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Through hell and high water

A resident of Búzi, Mozambique, stands amid the ruins of his home, destroyed by Cyclone Idai, 22nd March

A resident of Búzi, Mozambique, stands amid the ruins of his home, destroyed by Cyclone Idai, 22nd March. Photo: Adrien Barbier/AFP/Getty Images

Elisa Jorge clung to the tree for dear life. All around her she could hear babies crying and parents calling for their children. In the darkness she thought she could feel snakes and insects crawling over her skin, but to let go of the branches and swat them away would have meant falling to her death in the raging waters below. She sang hymns to herself to try to keep awake.

It felt like an eternity but when daybreak finally came, some neighbours stranded on a nearby roof were able to throw Jorge a rope and pull her to relative safety. They could see bodies floating past in the swirling river that had submerged their small village near Búzi in Mozambique, in one of the regions worst affected by Cyclone Idai. “It was like hell there. We had no food or clean water. We had nothing except the clothes we were wearing and our prayers,” Jorge tells me.

Eventually after four long, hungry days, those prayers were answered as rescuers in speedboats arrived to take them to safety. As they made their way down the river, they saw countless others still trapped by the floods, who shouted for help as they passed. But there was no more room in the boat. “We didn’t stop,” says Jorge, wiping a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand.

Cyclone Idai had made landfall near Beira, Mozambique’s second-largest city, halfway up its coastline, on 15th March. The sea surged by four metres and the storm deposited torrential rains, causing rivers to burst their banks in its wake. At least 1,000 people were killed by devastating winds and by floods which stretched over more than 1,200 square miles. Thousands more people are still missing and aid agencies say the true death toll may never be known. Branded among “the worst weather-related disasters” ever to have affected the southern hemisphere by the World Meteorological Organisation, Idai was followed just over a month later by Cyclone Kenneth, the strongest storm to hit Mozambique since modern records began.

It’s not possible to say if it’s part of a trend or a one-off yet. We will have to wait and see – but it’s not a good sign”

Still affected by the legacy of Portuguese colonial rule and the fallout from a bloody civil war that only ended in 1992, Mozambique is already among the poorest nations in the world. Now it faces a new challenge: life at the sharp end of climate change.

Many fear that Idai and Kenneth are signs of what is to come. To date, only nine storms of a tropical cyclone intensity have ever been recorded making landfall in Mozambique. For two to hit the country in such quick succession is “extremely worrying” says Acacio Tembe, director of the weather prediction department at Mozambique’s Institute of Meteorology, who has worked monitoring storms over the Indian Ocean for more than 20 years. He is also worried by the timing and location of the cyclones. Both hit outside Mozambique’s usual ‘season’ – which runs from the beginning of January to the end of February – and none has ever hit as far north as Kenneth did. “It’s not possible to say if it’s part of a trend or a one-off yet,” says Tembe. “We will have to wait and see – but it’s not a good sign.”

Acacio Tembe, director of the weather prediction department at Mozambique’s Institute of Meteorology

Acacio Tembe, director of the weather prediction department at Mozambique’s Institute of Meteorology. Photo: Harriet Salem

Someone else’s bar fight

The Institute of Meteorology in which Tembe works is housed in a grand-looking colonial building in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Its walls are painted a dashing canary yellow and its garden is well maintained, but a glance at the top floor reveals crumbling brickwork and broken windows. In one of its offices, spokesman Bernardino Nhantumbo sits next to a creaking, whirring fan, a bead of sweat glistening on his forehead. It’s more than 30 degrees outside and stiflingly hot even in the shaded interior of the building.

Despite having one of the lowest carbon emissions in Africa, which has the smallest carbon footprint of all the continents, Mozambique’s geographical position places it on the front line of the effects of global warming. Or, as Nhantumbo jests darkly, “It’s like when someone else picks a fight in a bar, but when you turn around, they’ve run away and they’ve left you standing there alone!”

 An aerial photo shows a flooded area of Buzi in central Mozambique, 20th March

An aerial photo shows a flooded area of Buzi in central Mozambique, 20th March. Photo: Adrien Barbier /AFP/Getty Images

Nhantumbo mops his brow with a pocket handkerchief as he clicks through files on his computer, hunting for a slide-show presentation on climate change he delivered the week before. The institute has manifold problems, he informs me as his computer hums worryingly loudly. One is the issue of its outdated equipment which, much like the exterior of the building, is long overdue some investment. Then there are the low wages and a lack of qualified staff. On the shelf behind him sits a stack of books. At the top of the pile is a well-thumbed copy of An Introduction to Dynamic Meteorology. “It’s very hard to keep the skilled people in Mozambique. Those that have a good education leave to work for international organisations that pay better money,” he explains.

The Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative ranks Mozambique 13th in its list of the countries most vulnerable to climate change-induced extreme weather. According to a USAID report, between 1961 and 2010 average temperatures in Mozambique rose by around two degrees. Meanwhile the number of “hot days”, on which temperatures reach above 35 degrees, has doubled in the last three decades. By 2050, climate change researchers predict temperatures could go up by another 2.5 degrees in some regions of the country, with even the most optimistic models still forecasting a one-degree additional rise.

Just one degree of additional warming would have a devastating impact on Mozambique’s economy and food supply. More than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product is accounted for by agriculture and up to 70 percent of the population are subsistence farmers, depending on their own crops to survive. Small changes in weather, says Nhantumbo, can destroy a harvest and “make the difference between feast and famine”.

Severe storms in this region are not unusual, but the scientific consensus is that their intensity and severity will increase as temperatures across the globe keep going up. Cyclones need several concurrent ocean and atmospheric conditions to form. Among them is a sea surface temperature of 26.5°C or above, with high-intensity storms only forming at 28°C or higher. Parts of the Indian Ocean now reach up to 32°C. Meanwhile, rising air temperatures mean more moisture in the atmosphere, bringing heavier rains when storms come.

On top of that, the sea level along Mozambique’s 1,550 miles of shoreline has risen by 3cm since 1961 and is predicted to rise by up to 56cm by 2090 as glaciers continue to melt around the world. With an estimated 60 percent of Mozambique’s population – around nine million people – living in low-lying coastal and river delta areas, flooding and rising sea levels threaten to displace many in the coming decades if global warming continues apace. “If something doesn’t change, we’ll all end up underwater,” says Nhantumbo bluntly.

Pointing to a map on his computer screen, Nhabtumbo’s colleague Tembe traces the looping route that he watched Idai wind through the Mozambique Channel. A sliver of the Indian Ocean, measuring around 260 miles at its narrowest point and around 1,000 miles in length, it separates Mozambique from Madagascar. The neighbouring island has, until now, acted as a natural storm shield for much of the Mozambican side of the channel, taking the brunt of incoming cyclones, which then usually dissipate and weaken.

This was not the case with Cyclone Idai, however, which barrelled around the country’s coast before making landfall not once but twice. The torrential downpours it brought caused both the Pungwe and Búzi rivers to burst their banks, sweeping entire communities away in their wake and creating what Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi, called an “inland ocean” reaching several hundred miles into the interior of the country.

We had rain followed by high winds then more heavy rain. In these conditions, the buildings just fall down”

The damage was aggravated by Mozambique’s poor infrastructure. Although North America frequently experiences cyclones as intense as Idai and Kenneth, its buildings are designed to withstand extreme weather events. Mozambique’s are not.

Many homes in the country, particularly outside cities and in poor neighbourhoods, are built from cheap local materials – usually a mud-concrete mix that quickly disintegrates when submerged in water. Roofs are often little more than corrugated steel sheets or palm tree branches strapped together. Even the sturdier concrete buildings are often poorly maintained. “It’s this combination that made it so bad,” says Tembe. “We had rain followed by high winds then more heavy rain. In these conditions, the buildings just fall down.”

A woman walks past destroyed houses in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, 13th May 2019

A woman walks past destroyed houses in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, 13th May 2019. Photo: Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images

“A rich country, with poor people”

Eric Charas is a stocky, energetic Mozambican who speaks excellent English with an American lilt. He’s enthusiastic and outraged in equal measure, characteristics that help make him a good activist.

We meet at ‘Casa Jovem’ – Houses for Youth – on the outskirts of Maputo. It’s Charas’s latest ‘social justice project’ and he’s keen to take me on a tour. The apartment complex is an unremarkable maze of breezeblock flats, serviced by a shop and a small café. What makes it unique, however, are the below-market prices aimed at allowing young first-time buyers to get on the property ladder with just a small deposit, with the outstanding balance paid off through rent. “This project is the first scheme of its kind,” says Charas with pride. “We hope it’s a first step in reducing Maputo’s high youth homelessness rate.”

The state-run press has branded the housing complex a failure, citing slow progress and building regulation issues, but Charas waves away the criticism. “Sure, it’s a failure,” he says with a chuckle. “Look around you, houses are being built and bought; people are living here. We’re doing it and they’re not. They don’t like that at all – the fact they’re saying this means it’s a success, otherwise they’d say nothing. That’s how Mozambique works.”

People wait for a delivery from the World Food Programme in the wake of Cyclone Idai. After losing a harvest and livestock in the flooding, many in Mozambique are dependent on international organisations

People wait for a delivery from the World Food Programme in the wake of Cyclone Idai. After losing a harvest and livestock in the flooding, many in Mozambique are dependent on international organisations. Photo: WFP

By ‘they’ Charas means the government, of whom he’s a vocal critic. As well as managing Casa Jovem, he’s the publisher of an independent newspaper. Verdade (The Truth), which claims to have a circulation of around 600,000, making it among the most-read media outlets in the country. Journalism is a high-risk profession in Mozambique and Charas’s activities have got him in trouble more than once. He estimates he’s been to court nearly 30 times. “It’s an annoyance” he says, but so far at least he’s been “lucky to just be harassed and not locked up”.

On the day I meet Charas, Verdade has a big scoop on its front page. The environment minister has been caught on tape in a phone call discussing a host of illegal activities, including bribe taking, with the former administrator to the president’s office. Charas is not surprised. The newspaper editor can reel off a long list of “scandals” if, he says sardonically, “you can even still call them ‘scandals’ when they’re so routine”.

Among them is the 2018 discovery of some 30,000 ‘ghost’ workers in the public sector receiving a combined pay cheque of nearly £200 million over two years and, in 2013, the revelation that nearly half of Mozambique’s vast timber exports to China – up to 48 percent, or around 215,000 cubic metres of timber, that year – were illegal. The latter scandal allegedly involved the former minister of agriculture as well as numerous other officials charged with protecting the country’s forests. “Destroying the environment to line his own pocket. Well what does that tell you about the state of things?” asks Charas.

But perhaps the most flagrant instance of corruption, and certainly the costliest to the country, was the so-called ‘secret loans’ scam. In 2016, Kroll, a New York based risk-management company, revealed that the government led by former president Armando Guebuza had taken out $2 billion (£1.57 billion) in undisclosed state-backed loans three years earlier. The money, borrowed from Russian bank VTB and Swiss bank Credit Suisse, was ostensibly to set up a state-run tuna-fishing company, but was later found also to have been used to buy overpriced maritime security equipment, including military-grade speedboats that are still sitting unused in Maputo’s docks.

In practice much of the rest of the money, at least £393 million, disappeared. The exposure of the theft was ruinous for the country. The International Monetary Fund suspended its funding to Mozambique’s government, a catastrophe in a country that receives about a quarter of its budget from foreign donors. Economic growth shrank by nearly half in a year – from 6.6 percent in 2015 to 3.8 percent in 2016 – and the currency nosedived, devaluing by 65 percent in just six months.

“Imagine if even a tiny fraction of that money had gone towards projects to build schools and hospitals, or roads, or to teach people about the environment,” says Charas. “It’s staggering, mind-blowing, when you look at the poverty in this country and think about all the things it could have been used for.”

“I’m ranting,” he says, pausing to catch his breath. “But the point is, Mozambique is not a poor country, it’s a rich country with poor people.” It’s a persuasive argument. In 2009, the world’s largest deposit of rubies was discovered in the blood-red soils of Montepuez, a province in the north-east of the country, by a local farmer. Today, Mozambican rubies account for around 80 percent of global output and the gems, which are prized for their clarity, fetch prices of up to £549 per carat. As well as rubies, Mozambique sits on substantial reserves of gold, platinum, diamonds, iron ore and aluminium. There are also 25.6 billion tonnes of unexploited coal, its largest export.

Only around a quarter of the country’s population have access to electricity and less than half have clean drinking water”

The most lucrative of all the country’s resources, however, is set to be natural gas. In 2011, oil and gas giants Eni from Italy and Anadarko from the US discovered a 150-trillion-cubic-foot gas field off Mozambique’s northern coast; it is the world’s fourth-largest offshore reserve, worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The discovery has been heralded as a potential turning point that could transform Mozambique from a developing nation into a solid middle-income country.

To date, however, little of Mozambique’s vast natural resource wealth has trickled down to the people. Only around a quarter of the country’s population have access to electricity and less than half have clean drinking water. Although the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen slightly in recent years, 48 percent of Mozambicans still live on less than $2 (£1.57) per day. In rural regions that figure rises to 80 percent. This subsistence lifestyle leaves ordinary Mozambicans completely unable to adapt to or mitigate the worst excesses of their changing climate.

The church without a roof

Pastor Itamar Fernandes built the Missao Africa Pieia Evangelical Church in Beira himself. When I meet the Brazilian missionary his jeans and T-shirt are covered in dust and his hands are dirty. He’s spent the morning picking up the pieces of his life’s work.

On the night Idai hit Beira, Fernandes took his wife and three young children and hid in an outhouse, figuring that it was the strongest shelter on the grounds. Crouched on the floor they prayed as the winds roared around the building. Juju, a pet monkey belonging to the church, screamed and rattled the bars of his cage in panic as the cyclone ripped the church’s roof clean off and sent it crashing down onto the pastor’s car. The building’s windows were smashed and the walls of the Bible-study classrooms and toilets collapsed. “We lost everything that we worked for 22 years to build. Now we have to start again from scratch,” Fernandes tells me.

Pastor Itamar Fernandes stands by his car, destroyed by his church’s roof, which was torn off when Idai hit Beira

Pastor Itamar Fernandes stands by his car, destroyed by his church’s roof, which was torn off when Idai hit Beira. Photo: Harriet Salem

It’s a Sunday and volunteers from the church are perched on ladders, stringing up tarpaulin over what was once the roof in a bid to protect the congregation from the blazing heat of the sun. A mural of a Mozambican landscape on the church’s far wall blends seamlessly into the bright blue sky. The damage hasn’t deterred worshippers from attending mass, though, and by midday the room is packed. The service is loud and upbeat. A gospel choir leads hymns, children read poems and the pastor, now changed into a smart suit, booms his sermon through a microphone. The crowd respond with plenty of rapturous hallelujahs.

At the end, Fernandes says some prayers for the victims of Idai and Kenneth before inviting the congregation to come forward and make donations towards the church’s repairs. Most do, but he says it’s unlikely to cover even a fraction of the costs. “They give what they can, but they are poor people so even sparing a few coins is a big act of charity,” he tells me.

After the service, Fernandes takes me to visit the Grande Hotel Beira. Built in Art Deco style, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and sea views, this establishment was one of Africa’s most luxurious resorts in the 1950s and ’60s. Today it houses the poorest of the poor. There’s no electricity or running water. The swimming pool, filled with a murky green-brown sludge, is used by residents to bathe and wash their clothes. Most of the building’s floors have been ripped up to use as fuel for cooking fires.

An estimated 1,500 squatters live here, among them 350 orphans supported by Fernandes’s church. He gestures to the nearby ruins of a building, which used to house the children in their own separate quarters before Idai tore it down. Now the kids are living in some of the hotel’s former guestrooms. It’s noisy, cramped and basic, the walls are streaked with dirt and the mattresses, lying side-by-side on the floor, are thin and threadbare.

“For now, it’s the best we can do. It’s not ideal – this is a dangerous place,” says Fernandes. “There are drug addicts and criminals living here. We’re hoping to raise some more money and rebuild the orphanage, but that’s going to take time.” Before we leave he says some prayers with the children, who sit in neat rows on the floor waiting for volunteers to hand out their daily food ration. It’s meagre: the younger children, aged four or under, get two bread rolls, and those who are older get only one. “It’s always those that already have the least that suffer the most in these situations,” Fernandes says with a sigh as we leave.

Across the city I hear similar tales of woe. Mohammed Zobura lives in an ‘accommodation centre’ for people displaced by the cyclone near Beira’s port, a prime piece of real estate. Little more than some ramshackle rows of dusty tents, currently housing several hundred families, the camp is a jarring contrast when compared to its immediate neighbour, the Marina Casino. A gambling mega-complex for wealthy Mozambicans and Chinese businessmen, it has a luxurious swimming pool, giant dragons flanking the doors and a car park filled with four-by-fours and limousines.

Along with his wife and four children, Zobura shares a small tent with five other families. At night they sleep on a tarpaulin ground mat, squashed in side by side. The Zobura family have been living here for the past three weeks since their home washed away in the floods that followed Cyclone Idai. Like many staying here, they are from Praia Nova. The neighbourhood, which nestles against Beira’s beachfront, is home to many of the city’s fishermen and some of its poorest residents. Most of the houses in the district were built from cheap materials that were unable to withstand the winds and rains.

“First, the roof collapsed and then the waters started to come in, up to here,” Zobura says, gesturing to his waist. “Very fast and from every direction. Our road turned into a river.” He and his wife scooped up their children, grabbed what they could carry and headed for higher ground. As they waded away, they looked back and saw their possessions and furniture floating away on a torrent of water towards the sea. “That’s all we managed to take,” he says pointing to a few pots and pans and a small suitcase in the corner containing some clothes.

Like the Zobura family, most of those still living in the camp – around 1,200 people – simply have nowhere else to go. Although the camp is meant to be a temporary measure, it’s already showing signs of becoming at least semi-permanent. Some of those living here have set up little ‘shops’ outside their tents selling soap and other basic goods and an NGO-funded school is being run under sheets strung up on wooden poles.

Rebuilding and getting families like the Zoburas out of their tent cities will be a big and costly task. An estimated 230,000 homes were either damaged or destroyed by Idai across central Mozambique. An initial post-disaster risk assessment conducted by the United Nations has estimated that around £2.5 billion is needed to restore infrastructure and social services in the areas affected by both Kenneth and Idai. However, two international donation drives have only raised around half that amount so far.

The destroyed harvest

I travel from Beira to the inland town of Búzi in a minibus, the most common form of public transport in Mozambique. Known locally as a chapa cem, it’s seen better days: the suspension is shot and the broken sliding door has to be tied shut with a rope, creating a terrible rattling whenever the vehicle moves. The conductor squeezes in as many passengers as possible: 18 adults, two children, one baby and a furiously squawking chicken.

The road we take as we head out of the city doesn’t exist on Google Maps, and only partially exists in real life. As we cross the Pungwe River a thick fog descends. The reeds on the riverbank are only just visible through the mist and the temperature drops sharply, prompting my fellow passengers to scrabble around under the seats and in their bags for jumpers and woolly hats. After around 40 miles or so, we pass a road digger and a group of workers with drills. Shortly afterwards the asphalt abruptly ends. The rest of the way is a dirt track and the driver doesn’t slow down for potholes. It takes four-and-a-half long and bumpy hours to reach our destination.

The things people had spent their whole life building were destroyed in a moment”

Although Mozambique’s road network has improved in recent years, due in large part to substantial investment by China, it is still among the worst-connected countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Only 20 percent of the country’s roads, around 3,700 miles, are paved with asphalt, and most of those run east to west, connecting major urban hubs to ports, but not to each other. The setup, or rather lack thereof, is a legacy of colonial rule, when getting goods out of the country took precedent over establishing a strong and lasting internal infrastructure. Neighbouring South Africa, twice the size of Mozambique, has almost 30 times more surfaced roads.

But at least the road is now passable. Just two weeks before I travel along it, this route was entirely submerged by floods, cutting Búzi and its residents off from the rest of the world. The town was among the worst-affected areas in the region. Search and rescue teams airlifted survivors from rooftops and helicopters dropped emergency food aid packages to those still trapped below. Now the water has receded, but the damage is still evident everywhere. “The things people had spent their whole life building were destroyed in a moment,” Maria Bernadete, Búzi’s softly spoken administrator, tells me.

Maria Bernadete, administrator of Búzi

Maria Bernadete, administrator of Búzi. Photo: Harriet Salem

Miguel Rabecam, the director of economic affairs at the local administration, apologises that we can’t sit in his office but the roof and part of the walls have collapsed, and dust and debris have buried the desk at which he used to sit. Instead, we take a seat outside on the steps. The cyclone hit at “the worst possible moment”, Rabecam tells me. He’s spent the morning out in the fields assessing the damage to farmers’ crops and equipment. In rural areas and small towns like Búzi, most people grow much of their own food. Mozambique’s patchy road network means moving goods, particularly fresh food products, around the country is time-consuming and expensive, making subsistence farming the only financially viable option for many.

There are, broadly speaking, two harvests per year. The first, which provides staple foods like rice and cassava, was about to be collected when Cyclone Idai hit. Rabecam estimates that around three quarters of the crop in the district, much of the farmers’ equipment and nearly all their livestock were lost in the flooding.

For now, food aid provided by international organisations is plugging the gap, but it’s not clear how long funding will permit that to continue. Rabecam estimates that food shortages will peak between July and October 2019 and last up to a year. “If it stops, we’re in big trouble. We could be looking at a famine,” he says. A long queue snakes around the building for sacks of seeds. It’s an attempt to replant what was lost, but Rabecam is not optimistic: “It’s only going to make up for a fraction of what was destroyed. Homes can be rebuilt, but harvests can’t be recovered so easily.”

A perfect storm

My journey ends in Pemba city, the regional capital of Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province of Mozambique. On 25th April, Cyclone Kenneth made landfall here with wind speeds of 140 miles per hour, flattening whole neighbourhoods in its path.

People displaced by Cyclone Kenneth take refuge at the local headquarters of Mozambique’s ruling party, the Mozambique Liberation Front, in the northern city of Pemba, 2nd May 2019

People displaced by Cyclone Kenneth take refuge at the local headquarters of Mozambique’s ruling party, the Mozambique Liberation Front, in the northern city of Pemba, 2nd May 2019. Photo: Harriet Salem

In a camp for displaced people, in the Frelimo (Mozambique Liberation Front) ruling party’s headquarters in Pemba, Safilna Anthony cries softly as she sits in a circle on the concrete floor with women from her neighbourhood. She and her nine children were displaced from the Maluku neighbourhood in Pemba. Torrential rain caused a landslide, burying several houses in her street and partially damaging hers. “I don’t want to return there. You can feel the land moving; it’s not safe,” she tells me as her friends nod in agreement.
“We are just sitting and waiting to hear something from the government, but as yet they have not offered any solutions to our situation,” another woman from the group chimes in.

They are likely to have a long wait for help from the government or aid organisations. In Cabo Delgado, home to Mozambique’s lucrative gas fields, both aid relief and rebuilding efforts are being hampered by violence, thanks to an armed insurgency with an extremist Islamist ideology that is fighting a shadowy war against the state.

Starting in October 2017 the group, which has never made a public statement about its demands, began to carry out dozens of brutal attacks on villages, police stations and military outposts in the province using firebombs, guns and machetes. At least 200 people have been killed, some by beheading or dismemberment, and hundreds more are thought to have fled the rural areas of the region, where most of the attacks have taken place.

The insurgents have associations with organised criminal networks that run trafficking networks for rubies, ivory, heroin and people through Mozambique’s porous border with neighbouring Tanzania. Theories abound as to what sparked the outburst of violence, but most link it in some way to the exacerbation of existing tensions by the discovery of the gas fields in the desperately poor Muslim-majority north. In particular, the increase in the state security apparatus to protect the gas fields is thought to have disrupted the thriving local black markets, which are the region’s main source of income and opportunity. Heavy-handed crackdowns by the army have escalated the situation further.

With an election scheduled for 2019 the Mozambican government has been keen to keep the violence under wraps. One of activist Eric Charas’s colleagues, community radio journalist Amade Abubucar, has been stuck in pre-trial detention since January after interviewing people fleeing attacks by the insurgents. Other journalists trying to cover the attacks have repeatedly been detained and had their equipment confiscated by the authorities.

As a result, few international organisations were willing to speak on the record about the impact of the violence on aid distribution in the region – all those I contacted cited fears that the government would throw them out the country if they did so. Several, however, confirmed on the condition of anonymity that the threat of attacks had hampered local access to aid and slowed down response times due to the additional risk assessments and security needed for their operations.

The fact that so little is known about the rebel group has only added to the challenge it poses. At a smart hotel on Pemba’s beachfront, international aid workers meet for a nightly powwow to discuss their movements for the next day. Security concerns are top of the agenda. “You can’t anticipate where a potential attack could happen, so in terms of the ground situation, we need to operate as if there are groups of armed men in the area that may kill people, be tighter with our procedures and be ready to run away at a moment’s notice,” a security consultant working with a major international organisation confides. “It’s not the Taliban or anything like that – there’s no social media, we don’t know what their objective is, we don’t know if we’re a target or not.”

Another fear is that militants may carry out reprisal attacks on villages receiving assistance, which are softer targets. “No self-respecting jihadist group would allow international organisations to operate in their area, so obviously it’s an ongoing concern that a convoy could be attacked,” the security consultant tells me. “We need to keep in mind that aid adds another dynamic; it’s another resource to fight over. We could also see villages attacked after we leave, which would obviously limit which areas we can operate in.”

One of the few people who is willing to speak publicly to me about the appearance of the insurgency in the north is Edson Cortez, CEO of the Centre for Public Integrity, a Maputo-based anti-corruption NGO. We meet in his offices in an affluent neighbourhood of Mozambique’s capital. Home to diplomats, embassies and several of the politicians that Cortez is working to expose, it’s a world away from Pemba.

Edson Cortez, CEO of the Centre for Public Integrity, a Maputo-based anti-corruption NGO

Edson Cortez, CEO of the Centre for Public Integrity, a Maputo-based anti-corruption NGO. Photo: Harriet Salem

“In these rural regions you didn’t really have the state there, then when you had these huge discoveries of gas and other natural resources in Cabo Delgado, the state had to put itself there. And the people there, involved in these scams, these criminal networks, they felt that and wanted to reassert themselves and say, ‘I am here, this is mine,’” he tells me. “They are feeling robbed in these poor regions by those in power in Maputo.”

We are being run by a group of thieves and gangsters. It’s hard to tell who’s who. If we continue down this path we are done for”

“This is the problem of Mozambique,” continues Cortez. “We are being run by a group of thieves and gangsters. It’s hard to tell who’s who. If we can’t change this, if we continue down this path, then we are done for.”

For his colleague Charas, the myriad issues facing Mozambique in the aftermath of Idai and Kenneth all have the same roots.

“Corruption and short-termism,” he says, definitively. “That’s what links all these things: the environment, cyclone damage, armed groups, poverty, infrastructure, or whatever problem it is today. It’s our politics that’s at the root of it all. Most of the leaders here don’t care about tomorrow, just about lining their pockets – and these are the results.”

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