The continuing attacks in northern Mozambique have already claimed over 500 lives and left thousands displaced, according to Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa of the diocese of Pemba, in an exclusive interview with the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN International.
The wave of violence that has affected this northernmost province of Mozambique ever since October 2017 shows no signs of coming to an end. Bishop Lisboa confirmed that there were “six attacks” in the province of Cabo Delgado in the two days of 29 and 30 January this year, causing a general exodus of the population and leaving behind a broad swathe of destruction in the villages of the administrative centers of Bilibiza and Mahate, both of which belong to the district of Quissanga, approximately 75 miles (120 km) from the city of Pemba. The bishop described the attacks as “a tragedy”. One of them “targeted the agricultural school in Bilibiza, a teacher training school, which has over 500 students”, he added.
“I heard that the school was burned down, then they smashed up other shops and businesses nearby,” the bishop explained. “It is a very sad fact that the defence and security forces are unable to contain these attacks without international support. It has already been [going on for] two years and three months… If the government of Mozambique had done something to improve the conditions, then perhaps this problem would have been resolved – but instead many people are dying…” Bishop Lisboa said.
In his interview with ACN, given during a visit to Portugal, Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa explained that although there are no official statistics of the number of people who have lost their lives, he is certain that the number of people killed must now be at least 500 since the violent attacks began towards the end of 2017 on villages, administrative centers, and army personnel. The killers have left decapitated bodies behind as a sign of the terror they are causing among the population.
“There will be hunger…”
The present situation is causing direct repercussions on the daily lives of the people. “The villages are being left empty, and people are not planting their crops – which means that there will be hunger, and we will have thousands of internal refugees”, the bishop explained. According to the UN figures, there are approximately 60,000 internally displaced people as a result of the attacks on the villages in this region of northern Mozambique. However, Bishop Lisboa thinks the figures should also include other displaced people among the victims, for example, those made homeless by Cyclone Kenneth. “I think the total number could be nearer to 100,000 internally displaced people”, he suggested.
A regional threat from Islamic fundamentalism
The region of Cabo Delgado, in northeast Mozambique, has suffered numerous attacks by armed groups. Bishop Fernando Luiz Lisboa recalls that at the beginning of the attacks in October 2017 local Muslim leaders had clearly distanced themselves from the attacks and condemned them. “When the attacks began, and it was being said that it was the work of a radical Islamist group, the Muslims distanced themselves from it and said, ‘They don’t belong to us, they are bandits.’ But we are concerned and saddened because it does indeed seem that they are the work of a radical Islamist group.”
The intensification of the attacks might signal a threat to regional security, and there are signs that the authorities in neighboring Tanzania are also on the alert. For in fact Tanzania is regarded by experts in the field of terrorism as something of a safe haven and place of recruitment for extremist militants, who can move easily across the border between the two countries.
If so, this would be “of grave concern” says the bishop of Pemba, since “if there is an international or transnational network involved it means that they are much stronger and it will be much more difficult to put a stop to them.”
“I am not afraid”
Nobody knows the real size of the terrorist groups operating in the North of Mozambique. The Christian community feels threatened, and the bishop himself knows that he might well be the target of one of these attacks. “I am aware that this could happen, but quite honestly, I am not afraid. I’m simply trying to fulfill my own role, which is to support the missionaries who are already there, in the direct line of fire, in the districts where the attacks are taking place. They are being extremely brave. I praise God and I thank them for the courage they are showing because at all events they are the oasis that the people need, someone to whom they can turn to, cry out to, complain and tell their problems and seek some kind of help… None of them has abandoned their posts; they are still there, and so I have no right to be afraid. It is precisely so that I can support and help them to continue their mission that I am trying to do mine to the best of my ability.”
ACN International is helping
Speaking to ACN shortly before returning to Mozambique, Bishop Fernando Lisboa also expressed his gratitude to ACN International for the projects the foundation is supporting in his diocese. “ACN has helped a great deal”, he said. “We have various different projects, such as vehicles for the missionaries, and for the formation and support of our seminarians… This help is important because without the support of international organizations like ACN it would be very difficult for poor dioceses like our own, and like the majority of African dioceses and many Asian and Latin American ones, to fulfill our work.”