Mass flight over reported army abuses in Mozambique: Rights group
Feb 24, Johannesburg: Mozambique’s government should urgently investigate alleged summary executions, sexual abuse, and ill-treatment by its armed forces in Tete province. At least 6,000 people have fled to Malawi since army operations began in October 2015, to disarm militias linked to Mozambique’s main opposition party, the Mozambique National Resistance, or RENAMO.
Several dozen asylum seekers at the makeshift Kapise camp in Malawi told HRW in mid-February 2016 that they fled army abuses and fear returning home. They described seeing soldiers in uniform, and some driving army vehicles summarily execute their husbands and other villagers, or tie them up and take them away to undisclosed locations. In many of cases, soldiers torched homes, granaries, and cornfields, accusing local residents of feeding and supporting the militias.
Tensions have increased between the governing party, the Mozambique Liberation Front, or FRELIMO, and the opposition RENAMO, since FRELIMO won elections in October 2014. Earlier, RENAMO had begun a low-level insurgency, two decades after the country’s devastating civil war. There was a new peace agreement in 2014, but RENAMO says the government has failed to integrate its rebel soldiers into the army and police in accordance with the agreement. The government says RENAMO has refused to hand over a list of its militia to be integrated into the national army. Tete province is a RENAMO stronghold with significant coal reserves that borders Malawi.
HRW also received credible reports of sexual violence and abuse, although women and girls were often reluctant to talk about what had happened to them out of fear of stigma. A 19-year-old pregnant woman from the village of Madzibawe said that she had encountered two soldiers on her way to market in October. The soldiers ordered her to lie down, lift up her skirt, and spread her legs apart. One soldier used a stick to touch her genitalia and breasts, ordering her to tell him the name of each part. The soldiers then let her get up, kicked her on the back, and told her to go. She later fled to Malawi, spending more than a month in the bush to reach safety.
On February 18, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, reported that over 6,000 asylum seekers, mostly women and children, had been registered in Malawi since mid-December. The majority are housed in a makeshift camp in Kapise, Mwanza district, 300 meters from the border with Mozambique. The crowded camp is difficult to reach and at the time of a Human Rights Watch visit, there were only two borehole wells and four pit latrines to serve the growing numbers of residents. The camp had no school facilities.
The Malawian government has not registered the new arrivals as asylum seekers, nor alleviated the camp conditions. Instead, officials have made it clear they want the residents to return home. A senior official in the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security, Beston Chisamire, told Human Rights Watch: “We have verified that the refugees are coming from Mozambique’s Moatize district in Tete province. We have no intention to open a camp for them. Instead, our focus is on their repatriation.”
In its statement on February 18, UNHCR urged both Mozambique and Malawi to respect the right of the new arrivals to seek asylum and raised concerns about pressure on them to return home. Mozambican government officials have visited Kapise at least three times since mid-January to speak to the asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers who spoke to HRW said they do not want to go back to Mozambique because they fear violence and harassment from government soldiers. They dismissed claims by the Mozambique government delegations that it was safe to return. “Why would I leave my home, my fields, and my property to come and live in this overcrowded camp if it was safe to be in Mozambique,” one elderly woman said.
In January, the Mozambique government denied that the new arrivals in Malawi were refugees from Mozambique, claiming instead they were farmers who regularly cross the border. On February 17, the spokesman for the Mozambican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Antonio Matonse, told Human Rights Watch that following a high-level government visit to Tete province and the Kapise camp, the government concluded that “military tension, sporadic clashes and severe drought” may have caused people to flee.
The Oslo Times/HRW