Pope Francis has been one of the few international figures to speak publicly about the terrorist violence in the province of Cabo Delgado, in the north of Mozambique. It is a tragedy ignored by many and unknown to others. Maria Lozano, of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International), spoke recently with Catholic Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa of the diocese of Pemba, which is in the region of Cabo Delgado, to find out more about the situation.
A few weeks ago we heard about attacks on the town of Mocímboa da Praia, in the north of your diocese. What is the situation there at present?
In the past few months not only Mocímboa da Praia, but also Quissanga and Muidumbe have been attacked. These are the three major centres that have suffered such attacks. In Mocímboa da Praia, as I speak, the situation is under control, but unfortunately there was a lot of looting. During the attacks many people fled the town and took refuge in the forest, spending the night there. Some heartless scoundrels took advantage of the situation and many houses were broken into; they stole food, clothing and other belongings. Last week [20 April] one of these thieves was captured and lynched by the people. Unfortunately, this whole climate of terror has ended up generating insecurity and increasing crime. The people are so weary and very anxious after what has happened.
You mentioned Muidumbe; this was in fact the district where the most recent attack occurred, on Good Friday 10 April, on the Catholic mission in the town of Muambula. What else can you tell us about this attack?
In the district of Muidumbe seven small towns or villages were attacked in fact during the days of Holy Week, among others that of Muambula where the Catholic mission of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is situated, in Nangololo. They attacked the church and burnt the benches and a statue of Our Lady, made of ebony. They also destroyed an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to whom the parish is dedicated. Fortunately, they were unable to burn the building itself, only the benches.
Was this the first attack on a church?
No, this was not the first attack on a church. They had already attacked and burnt five or six local chapels, but they also burned some mosques. Although ultimately, it seems, the target is the Christian churches. The tragic thing for us is that this mission in Nangololo is almost a hundred years old and is the second most important mission in the diocese. So, it was a very tragic attack in what it symbolises.
Is it true that there was a massacre in one of the towns of the Muidumbe district?
Yes, on April 7 in Xitaxi. To our immense sadness, 52 young people who refused to join the insurgents were massacred. To us they are true martyrs of peace because they would not agree to take part in the violence, in warfare, and that is the reason why they were murdered.
How many attacks have there been, to your knowledge, since the beginning of 2020?
I don’t know exactly how many attacks there have been altogether. But as I said, in this last wave alone they attacked seven towns and villages. Today I read a news bulletin that speaks of 26 attacks so far this year. But to tell you the truth, I think the true figure will have been higher.
These terrorist attacks have increased since 2017 and Mozambique has gone from being a safe place to being numbered on the foreign embassy lists as a place of potential danger… How is it that Mozambique has become a theatre of Islamic terrorism? What are they trying to achieve exactly?
I believe that this change of international perception is due to the war in Cabo Delgado. Here in the north, and also in the centre of the country, there have been attacks on public transport, and this creates a clear sense of insecurity within the country. However, I would not say that Mozambique is a theatre of Islamic terror. The most recent attacks have apparently been claimed by the Islamic State, but there are still doubts about this. Some people are saying that it is a local group which began small and is using the name of Islamic State, while others say that it really is the Islamic State. All we can say is that we don’t know for certain. Equally, we don’t know what is behind all this, but we imagine that it has to do with the natural resources. There are many financial interests and those who are funding all this are finding fertile ground due to the poverty, the lack of opportunities and the resulting youth unemployment. Cabo Delgado has always been a very poor province, neglected by everyone, including the authorities. What we’re seeing is the result of all these factors.
But the authors of these acts of terror are the same ones in every case, are they not? Where do they come from?
As I said earlier, we don’t know exactly who are the agents behind these actions. We have noted that initially they would only attack a single locality, but recently they have carried out several attacks at the same time, at least in two places at once… Nor do we know where they come from, although many reports indicate that while some of them are Mozambicans, the rest are from Tanzania and other countries…
But how do they operate? Is there a particular area under terrorist control, or do they attack and then withdraw again?
I don’t know if we can say that there is an area under the control of the terrorists, but there is certainly a region where they are most active. The people from the villages closest to this area have been forced to abandon their homes and are unable to return, because the terrorists go from there to other places and then come back again.
Is there also a religious element to these attacks?
That is difficult to say. Ever since they started, the main Muslim authorities in Cabo Delgado and throughout the country have distanced themselves from the attacks and have said that they have nothing to do with all this. A few days ago they published another letter, the second one, distancing themselves from these groups. In the declaration they insist that Islam is a religion of peace and understanding among peoples and among religions. They do not want violence. We cannot say that these attacks were carried out by religious groups. Both in Cabo Delgado and in the rest of Mozambique we have never had problems between our religions or between their leaders. We have engaged in many joint activities – prayers, declarations and walks for peace.
Are the priests and religious of the region in danger?
We have priests and religious, men and women throughout this region where the attacks are taking place. The official government personnel, such as teachers and healthcare workers, have left the districts because they were attacking public buildings. A large proportion of the population has fled out of fear. And several foreign NGOs which were operating within the territory have also left because they were being threatened. I asked the missionaries to leave because as their diocesan bishop I am responsible for them and the risk of attacks was imminent, given that they were the only ones who had remained. They were starting to attack churches, and the violence was taking on a religious dimension. I have to keep them safe, although they want to return as soon as they can in order to serve the people.
What is the central government doing to alleviate the situation?
The central government has strengthened its defences and sent reinforcements. It is playing its part; I don’t know if it couldn’t do more, but it is here to provide a defence. However, there are many young people in the military who are mere conscripts, and when the attacks take place there are many desertions and they flee to the woods with the people. They have very little training and little ability to cope with this situation. I feel terrible sorrow for the young people who have to go and fight, because a great many of them have already lost their lives.
The Holy Father spoke about Mozambique during his Easter Mass; he is one of the few voices to have broken the silence…
Yes, on Easter Sunday, after celebrating the Eucharist and giving the Urbi et Orbi blessing, the Holy Father spoke about the situation the world is facing, about the pandemic and the various conflicts around the world. For us it meant a great deal that he referred to the humanitarian crisis in Cabo Delgado because there is a certain “law of silence” surrounding it.
What precisely do you mean by referring to a “law of silence”?
The situation is a very grave one, because we can’tspeak about it openly. Some journalists in the country have been arrested, and many of them have had their cameras confiscated. There is a journalist from the Community Radio station of Palma, Ibraimo Abu Mbaruco, who has been missing since 7 April. It is important to know what is happening and important for the international organisations such as the UN, the European Union and the African Union to do something about it. The people here have suffered greatly, there have been hundreds of deaths, thousands of people forced from their homes. In our province we have over 200,000 refugees. It is an injustice that is crying out to heaven. The people here have very little, and what little they have they are losing because of this war. I appeal for help and solidarity for my people, so that they can live in peace once again, as they desire and as they deserve to do.