CM – Mozambique: The focus on fighting « terrorists » ignores the real humanitarian needs in Cabo Delgado

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A young displaced girl carries water in a camp for internally displaced persons in Belibize near Metuge in northern Mozambique on April 10, 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / JOAO RELVAS)

First, in mid-March, the US government appointed an armed opposition group active in Cabo Delgado as a “terrorist” organization and sent military advisers to train the Mozambican army in counter-terrorism measures. A fortnight later, the city of Palma – near a multi-billion dollar gas project by the French company Total – was attacked by an armed group in a high-profile and brutal attack, in which an as yet unknown number of people were killed and displaced.

In early April The South African Development Community (SADC) « strongly condemned the terrorist attacks » and reiterated that « such heinous attacks cannot continue without an appropriate regional response ». SADC dispatched a « technical mission » to Mozambique, which will shortly announce its results, including a regional military operation.

Much of this recent attention to Cabo Delgado has been through allegations of the opposition group’s association with the state Islamic group and the Assassination of foreigners fueled in the attack on Palma. While the conflict has persisted since 2017, it has received very little political attention from regional governments or international actors – with the exception of those interested in Mozambique’s gas reserves or private military contracts. Much less attention has been paid to the growing number of displaced people – now over 700,000 – and the critical humanitarian crisis in the province.

Cabo Delgado may not be a forgotten conflict, but it is certainly a neglected humanitarian crisis. And now that the attention of the SADC region and international supporters of the Mozambican government is focused almost entirely on « fighting terrorism », the proposed solutions may again overlook the urgent need to save lives and the suffering of many conflict-affected communities to alleviate.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled violence and insecurity and have lived in overcrowded camps or are being taken in by local communities with already limited resources. People have experienced significant trauma: a decapitated husband, abducted wife, son or daughter that they have no news of. Many go for days to find safety after hiding in the bush, often without food or water. Others stay in places that humanitarian actors cannot reach due to the ongoing insecurity.

While the reasons for this conflict may be varied and complex, the consequences of the violence are strikingly simple: fear, insecurity and a lack of access to the basic needs of the Survival, including food, water, shelter and urgent health care.

Meanwhile, the expansion of humanitarian aid has continued due to ongoing insecurity and bureaucratic hurdles preventing certain supplies from being imported and visas for additional humanitarian workers, considerably restricted. I recently returned from Cabo Delgado and saw firsthand how the scale of humanitarian aid in no way matches the scale of needs.

What is likely to increase is the regionally supported and internationally funded counter-terrorism, the one could further adversely affect populations already at risk. In many conflicts, from Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan, I have seen how counter-terrorism can create additional humanitarian needs while reducing the ability of humanitarian workers to respond.

First, when we refer to a group as « terrorists », we see often that the groups in question are pushed further underground, making dialogue with them more complex for humanitarian access. While states can claim that they « do not negotiate with terrorists, » humanitarian workers are forced to impartially provide humanitarian aid and negotiate with any group that controls the territory or may harm our patients and staff. Many aid organizations shy away from doing this in places where a group has been classified as “terrorists” for fear of a counter-terrorism violation. For Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the successful delivery of impartial medical care requires reserving a space for dialogue and building confidence in the fact that our presence in conflict is solely to save lives and alleviate suffering.

However, counter-terrorism operations seek to bring humanitarian activities under the full control of the state and the military coalitions that support them. Aid is withheld, facilitated, or provided to build government credibility, to win the hearts and minds of military intervention, or to punish communities accused of sympathizing with an opposition group. The weakest can often fall through the cracks of such an approach, which is why organizations like MSF need to be able to operate independently. The problem for humanitarian workers in targeting a state and its military supporters is that states and their affiliated states are often the clear targets of armed opposition groups. Targeting a state waging a counterterrorism war can reduce our ability to reach the most vulnerable communities to provide medical care.

At MSF, we know this can happen at a time when we are on are most urgently needed. In counter-terrorism wars around the world, we often see that civilian casualties are justified by the presence of « terrorists » in the civilian population. Entire communities can be classified as « hostile », which leads to a relaxation of the rules of engagement for the armed forces. In these situations we have often seen hospitals destroyed and entire villages destroyed in attacks where no distinction could be made between military and civilian targets. Communities are often caught between indiscriminate violence by armed groups and the state’s response to counter-terrorism.

The current focus on « terrorism » clearly serves the political and economic interests of those who intervene in Mozambique. However, it must not come at the expense of saving lives and alleviating the immense suffering of the people of Cabo Delgado. DM / MC

Jonathan Whittall is based in Johannesburg and is the director of analytics at Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

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