NANJUA, Mozambique -- Fleeing beheadings, shootings, rapes and kidnappings, nearly 1 million people are displaced by the Islamic extremist insurgency in northern Mozambique.
The 5-year wave of jihadi violence in Cabo Delgado province has killed more than 4,000 people and scuppered international investments worth billions of dollars.
In a sprawl of dilapidated tents and thatched huts around Nanjua, a small town in the southern part of Cabo Delgado province, several hundred families are seeking safety from the violence. They say their conditions are bleak and food assistance is meager but they're afraid to return home because of continuing violence by the rebels who are now going by the name Islamic State Mozambique Province.
More than 1.000 miles south, however, government officials in the capital Maputo are saying the insurgency is under control and are encouraging the displaced to return to their homes and energy companies to resume their projects.
“The terrorists are on the run permanently,” Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi assured investors at the Mozambique Energy and Gas Summit in Maputo in September. He urged the gathering of international energy executives to resume work on their stalled liquefied natural gas projects.
Mozambique's army and police forces, backed up by troops from Rwanda and support from a regional force from the Southern African Development Community, have succeeded in containing the extremist rebellion, officials say.
“These places have now normalized and civilians are coming back,” Rwandan Brig. Gen. Ronald Rwivanga, told the Rwandan newspaper The New Times this month, saying normal life is returning to the Palma district.
Energy companies say they want to see displaced people return to the area. The $60 billion liquefied natural gas projects led by the France-based TotalEnergies and ExxonMobil were suspended last year after insurgents briefly captured the adjacent town of Palma in March.
Speaking at the summit in Maputo, Stéphane Le Galles, the head of TotalEnergies’ Mozambique gas project, said “the direction is very good” but the company still wants to see “a sustainable economic situation, not just in Palma but … all over Cabo Delgado.”
Despite the heavy presence of Mozambican and Rwandan soldiers, the extremists' attacks continue. Earlier this month the rebels spread their violence for the first time to neighboring Nampula province, where a Catholic mission was among the targets and an elderly Italian nun was among those killed.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees said it “considers security conditions to be too volatile in Cabo Delgado to facilitate or promote returns to the province,” in a statement released earlier this month.
“People who have lost everything are returning to areas where services and humanitarian assistance are largely unavailable,” said the UNHCR.
Those who return are met with a mixed situation. Economic life is beginning to return but basic infrastructure and public services are still lacking. Few schools are open and health services are sparse.
In the provincial capital, Pemba, where more than 100,000 displaced people have sought refuge, an elderly woman sat outside a hut where her family of 15 took up residence two years ago after fleeing an insurgent attack. They subsist on a meager diet of corn flour and plain rice. Unable to find work, they have no money for clothes or other essentials, she said.
“Definitely, we want to go back. This is not a home,” said the grandmother, who spoke on condition of anonymity for her safety.
With their villages further north now destroyed, she says resuming normal life will be even more difficult.
Weighing up the risks and costs of returning, many have decided to stay put, despite the deprivations they face in the displacement camps.
“Over there, there is war and hunger,” said another displaced person in the Nanjua camp. “We would not be going to a better place.”
A mother cradling a small child while sitting on a grass mat said the threat of extremist violence remains a concern. She said many remain haunted by their experiences at the hands of the insurgents: “It’s difficult to sleep in a place where you have seen a snake.”