Recounting the events following the March 24 attack on Palma in Mozambique, survivor Wesley Nel, whose brother was killed by Al-Shabaab insurgents, told Sputnik that the evacuation was total chaos and not how it was presented in the Amnesty International reports.
Nel, who was about to celebrate his 41st birthday on April 1, survived the assault after taking cover with some other people at a hotel. He stressed that the Amnesty International report, which claimed that white contractors and even dogs were given priority over the local black population during evacuation, was highly inaccurate. Nel said he believed the report was biased and aimed to smear the image of the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a private military company hired by the Mozambican government to help fight militants in the northern Cabo Delgado province.
“With regards to the Amnesty International report, honestly, they have something out for DAG because it was inaccurate. We are living proof of this. On the 25th of March, Thursday, there choppers arrived and evacuated 24 people who had medical conditions. One guy was diabetic and did not have medical insulin, and women and children were given priority as that was the agreement,” Nel said.
Six expats and 18 locals were the first to be rescued on March 25, according to Nel. In total, there were about 175 people who took shelter at the Amarula hotel.
The feeling of disappointment everyone felt when the rescue helicopters did not return that day because of fuel issues is hard to describe, Nel told Sputnik.
“We were told that they would arrive the following day on Friday. And on Friday, we were lying down in the hotel because the insurgents were shooting and there were around fifteen of them surrounding the hotel and shooting at the gate. The insurgents did not know if we were armed or not, so they could not come in. They were shooting from the road and getting more and more tense and when the choppers arrived, they would shoot at them,” Nel recalled.
The survivors tried to contact a local representative of the French energy giant Total, which has a major gas project worth $60 billion near Palma, but the response wasn’t what they had hoped for. The representative said there was nothing the company could do, in spite of Nel appealing to his sense of decency. “You are leaving us here to be slaughtered,” was the last thing Nel told the employee before he hung up.
According to Nel, Total also refused to help refuel the rescue helicopters, making all sorts of excuses — from COVID-19 to them becoming the target should they come to the rescue. Locals in Pemba bought fuel and donated it, but the boat carrying the supplies did not arrive.
“We were told that the government was sending the choppers bought from Paramount [defense company] and they said that no, they cannot, and some of the choppers got shot at and the Ukrainian soldiers returned and parked at Afungi. About 800 Mozambican soldiers stayed in Afungi and those who were supposed to protect us, ran and fled and took off,” he noted.
While the situation with the rescue stalled, the gunfire continued and the insurgents began burning properties at night, Nel said. Their camp in Palma had been looted, and the government was failing to provide food supplies, refusing help from international organizations. Faced with dire circumstances and no help arriving from Total, the survivors decided to leave with an armed convoy.
“We loaded 150 people into the cars. We hatched an evacuation plan … at about 4 p.m. [14:00 GMT], we convoyed in two armored vehicles — one with a single canopy — and we put all women and children and we, contractors, took our cars. The other armored vehicle did not have a canopy, it was from Vodacom [network operator],” Nel recounted.
The fleeing survivors encountered the first ambush less than a mile away from the hotel. Nel said they tried to take in those who were shot and wounded, and were ambushed again only a couple miles later. This time, his brother Adrian was struck by a bullet, fell out of the car and died on the spot. Adrian was the driver.
“And I jumped in to the driver’s seat and drove off again and we did not drive into more ambushes. We were meant to meet at the quarry to meet the military check point and we would then go on foot to the beach to be rescued,” Nel explained.
Adrian Nel lost his job as a commercial driver in the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. He went to join his father and brother in Mozambique earlier this year to do construction work building accommodations for employees of gas companies in Palma.
“He lost his job due to COVID-19 and he came here, and less than three months into the new job he got killed. It’s not fair. I blame Total and the Mozambican government,” Nel said.
In late March, militants linked to the Islamic State terrorist group (banned in Russia), announced the seizure of Palma, which is home to international gas projects. It is still not known how many were killed in the siege. Thousands of local residents fled the violence and for some time they were the only source of information about what was happening inside Palma, as militants shut down the city’s internet.
Senior consultant for Southern Africa at International Crisis Group, Piers Pigou, told Sputnik that over 800,000 people have been internally displaced since jihadists first launched an insurgency in the Cabo Delgado province in 2017.