Survivors of an attack in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, by the radical insurgent group known by many aliases but referred to locally as ‘Al-Shabaab’ told Amnesty International that white contractors were prioritized for evacuation ahead of black locals.
During an attack on Palma that started on 24 March, an estimated 220 civilians sought refuge in the Amarula Palma Hotel. 200 were black nationals and 20 were white contractors. South African private military contractor Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) rescued some from the hotel in the days that followed.
According to Amnesty International, white contractors were prioritized to be airlifted while black nationals were left to fend for themselves. After the majority of white contractors and a few well-off black nationals (the Administrator for Palma being one of them) were rescued, those left attempted to flee by ground convey but were ambushed by Al-Shabaab.
“Witnesses told us of racial discrimination in decisions about who to evacuate from the Amarula hotel,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.
“The total lack of co-ordination between the Mozambique security forces and Dyck Advisory Group resulted in evacuations that were racist and must be thoroughly investigated” added Muchena.
The attack in the port town of Palma followed a similar pattern to previous insurgent attacks where following the initial assault, the Mozambican security forces fail to protect civilians, who flee, leaving DAG to operate independently.
Amnesty International interviewed 11 people who sought refuge in the Amarula hotel, including five who survived the convoy attack. They all said that the hotel manager and DAG operatives, who were in charge of the rescue attempt, prioritized the safety of white contractors over black locals.
Survivors understood that the initial plan was to prioritize the helicopter evacuation of women, children and people with disabilities.
One survivor told Amnesty International: “We were about 220 people trapped there in the hotel – we [local Black people] were the majority, and the whites were supposed to be about 20. After the rescue and escape, we were about 170 people still alive. Most of the whites were rescued by helicopters before we left the hotel by car.”
Another survivor said: “We didn’t want all white people to be rescued, because we knew that if all the whites left, we would be left there to die. We heard them talking about the plan to take all the whites and leave the Blacks.”
Several witnesses said the manager of the Amarula hotel took his two German Shepards to safety via helicopter. One survivor said: “If the dogs hadn’t gone, about two or three more people could have gone on the helicopter. That dismayed people because some women didn’t get in the helicopter because of the dogs.”
The helicopters could only transport six people at a time and made a total of four trips. defenceWeb understands the dog rescue flight may have been made by Everett Aviation, working for the LNG contractors, and only made one flight after being hit by small arms fire.
Survivors told Amnesty International that there was a disagreement between the Mozambique security forces and DAG regarding who was responsible for rescuing people. The breakdown in communication meant the civilian survivors were essentially abandoned to flee for their lives, having been left at the mercy of Al-Shabaab.
After DAG concluded their rescue operations, those left decided to risk leaving in a convoy of cars. They attempted to travel to Quelinde beach, where they hoped to catch a boat to Afungi. They were almost immediately ambushed by insurgents.
One survivor told Amnesty International: “The insurgents – when they saw the cars coming out in the backyard – started shooting. The road was full of holes that the insurgents had dug to prevent the cars from passing.”
Another survivor added: “They shot at our car, [it] flipped over. I was injured, the bazooka almost hit my head. We left the road and stayed in the woods for six days, without eating or drinking water. We managed to get to the beach and catch a boat to go to Afungi, where we got help.”
Two boats then transported survivors from Quelinde to Afungi. The first trip took about 60 people, including all the remaining white contractors; the second trip on the following day took about 70 Black local people.
The Mozambique Ministry of Defence, in a meeting with Amnesty International on 7 May, said they could only speak about rescue missions that their own forces had conducted in Cabo Delgado, and that race was not a factor in their response.
Satellite imagery reveals houses burnt after Al-Shabaab retreated
Exclusive satellite imagery obtained by Amnesty International from 1 April reveals the extent of damage caused by the attack on Palma, that lasted until 31 March. The assault concentrated on public infrastructure and government facilities, rather than homes.
On 9 April, satellite imagery showed 33 more structures – likely homes – had been destroyed since 1 April when the Mozambique security forces had reportedly regained control of the region. In total, 85 structures were visibly damaged, most likely by fire.
This aligns with previous Amnesty International research that indicated the Mozambique security forces may be responsible for violence against the civilian population once Al-Shabaab have retreated.
Cabo Delgado has suffered neglect and under-investment for decades, a problem exacerbated by natural disasters and the spread of COVID-19 across the region. The area is rich in natural gas, rubies, graphite and timber, leading international companies to compete for access to the region. Fighting has intensified since ‘Al-Shabaab’ captured the northern port town of Mocímboa da Praia in October 2020.
In a recent report, Amnesty International highlighted how hundreds of civilians in Cabo Delgado have been unlawfully killed by ‘Al-Shabaab’, government security forces and DAG. The organization is calling for an urgent investigation into these killings, which it says may amount to war crimes.