“Being a missionary in Cabo Delgado: a life in a “permanent state of war”

Cabo Delgado This region has an exuberant natural wealth. It is a territory that contains a huge reserve of gas, recently discovered, in addition to wood, graphite, precious stones, oil etc. All of these natural and mineral resources increase the greed of many powerful people, whose intentions are to explore the region.

Paradoxically, on the other hand, the local people do not enjoy these goods at all. Its small villages are made up of a working and poor population. Residents live on family farming; they mainly grow white corn, the main food product; in this way, they lead a simple life between working in the fields (machamba) and daily life in the community. Depending on the district, this reality is mixed by the coexistence between different cultures (Macua, Maconde, etc.) and religious expressions (Muslim and Christian).

Muidumbe has a population of 79,000, being the second oldest mission in the diocese. In our pastoral planning, we were talking about preparing for the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the mission, which “should” take place in 2024.

The district of Muidumbe is known as “Planalto do Povo Maconde”. In their villages, Shimaconde and Portuguese are spoken. This district is made up of 26 villages, eighteen of which have already been attacked. The first village affected by the attacks was the Village of Creation, on November 7, 2019. After that attack, we never had peace again.

The other villages were attacked at different times: Magaya, Chitunda, Rua Rua, 1º de Maio, Miangalewa and Xitaxi, where the massacre of 52 young people took place, among others. The headquarters of the saletina mission was in the village of Muambula. We had a good infrastructure to serve the population: a spacious churche; a primary and secondary school with 3,000 students enrolled; a small school / daycare that cared for about 80 children; the community radio São Francisco de Assis; a dental clinic; the house of the priests, the house of the sisters, the well, catechesis rooms, bedrooms, kitchen, dining room; the smallholder association. All of this was destroyed with the attacks that took place between October 31 and November 19, 2020, when the terrorists invaded and took over the village.

In Muidumbe, there was the first attack in April 2020; the terrorists destroyed the only hospital in the district, the small bank branch, the gas station and the administration buildings. After that attack, we fled to Pemba.

It hurts our heart when we see that everything has turned to ashes and debris. We hope to return one day, but we know that it will take a long time to rebuild what was burned and destroyed. We know that concrete structures – the radio station, the temple, etc. – they are possible to be rebuilt, but we will never have back the many lives that were violently taken away; decapitated bodies, kidnapped youth, missing children. These are heard reports that cut our hearts.

At this moment, our main concern is not to rebuild buildings, (even because it is not foreseen), but to try to help remake the life stories of the people who survived, many of them saddened and tearful by their murdered or missing family members.

Sadness is stamped on the face of each displaced person. We are experiencing a deep mourning that affects all expressions of community life: the language spoken among them, the customs, the songs and dances, the festivals of the people. The song of joy gave way to tears. The strong sound of Mapiko’s dance gave way to silence. It resembles the pain of exile, of the forced diaspora, as the people of God lived in the Old Testament.

We missionaries miss you too. We would love to be present in the community, carrying out the mission entrusted to us: taking care of schools, health ministry, community radio, days full of meetings. We waited for the night to rest and, the next day, restart activities. We wrote a letter to express our desire to be with the people. As missionaries, we are also displaced. Evidently in very different conditions, because, even though we lost everything with the destruction of our homes, we have the support of our institutions. It is a very different picture from that of people who live in precarious conditions, whether in the camps or in the backyards of the houses where they are taken in.

When the attack happens, the population flees to the bush. Some families used to agree on how to proceed when the terrorists arrived. But evil does not tell when it will arrive, and these families are taken by surprise, having to, at that moment, leave with the “little” they can or can save.

People stay in the bush in precarious conditions, go hungry and thirsty until they find ways to reach a city outside the war area. We heard sad reports of this unwanted “crossing”. We help many families to “escape” from the forest to the city by paying for transportation. At that time, we thank the gesture of solidarity of many people. When they leave the forest, they go to different cities; not only Pemba, but also the neighboring provinces have received many displaced people. They arrive in the city and go to the homes of family members or acquaintances. Many of these houses can receive 20 to 30 people, while others go to settlements created by the Mozambican government, also marked by extremely precarious conditions.

After so many days in the bush, undergoing all kinds of deprivation, they arrive with a disfigured, sad and worried face. They suffer from many diseases (diarrhea, anemia, malaria), with a higher prevalence in women and children. Many of these women left their children and husbands lost, when they did not witness the abduction or murder of their family members. Thus, in addition to physical weakness, they bring emotional situations that deserve psychological care. Almost always they are welcomed by people from humanitarian organizations and the pastoral action of the diocese of Pemba, through Caritas and parishes.

The presence of the various humanitarian organizations ensures basic action for those who arrive, giving them: canvas, bucket, clothes, medicine, food. Each accomplishes what it can. In this war, we are always surprised by a new situation. There was a moment when everything seemed “quiet”, and suddenly, behold, in small boats, thousands of people arrived on the beach in the neighborhood of Paquite. On that day, we directed all our forces towards that reality. Therefore, as much as humanitarian organizations strive, the number of people who need this support has grown disproportionately. There is already talk of more than 700 thousand displaced people present in different cities.

It is necessary to denounce: “if the voice of the prophets is silent, the stones will cry!”

The diocese of Pemba has long denounced this wave of violence. When we were in the northern region, in Muidumbe, we talked about war and security at every meeting with the people.

As missionaries, we see an increase in violence and an update on the means used to rape people. In the beginning, terrorists used machetes (large machetes used in farming) and, today, they use heavy and sophisticated weapons, of large caliber.

The daily life of the people was marked by simple actions: fetching water from the well, pillaring the flour, sitting on the floor in front of the house, to talk etc. Everything was interrupted when, on October 5, 2017, the first attack took place in the district of Mocímbua da Praia. Since then we have had no more peace. The simple life has changed and constant fear is now part of us. The schedules for celebrations and classes have been modified; no one circulated quietly in the villages; they started attacking the cars that transported people, who became afraid to travel. When someone unknown in the community arrives, their presence should be immediately notified. For example, in many villages, meetings were held to explain some codes, in case the insurgents arrived. In each attack on a district in the region, everyone is terrified, as if to say: “they will attack us too”…

Among the population it was not always possible to talk about the “reasons for the war”, either because of fear or because they simply did not know. On the part of the authorities, no official explanation was passed on to the population. A silence that was also frightening. There has even been talk of a “hidden face of war”. But this war had a face, and a cruel face, and the people who saw it were the people who saw terrorists close up killing and attacking their homes and communities.

There is talk of a sum of factors. We believe that among them is also religious fundamentalism, which takes to the extreme the rules of religious practices. In Mozambique, the presence of Muslims is significant. This has nothing to do with extremist fundamentalism. How many times, in Pemba, we wake up to the sound of hymns and prayers in the mosques. We have learned, especially from Pope Francis, the need to preserve the dimension of dialogue, respect and good living between religions. I can say that in these three years, in the district of Muidumbe, we have never witnessed religious conflicts or disagreements between neighbors for religious reasons.

Of the nine locations mentioned at the beginning, only Mueda was not attacked, although the population lives in a climate of fear and readiness. “Rumors” circulate that new attacks will happen. They even say of a possible attack on the city of Pemba, capital of the province.

On March 24, the district of Palma was seized by an attack, which has some peculiar characteristics: in this region is the great investment of the French multinational “Total”. This company has invested millions of euros to build the “gas city”. In Palma, people from humanitarian organizations and company employees lived, both Mozambicans and foreigners.

The city was taken in broad daylight. It is said that there were violent deaths, marked by beheadings and kidnappings. The poor were left with the bush again; and, once again, Pemba and other cities receive the displaced who arrive in search of shelter, bread and dignity.

Many displaced people continue to live with relatives or acquaintances; others are in the settlements, in houses made of grass and canvas, facing the rainy season; another part is in the new resettlements. This referral, this way of resolving the situation, suggests that families should think about their lives without dreaming of a possible return to the place where they left their stories and roots.

We missionaries are also in this exile, trying to understand what God is saying to us. The medieval prayer of the Salve Rainha expresses our experience: “moaning and weeping in this valley of tears”.

Cabo Delgado wants peace! In your prayer and that of the community in which you participate, place the intention for peace in Mozambique. This war needs to be denounced. We need your support to continue humanitarian action.

Fr. Edegard Silva Júnior, ms

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