Amid an intense conflict that has lasted for more than three years and left a total of 2,500 dead and at least 400,000 displaced in northern Mozambique, the work of one Brazilian has attracted attention.
The Bishop of Pemba, capital of the province of Cabo Delgado, Dom Luiz Fernando Lisboa is leading the efforts of the Catholic Church to provide humanitarian aid to the internally displaced. These are families who have had to leave their homes and even relatives because of attacks by insurgents who claim to be linked to the radical Islamic State group.
The support, carried out in collaboration with other international organizations, provided these populations with improvised shelter, food and medicine. “There are a lot of displaced people with all kinds of needs,” said the bishop.
The most important help, however, has been to give voice to the victims of war, to families who have lost their property, their homes and, on many occasions, have seen their loved ones killed in the conflict.
“For a long time, it was forbidden to speak, journalists were harassed, some were arrested, we have had one since the beginning of April [de 2020]», Declares Dom Luiz. “So the church has always talked, reported the war, the people who died, the displacement in Mozambique and outside the country, and that caused some persecution.”
The priest mentions attacks like that of the Mozambican journalist Gustavo Mavie, who chairs the National Council of Public Ethics.
In August 2020, as the work of the Bishop of Pemba began to gain international notoriety, Mavie published a post on Facebook in which he called the cleric a “political color blind”. The text also indicates that Dom Luiz blames the Mozambican government, and not the insurgents, for the conflict.
“This bishop, instead of supporting and helping the government think better about how to solve the problems, is hitting the wrong entity,” the journalist told Deutsche Welle Africa.
Dom Luiz says the persecution is political. “These are people who want to look good in the photo in front of the authorities, so they attack those who speak.
During much of the conflict, which began in October 2017, the government preferred to remain silent, which is why the persecution of journalists and people who disclose what is happening in the north of the country, such as the Brazilian bishop.
According to David Matsinhe, Amnesty International’s researcher for Mozambique and Angola, human rights violations by the Mozambican authorities have also been reported.
“There are people suspected of helping the insurgents who disappeared, were tortured and killed,” he said. “The government has essentially isolated the areas of conflict. The press cannot access this area. “
Matsinhe also says that there are denunciations of mass graves and mass shootings. Without access to these areas, however, it is impossible to confirm the information.
This region of conflict begins in Pemba and runs along the northern coast of Mozambique, to the district of Palma, on the border with Tanzania. According to Matsinhe, the insurgents are young, mostly men, born in the province of Cabo Delgado – predominantly Muslim in a predominantly Catholic country.
The group these rebels are linked to is called Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, and in 2019 declared itself an ally of the Islamic State. The Brazilian bishop says, however, that it is “a religious cover for a war that is not religious, a war whose main motive is the economy”.
“There is no conflict between religions in Cabo Delgado, nor in Mozambique. The religious leaders live very well together, we work together, ”said the Catholic.
The bishop however emphasizes that the soldiers are also victims. “They go [para a região] without wanting to go, they are sacrificed a lot. Many have lost their lives in this war. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Events Data Project (Acled) report of February 9, there are 2,578 casualties, of which 1,305 are civilians.
Dom Luiz works precisely with the relatives of these people. “There are all kinds of stories imaginable. Parents who have lost their children, girls kidnapped by terrorists, people who have seen members of their family beheaded, quartered. The dead are very violent. “
There are also material losses, such as houses that were set on fire, and the trauma of spending up to ten days hiding in the woods or having abandoned elderly people in villages because they could not s. ‘escape.
“It is the pain of this people that the church has tried to follow, to listen to, to support, and to help people stand up.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says 424,000 people have had to leave conflict zones, while Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi speaks of 570,000 displaced people.
According to the Brazilian bishop, the provincial capital, Pemba, has around 150,000 displaced people. Matsinhe says the situation created another problem. As many families have welcomed these people into their homes, there are sometimes 60 people living under the same roof, in very small spaces.
There is also a health problem, with very little access to water, which affects hygiene. The social distance needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus then becomes non-existent. “Over the past eight months, the conflict has intensified. The insurgents decided that there was an opportunity to intensify the attacks because of the Covid-19, ”Matsinhe said.
According to official data, the virus has not hit the country. With a population of 29.9 million, Mozambique has 54,200 cases and 583 deaths, but there is a risk of underreporting.
In the north of the country, the case is more serious, as Covid-19 and the conflict are accompanied by a history of malnutrition, illiteracy and other precarious social clues. Even with all the risks, Dom Luiz says the population has shown an example of solidarity.
“A non-displaced family receives two or three displaced people,” he said. For this reason, he takes the honor he received last year as a recognition to the people of Cabo Delgado. “I learned to love and love, and it helped me a lot.”
The conflict region is rich in natural resources, especially in oil and gas reserves which have attracted multinationals. The French oil company Total, for example, is carrying out a gas extraction megaproject worth 20 billion dollars (107.4 billion reais). It is the largest private investment currently underway in Africa.
Matsinhe explains that the insurgents are the result of a long period of political, economic and social exclusion. After centuries under Portuguese control, Mozambique gained independence in 1975. During those more than 45 years, however, the Cabo Delgado region has been ignored by the central government, according to the Amnesty International researcher.
“The presence of government is marked by its institutions, such as schools, hospitals, roads, water and sewer systems, and all of this is lacking because the government is absent. The entire infrastructure dates back to colonial times. “
In this way, the local people had their natural resources as the basis of their survival. For Matisinhe, when, four decades after independence, the central government discovered the existence of the reserves and began to exploit them without offering economic and social development to the inhabitants of the region, conflict arose.
The Amnesty International researcher explains that the multinationals that have projects in Cabo Delgado do not employ the population of the region, but Mozambicans from other provinces or people from outside the country.
The government also ended up fueling the discourse of religious conflicts, explains the researcher. “They like to say that foreign Islamists have come to radicalize people,” he says. “But in reality, these foreigners who may have radicalized these young people only came to benefit from the radicalization work that the government has been doing for decades.”
The performance of the Mozambican government in the region has been controversial from the start. In addition to allegations of human rights violations and harassment, authorities have been accused of refusing international aid.
Matsinhe also says that the Bishop of Pemba is most responsible for bringing international attention to the conflict – for his performance, the Brazilian was recognized by three major newspapers in the country as a Personality of the Year 2020.
Dom Luiz even managed to get the attention of Pope Francis, who began to quote him in his blessings, such as Easter and Christmas. The church also donated 100,000 euros (R $ 651.4 thousand) at the end of the year.
The bishop now has a date set to return to Brazil for good. After serving on the African continent for nearly eight years, Dom Luiz is expected to take over the diocese of Cachoeiro do Itapemirim, in southern Espírito Santo, later this month, according to a statement released last week by the Episcopal Conference. from Mozambique.