‘Double attack’: The curse of natural gas and armed groups in Mozambique | Human Rights News

Palma, Mozambique – It was late afternoon and darkness was approaching when Awa Salama* heard pops of gunfire and explosions: The fighters were coming.

As her neighbours made frantic telephone calls trying to warn loved ones before running wildly away, Salama locked the door to her house to keep looters out, took her children and fled.

After several days of hiding in the wilds encircling Palma – a small town on the northern tip of Mozambique about 2,700km (1,700 miles) from the capital, Maputo – she decided to search for a way out.

Salama crept through the forest with her children until she reached the towering gate of the Afungi facility, built to serve the French company TotalEnergies and its natural gas project.

For 12 hours, she waited with thousands of other people hoping for passage on a ship that could ferry them away. It never came.

A defeated Salama sought shelter at the nearby village of Quitunda, which had been constructed several years earlier to house 557 families displaced by the gas development.

She spent the next day waiting at the gates of Afungi again, looking for an escape from Palma, but she still could not find one.

That was in March 2021.

MozambiquePolice speak to residents in Palma after an attack by armed fighters in the area in 2021 [Marc Hoogsteyns/AP]

Three years later, sitting on the veranda of her new home in Quitunda, she is still nervous answering questions about the conflict and gas project and spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition that her name be changed. The 16 other Palma residents we interviewed about the intertwined spectres of the gas development and war also refused to be identified.

“It is life-threatening,” Adriano Nvunga, a Mozambican activist and head of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, explained about the dangers of critical expression in the country.

Hidden wealth

Economists use the shorthand of “the resource curse” to describe how communities who live atop hidden riches not only fail to profit but also face peril.

In 2009, prospectors from the Texas company Anadarko found some of the world’s largest stores of natural gas off the coast of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique.

The discovery of gas was at first a cause for celebration, especially because it promised to enrich one of the country’s poorest provinces.

“You will be happy. You will be satisfied. Even your belly will come in front of you,” Salama said with a glint in her eye, imitating the words of energy workers. She shook her head as if to mourn their broken promises.

The sheer volume of natural gas under the sea off Mozambique is dwarfed only by the amount of money that has been poured into getting it out.

In 2019, TotalEnergies and its partners unveiled plans to invest $20bn in developing and extracting the gas in the largest foreign venture on the African continent.

The Afungi site, where Salama had searched desperately for an escape route, has been cleared of 66sq km (26sq miles) of mudbrick houses, coconut palms and verdant farmland. The people who once made their homes and tended crops there were moved to Quitunda, where construction began in 2018.

In place of levelled villages sit a port and an airport along with a power station, street grid, emergency room and hundreds of cabins built to enclose TotalEnergies managers and gas workers within fortress-like walls. Gas itself will be processed at an offshore facility.

Named for the slim shape of the cape, Cabo Delgado may as well be a reference to the narrow margins on which people reliant on the land and the sea live.

The province is known for its deep ruby pits and the illegal trade in ivory and timber. It is also where the war for independence against the Portuguese began in the 1960s and was a battleground in the Mozambican Civil War that followed.

Cabo Delgado district, Mozambique

Another battle

The development of the Mozambique Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) Project has unfolded against the backdrop of another conflict, the same one that spurred Salama’s dash to the Afungi gate.

These combatants call themselves al-Shabab, or “the youth”  in Arabic, although they have no connection to the better known group with the same name in Somalia.

The rebels launched a violent campaign in 2017 that has continued since. They say they are angry that Cabo Delgado’s people have been cut off from wealth and opportunity.

Al-Shabab is notorious for its brutality, for beheadings and the abduction of women and children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves, according to Amnesty International. More than 6,000 people have been killed and a million have been displaced over the past seven years.

The fighters have sworn allegiance to ISIL (ISIS), which often broadcasts its attacks.

The presence of a major gas project in Palma contributes to this web of socioeconomic and political frustrations and heightens pressure on the Mozambican army and on international troops stationed in Cabo Delgado to guard the investment.

When al-Shabab managed to take Palma in March 2021, more than 1,190 people were killed, making it the deadliest such attack to date on the African continent.

In the aftermath, TotalEnergies declared force majeure on its project in Mozambique, enacting an ongoing suspension because of the conflict.

The Afungi site, which is not yet operational, is currently guarded by private security companies and a joint task force made up of the Mozambican military and police. Until this year, this task force had a base within the Afungi site.

Soldiers in MozambiqueSoldiers are seen near the Afungi natural gas site in 2021 [Baz Ratner/Reuters]

The initial 2021 offensive in Palma went on for four days and is the same ambush from which Salama escaped. But the fighters continued to roam the area for several months, attacking anyone who tried to return home.

After more than a week spent looking for a way out of the town, Salama said she finally managed to leave by plane going south.

She spent a few years sheltering in a neighbouring district before returning to Palma in 2022 because she missed her home and hoped that a fragile peace might hold.

But Salama did not stay long in her village, which was slated to be part of the large gas development as resettlement continued even after TotalEnergies declared force majeure.

In 2023, she was relocated to Quitunda, where she made a permanent home in the same place where she had run during the fighting.

Conflict has taken a toll on her family in other ways. Three of her nephews disappeared when al-Shabab attacked. She believes they were captured by the fighters.

Together, the LNG project and conflict are a “double attack” on the livelihoods of people like Salama, said Julio Bicheche of the Farmers Union Cabo Delgado.

“They had to reset their lives from being displaced, but they also had to reset due to the attack,” he said. “In the eyes of the government, in the eyes of the project staff, they don’t see this. What they see are their own interests. No one is going to pay for all these losses.”

Nowhere to hide

Mozambican state forces are now heavily deployed to the area around the TotalEnergies project with one base in Palma town, which is 25km (15 miles) from the Afungi site, and two bases within walking distance of Afungi and Quitunda.

Civilians displaced to Quitunda told Al Jazeera that soldiers had burgled their homes and arrested and attacked them in the aftermath of the March 2021 siege on Palma. Perhaps the goal was to root out the armed fighters, but residents of Palma provided no explanation as to why such a clampdown had taken place and simply recalled the events with numb horror.

A 2022 environmental and social assessment written by TotalEnergies, intended for the project’s creditors and seen by Al Jazeera, indicated that residents of Palma blame the oil and gas giant for the increased military presence in the region.

Gas plantA natural gas venture set up by South African company Sasol in Mozambique’s Inhambane province [File: Reuters]

In March and April this year, Al Jazeera met with people displaced to Quitunda. Sitting between its rows of stark, sand-coloured homes under a blinding sun, they described repeated attacks by the Mozambican security forces against civilians.

Seventy-eight-year-old Ancha* crouched in banana trees while the military raided her home in Quitunda in March 2021. The grandmother watched them closely, determined to see what was happening for herself, she said.

“I was courageous. I wanted to see them with my own eyes, so that I could say, ‘Those were not al-Shabab. They were the army, and I saw them.’”

After three hours, the soldiers left. They were probably looking for money, Ancha speculated, but did not find any and left only a mess behind.

“We thought they were protecting us, but the military were the ones who did all this,” she added.

Nadia* described a similar raid of her home in Quitunda. Late at night, four soldiers banged on her door. She stood in the frame with her arms wide. “I asked them insistently, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said nothing,” Nadia told Al Jazeera. “I asked them, ‘What are you looking for?’”

Instead of answering, the soldiers dug under Nadia’s bed, unzipped her suitcase and began to rifle through the clothes. Finally, they announced they had not found what they wanted.

The soldiers then tied her pregnant granddaughter’s hands behind her back, arresting her and her husband.

They went out of the house, across the yard and into a car. Nadia could see the soldiers beating her family members as they went.

They were released the next morning, but her granddaughter had been so roughed up that she required medical attention.

Rafael, one of Nadia’s neighbours, told Al Jazeera he had also suffered at the hands of the security forces. One morning, he stepped onto his veranda and saw two soldiers standing in the street and pointing their weapons in his direction.

He slipped first around the side of the house. The soldiers began shooting. The cement walls of his home still bear the scars of gunfire. He had made it just over the sandy road between his house and the next when one of the bullets hit him in the hip.

Rafael crawled through the dirt until he reached a neighbour’s toilet where he hid himself, crouching behind the wall.

He walked Al Jazeera down the path he took to flee, picking between cassava plants and underbrush. The house where he sheltered is marred with another 200 bullet holes.

People in MozambiqueDisplaced people from Cabo Delgado gather to received humanitarian aid from the World Food Programme in the town of Namapa in Nampula province after a new outbreak of violence in 2024 [Alfredo ZUNIGA/AFP]

None of the individuals interviewed by Al Jazeera made an official report about the abuses they said they suffered and could not provide specific dates, other than noting the assaults occurred after Palma was attacked.

But their testimony paints a consistent picture of violations by state armed forces operating within the infrastructure of an international project; similar abuses occurred in Quitunda even before the attack in 2021.

Esha* told Al Jazeera that her husband was viciously beaten by about 10 soldiers on New Year’s Eve in December 2020.

Late that night, she said they broke into the house and hit and kicked him. He asked what he had done before a cloth was shoved into his mouth to muffle his cries.

The soldiers locked Esha in her bedroom, but she watched from a window as her husband was carried out to a car. She never saw him again.

“I could see how he was beaten. I knew he wouldn’t survive,” she said.

Al Jazeera reached out to the military for comment on these accusations. A spokesperson declined to speak with organisations or journalists who he said had not been officially recognised or accredited by the government.

Journalists in Mozambique are regularly denied news permits to work in Cabo Delgado, and the country is ranked 105th out of 180 nations on the annual press freedom index prepared by Reporters without Borders. In November 2022, Mozambican journalist Arlindo Chissale was forcibly disappeared while reporting in Cabo Delgado, according to Human Rights Watch.

This year, Zitamar News, which covers Mozambican affairs in English, published similar allegations that the Mozambican marines had indiscriminately attacked civilians along the Cabo Delgado coast.

A spokesperson for the military described these allegations as “disinformation”, adding that the mandate of soldiers was to protect the civilian population.

Mozambican soldiers (R in green) and Rwanda policemen (L in blue) stand in the Cabo Delgado province of MozambiqueMozambican soldiers (in green) and Rwanda policemen (in blue) in Cabo Delgado province [File: Simon Wohlfahrt/ AFP]
Internal knowledge

Al Jazeera recounted details of the alleged military assaults against civilians in Palma to Zenaida Machado, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Mozambique. “I am not surprised. What you are telling me is not new,” she said. Her organisation documented additional attacks by soldiers on civilians trying to flee to Quitunda for safety in 2021.

“We should not have a case where the fact that a multinational has arrived leads communities to give up their own farms, their own way of living and their own cultural values because they cannot live together with security forces who are on the ground to protect those multinationals,” she added.

A 2023 report by the human rights and monitoring organisation UpRights asserts that TotalEnergies failed to complete adequate human rights due diligence for its Mozambique LNG project, especially given that it is operating in a conflict zone.

Researchers wrote that the company “almost entirely disregards the potential and actual human rights impacts of the project in relation to the armed conflict”.

They added that TotalEnergies “fails to accurately assess the potential human rights impact of the project on the security situation of the communities vis-a-vis the insurgents and the Mozambican security forces”.

Reports from TotalEnergies show the company was aware of alleged abuses by the Mozambican military occurring near the project site.

The 2022 environmental and social report written by TotalEnergies made reference to a pair of fishermen slain in an undisclosed manner and noted their families were visited by a TotalEnergies delegation. The report went on to describe a company-run sensitisation programme between fisherfolk and the military.

When these matters were put to TotalEnergies, the company stated its commitment to protecting human rights in all activities and added that it had worked to make authorities at the highest level aware of the incident.

In response to the UpRights report, TotalEnergies told Al Jazeera it was “inaccurate” to state that the company had disregarded humanitarian and security risks and the authors of the report had had no access to the site on which to base their findings

In an interview, Al Jazeera asked Daniel Ribeiro – an activist and co-founder of Justica Ambiental, or Friends of the Earth Mozambique – if there was a correlation between the gas project, conflict and military abuses in Cabo Delgado.

He answered at length.

“TotalEnergies required security and put a lot of pressure on Mozambique to improve security. If you have a poor country, and you force the country to ramp up the security, without capacity, you are going to have a very chaotic and very uncontrolled militarisation,” Ribeiro said. “This militarisation and the abuse of the military towards the civilians serves as a major recruitment tool for the insurgents.”

A destroyed home in MozambiqueThe remains of a burned home in the village of Aldeia da Paz outside Macomia that was attacked by fighters in 2019 [Marco Longari/AFP]
War of hunger

Communities displaced by the LNG project now face hunger and skyrocketing prices due to the ongoing conflict and Palma’s isolation.

Rising costs are especially hard on people who have been resettled to Quitunda, who said they are waiting to be paid by TotalEnergies for the land they left behind.

In March, Ancha showed Al Jazeera documents she had stored carefully in a plastic folder suggesting that she has not been paid for the crops on two of the three plots of farmland she abandoned in her home village several years ago.

According to resettlement and compensation plans laid out by TotalEnergies, residents of Quitunda were meant to have been compensated for abandoned crops and allocated 0.4 hectares (1 acre) of land to farm in a neighbouring village.

But people living in those villages told Al Jazeera they had not been paid for their land, leaving many in Quitunda unable to farm at all.

“I was taken to the farm. They just showed me,” Nadia said. “Then they said, ‘You can’t farm now because the owners of the farm have not been compensated yet.’”

It is hard to make a living, so her children and grandchildren bring her food.

Other residents of Quitunda have been moved so far from the sea it is accessible only by bus, and it is difficult for the men to fish and the women to collect cowrie shells as they once did.

“In our tradition, our children from the ages of six or seven start going to fish,” Salama explained. “You start at an early age until you grow up. Your entire life is connected to the sea.”

Rafael also longs for his home village.

“They promised us that if we left our villages, we would have a better life where we were going,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are just scratching our heads. When we came here, we didn’t see what they promised us back home, and we say it’s better off where we were.”

Answering questions about relocation, TotalEnergies said all people impacted by the project had been paid, the resettlement process had been completed last year and compensation-related grievances could be submitted and investigated.

Displaced people in MozambiquePeople displaced by violence queue at a World Food Programme cash-based food assistance site in Cabo Delgado province [File: Falume Bachir/WFP Handout via Reuters]
A military solution

Meanwhile, foreign troops have also arrived to restore security to Cabo Delgado, including fighters from the South African Development Community and the Rwandan army, supported by the European Union.

“The multinational has all this protection. Their staff have all the protection, all the security,” Joao Feijo, a researcher with the Rural Environment Observatory in Maputo, said of these deployments.

“The population feel that they do not have military protection. When the militaries go there, they feel it is not to protect them. It is to harm them.”

Residents of Palma interviewed by Al Jazeera in March and April said harassment by security forces was not as bad as it had been in the aftermath of the 2021 attack but the damage had already been done.

Meanwhile, heavy military deployments have managed to push the armed group away from Palma to the south of Cabo Delgado, where the fighters continue to terrorise civilians.

About 100,000 people were displaced from February to March, more than half of them children, according to UNICEF.

Mohamed’s* village in Cabo Delgado was besieged by fighters in February. He fears they will return.

“Whenever you walk, you are always looking around. You are not safe. You are not secure,” Mohamed told Al Jazeera. He fled after the attack but returned home quickly, unable to feed himself away from his farm.

“What is making life difficult for them is the lack of support by humanitarian organisations but mainly from the Mozambican government. The Mozambican government is focusing on the military response as the solution for the war. That’s why it’s dragging all the money, all the state budget towards the security forces,” explained Tomas Queface, head of Cabo Ligado, a group that tracks the conflict.

People in MozambiqueA family in a displacement camp in Cabo Delgado in 2021 [Rui Mutemba/Save the Children/Handout via Reuters]

Activists like Machado of Human Rights Watch fear that focusing on a military rather than a reconciliatory approach to the conflict will perpetuate its root causes while ignoring the needs of the people.

“We can’t permanently live in a state of war. The civilians in this conflict require a normal life, a life that is entitled to them. Even in areas of conflict, they still deserve to have some security, assistance and hope,” Machado said.

TotalEnergies is eager to resume work, hoping to lift its force majeure declaration by the end of the year. Already, blue-uniformed workers are paving the roads outside the Afungi complex.

Internal reports prepared by the company and seen by Al Jazeera repeatedly described the security situation as improving. In the meantime, armed forces remain in the area to guard project infrastructure.

At a London event in February to review 2023 progress and present goals, TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne announced that the company hoped to restart construction by the middle of 2024 and gain access to project loans, put on hold when activity was suspended three years ago.

“We are remobilising the contractors, and I think we are not far from having everything set with them,” he said. “We are reactivating with all these financial institutions around the world, this project financing, and when this will be done, we will restart the project.”

The Export-Import Bank of the United States, which is guaranteeing $5bn for the project, said it is was reviewing plans for a loan to resume construction, according to a report published by the Reuters news agency in late 2023.

The Italian company ENI and US-based ExxonMobil have their own plans to extract gas in Mozambique.

The possibility of renewed financing has been a particular concern for analysts following the project.

“We urge financing institutions, including the US government’s Export-Import Bank, to halt any future financing for the project until sufficient public assurance is provided that security of all rights holders in the region can be guaranteed,” said Andrew Bogrand, a senior policy adviser for natural resource justice at Oxfam America.

“The US embassy in Maputo has championed and applauded human rights defenders from Cabo Delgado, but now, US government financing risks undermining defenders and human rights protections in this remote province.”

The curse continues

The impending resumption of the project could lead to a new round of abuses, according to Nvunga of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights.

“It is a recipe for disaster, resuming your project before addressing the violent extremism issue,” he said bluntly. “It will lead to a major human rights and humanitarian disaster. When TotalEnergies resumes, they will also strengthen their military security, which will further exacerbate existing tensions.”

Soldiers in MozambiqueA Mozambican soldier rides on an armoured vehicle at the airport in Mocimboa da Praia, Cabo Delgado province, in 2021 [Marc Hoogsteyns/AP]

“The decision to restart the project is subject to the condition of being able to complete it in good safety conditions,” TotalEnergies told Al Jazeera in response.

The company said it has tried to minimise risks by putting in place additional social programmes. In 2023, TotalEnergies set up a $200m foundation based on the recommendations of a report it commissioned from humanitarian and diplomat Jean-Christophe Rufin. It said it hopes to create 10,000 jobs in the region by 2025.

In response to Al Jazeera’s questions about both military abuses and the ongoing conflict, the company gave the following answer:

“Responsibility for restoring security lies with the government of Mozambique, as is the prerogative of a sovereign state. Since the Palma attacks and Mozambique LNG declaration of force majeure, the Afungi site is controlled by the government security forces. Mozambique LNG does not communicate about the details of the system for securing the site.”

However, TotalEnergies added that it had provided training on security and human rights to 5,000 members of Mozambican law enforcement.

Until this year, the company was directly paying the salaries of joint task force soldiers. A stipend is now paid directly to the Mozambican government.

Al Jazeera also asked to visit the Afungi facility while in Palma. TotalEnergies denied this request, citing safety concerns and adding that the ongoing force majeure declaration prevented journalists from accessing the site.

Caught in this web of violence and extraction are the people of Palma. Rattled by war, many are waiting to see when the project will resume and if they will benefit from it.

“TotalEnergies has the responsibility – not just TotalEnergies, any other multinational in the area has the responsibility – to ensure that the communities near their premises are benefitting from the wealth of this country,” Machado said.

“I’m not just talking about the resources. I’m talking about their rights to have access to medical assistance, to have access to good education, to have access to a good environment, but most importantly, in an area known for conflict, that they are able to benefit from safety,” she added.

But for residents, that safety still feels a long way off.

“I don’t believe that this war is over,” Ancha said, clasping her hands together dramatically to emphasise her point. “No. I can’t believe. I can’t believe.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities for safety reasons

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