s accounts exemplify life in Palma at the moment. People wander, hungry and homeless, through the rubble and remains of buildings that have been completely destroyed. Those that are still standing are not safe as the fires set by the rebels may have damaged their structure, so the bush is safer, even though winter is coming and with it the season of torrential rains.

Since, for residents, fear of the return of the Islamists dominates, they believe that in the bush they have a better chance of escaping, should that day come.

The violence unleashed in the past three years in Cabo Delgado province escalated about a fortnight ago, when armed groups for the first time attacked the town of Palma, near the border with Tanzania and some six kilometres from a huge natural gas complex that is Africa’s largest foreign investment.

The attacks claimed dozens of lives and forced thousands of residents to flee, worsening a humanitarian crisis that has seen some 700,000 people displaced in the province since the conflict began, according to United Nations figures.

The Islamic State terrorist movement last week claimed that it had taken control of Palma but Mozambique’s Defence and Security Forces (FDS) have since retaken full control of the town, according to its spokesman for the region, Chongo Vidigal, an announcement since reiterated by the country’s president, Filipe Nyusi.