Suabo was in the kitchen, cooking a meal for her family when she heard children screaming outside. “Armed men have invaded the town!” they cried.
She was puzzled. She had only heard of minor sporadic attacks in the past but never close to her home in Palma, northern Mozambique. She continued to cook.
An hour later, the children were back, this time screaming about bombs. Looking outside, she saw people running down the hills towards the beach, near her home.
Unable to find her husband, who was out working, Suabo immediately called her daughter and urged her to take her baby. They frantically joined other fleeing villagers, and in the ensuing panic and chaos, the three of them managed to jump onto a ferry boat carrying several staff and contractors from the French energy firm Total.
“From the boat, I could see armed men shooting at people. We managed to escape, but many other boats stayed captive,” 40-year-old Suabo said.
“From the boat, I could see armed men shooting at people.”
They arrived at the Amarula hotel in another part of town, where they spent the night outside without food or water. But the hotel was also attacked, forcing them to run and hide in the bush for three days before managing to escape Palma by boat.
The coastal town was attacked on 24 March by non-state armed groups, forcing over 11,000 people to flee. In the aftermath, displaced Mozambicans like Suabo have been arriving in the various towns of Pemba, Nangade, Mueda and Montepuez by foot, road and boat.
Suabo and her family disembarked in Pemba a week later, together with some 1,100 other displaced civilians, the majority of them women and children, who arrived exhausted, with barely anything, showing signs of severe trauma due to the atrocities they witnessed and worried for the relatives left behind.
“These are the lucky ones, as thousands are still stranded in Palma, hiding and not knowing if they will be able to escape,” said Margarida Loureiro, the head of office in Pemba for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Together with local authorities and partners, UNHCR has been screening and verifying details of the recent arrivals and conducting protection assessments to identify the most vulnerable people in need of urgent assistance. Those identified are referred to various services and helped to trace and reunite with family members. Nearly 80 per cent of separated people are women and children. Partner staff are also being trained on protecting internally displaced people (IDPs) from gender-based violence and sexual exploitation.
The majority of the displaced families are staying with relatives and friends but for people like Suabo who have no relatives, they are staying at a transit center set up by the government, where they receive food assistance, sleeping mats and blankets. As of 6 April, approximately 250 displaced people were still living at the transit center.
Suabo is currently in limbo as she wonders what will happen next. She is sad and worried after being separated from her husband and their three other children.
“I wish for the conflict to stop. I don’t want other people to go through what I am going through.”
“They took away my home, my belongings, but worst of all, they took away my biggest gift in life – my family,” she said.
Like Suabo, Lucia also fled by boat and is currently staying at the transit center. An environmentalist and NGO worker, she worries about the future and she is scared to return home.
“We need help from humanitarian organizations. There are so many women and children here separated from their families,” she said.
Before the latest attack in Palma, escalating violence in Cabo Delgado had already displaced nearly 700,000 Mozambicans to other parts of Cabo Delgado, Niassa and Nampula provinces, the vast majority living with host families, whose scarce resources are already stretched.
The situation has severely impacted health, water and shelter facilities as well as access to food in the region. The harrowing humanitarian crisis is compounded by an already fragile situation of chronic underdevelopment, consecutive climatic disasters and recurrent disease outbreaks including, most recently, COVID-19.
While UNHCR and partners continue to scale up assistance to the thousands who have been displaced, Suabo hopes that peace will return to her hometown.
“I wish for the conflict to stop. I don’t want other people to go through what I am going through right now,” she said.