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Orphaned and traumatized: Mozambican families fleeing ISIS struggle to rebuild their lives

For years, Islamist militants have terrorized the Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique, killing and displacing thousands. This week, they attacked a town called Palma, which hosts international oil and gas companies, killing dozens. ISIS claimed responsibility. Special correspondent Neha Wadekar and her team were among the first to access the region and speak to survivors. They have this report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For years, Islamist militants have terrorized Cabo Delgado Province in the Southeastern African nation of Mozambique, killing and displacing thousands of people.

    Last month, the U.S. government designated them as ISIS affiliates, and sent Special Forces to help train Mozambique's marines. And just last week, they attacked a town called Palma, which hosts international oil and gas companies, killing dozens. ISIS claimed responsibility.

    Before that, special correspondent Neha Wadekar and her team were among the first to reach the region and speak to survivors.

    They have this report.

  • Maria Antumane (through translator):

    I saw this happening, killing. The men told us, sit there and watch someone be beheaded.

  • Neha Wadekar:

    This is 10-year-old Maria Antumane. Both of her parents were killed in the attack she witnessed. She managed to escape into the forest. As she fled, her foot got caught in a hunting snare. She lay trapped and terrified for hours.

  • Maria Antumane (through translator):

    I was trapped from 6:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. I was screaming and crying. And people came to open the trap. And when they opened it, they removed it, and saw the wound.

  • Neha Wadekar:

    Maria was rescued and taken south to a hospital in Pemba, the capital city in Cabo Delgado Province that is like a last frontier between safety and the fighting in the north.

    There, she recovered from her wounds and malaria. Her aunt also escaped that day, and says the attackers are known locally as Al-Shabaab, an Arabic phrase which means the youth.

    What started as a local insurgency of disenfranchised young people has evolved into what the U.S. government now says is the Islamic State.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Al-Shabaab came in at 3:00 p.m., and, at 11:00 p.m., they started burning houses down there in Bilibiza. I saw them kill people with knives. One of them used a chain saw on someone's neck.

  • Neha Wadekar:

    It took days for Maria's aunt to reach safety in Metuge, where improvised centers have been rapidly set up for those fleeing attacks.

    At the time of our visit, more than 10,000 people occupied the centers, although they had enough water and sanitation facilities to serve only a few hundred. And as the violence has escalated recently, the number of people in need of this safe haven has exploded. Conditions here are declining. There's little access to food, shelter, or medical care.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Life is hard here. When food comes, some get it, some don't.

  • Neha Wadekar:

    UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, says, in addition to the violence, one of its greatest concerns is the transmission of waterborne diseases, especially cholera, which is rapidly spreading through the area.

    Metuge seems to be the epicenter, accounting for more than half of all new cases.

    Isabel Pereira, a nutrition specialist at UNICEF, says that despite their best efforts, the capacity of humanitarian organizations to care for internally displaced people, or IDPs, is stretched to the limit.

  • Isabel Pereira:

    One of the biggest challenges is that with especially the districts that they have high number of IDPs, we are overwhelmed. The health facilities, they are totally overwhelmed. There's no possibility, no capacity for them to respond as they should.

  • Neha Wadekar:

    During one of our visits, we followed a group of displaced families being moved to a new resettlement location.

    These are among the first 57 families who have moved to this location from a temporary accommodation center approximately 50 kilometers away. This area has been assigned by the government of Mozambique to host families fleeing attacks by armed groups in the north of the country.

    Behind me, you can see the families unloading the few belongings they still have left. Over the next few months, they will rebuild their lives here as they wait to see when and if they can return home.

    Here, we met 33-year-old Balamade Abadre, who fled into the forest with his elderly parents, his wife and his young children after armed groups attacked his village.

    When we met Abadre, he had already been living in Metuge for seven months.

  • Balamade Abadre (through translator):

    The authorities registered us. They said: We are taking you to another place, but we will build you the house and you will stay in these new houses.

  • Neha Wadekar:

    The building materials arrived. Abadre and the other men labored in the sweltering heat, dragging the poles and thatch that would become their new homes.

    Abadre has been told that this arrangement is only temporary, but the creation of these semi-permanent settlements indicates that his family's stay may last months, if not years.

  • Balamade Abadre (through translator):

    I don't want to be here, but the government said: Come stay here and wait until the war is over. And when the war ends, you can go back home.

    And what I want to say is that I'm crying out to go back home.

  • Neha Wadekar:

    Some escaping violence in the north have fled by boat, rather than on foot. They sail from the mainland coastal towns to a string of small islands along Mozambique's coastline.

    Ibo Island was once a sparkling ecotourism destination. But, in 2019, Cyclone Kenneth ripped through the region, reducing Ibo's hotels and colonial era buildings to rubble. Just a year later, armed groups tried to seize control of the islands.

    From one of Ibo's forts, Issa Tarmamade, the island's district administrator, like most Mozambicans, says he is angry and bewildered by the needless suffering.

  • Issa Tarmamade (through translator):

    It doesn't make sense. They don't have religion, these insurgents or terrorists. The religions forbid you from killing people, and they kill. The religions forbid you from decapitating, and they decapitate.

    They don't follow any prophet, because no prophet had this attitude that they have.

  • Neha Wadekar:

    After reaching the islands, many displaced families travel onwards by boat until they reach the safety and security of the capital city, Pemba.

    When they land on the beaches, aid workers and locals try to offer help; 55-year-old Muanaicha Momad has lived her whole life on this beach. She is hosting 47 family members in a one-bedroom shack, many children sent alone by their parents, as violence escalates across the region.

  • Muanaicha Momad (through translator):

    When I get something like a bag of rice, I only make it in the morning. And I don't make lunch, because, if I make lunch, the kids eat late, and, at night, they don't sleep.

  • Neha Wadekar:

    For 10-year-old Maria, who fled the attack on her village after her parents were killed, this conflict has forever changed her life.

    While recovering at the hospital in Pemba, she had no hope of ever seeing anyone in her family again. Unbeknownst to her, her aunt, Ana Maria Biche (ph), had fled their village and was staying at the displacement center, when someone told her that her niece, Maria, may have survived the attack.

    Biche saved up enough money to travel to the hospital. Miraculously, the two were reunited. Today, they live together in Metuge. With both Maria's parents dead, Biche is the only family Maria has left who can care for her.

  • Maria Antumane (through translator):

    Some days, I remember my mother, father, and all the people. All of them, I remember.

  • Neha Wadekar:

    The trauma Maria has endured is now being inflicted on tens of thousands of more people who are displaced after last week's attack in Palma.

    The bloody attack means two things, that the battle for control of resource-rich Northern Mozambique is heating up, and that too many more children will end up like Maria, orphaned and traumatized.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Neha Wadekar in Pemba, Mozambique.

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