More than five years of war between insurgents and security forces led one million people to leave their farms and villages in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province.
Many of them have been counting on humanitarian aid provided by international organizations and the Church, but now most of the relief funds were cut, and famine is increasing.
Waging attacks against civilians and the military since 2017, the rebel group – known as Ansar al-Sunna – is said to have connections with the the Islamic State. It has taken over entire villages and cities; destroyed public buildings, churches, and mosques; and committed hundreds of murders.
Most of the people displaced in Cabo Delgado moved to the southern part of the region and to neighboring provinces, finding shelter with relatives and friends in cities like Pemba, Cabo Delgado’s capital, or in refugee camps in the countryside.
The growing scarcity of food kits over the past months have forced groups of displaced people to go back to their homes, where the danger from Ansar al-Sunna is still present.
“At the end of 2022, the World Food Program began to reduce the volume of donations. In February, the agency officially announced it would have to cease assisting the displaced,” said Manuel Nota, who heads Pemba’s diocesan Caritas.
The decrease in donations to the relief organizations operating in Cabo Delgado stems from many factors, said Brazilian-born Father José Eduardo Paixão, who heads the church’s radio station in Pemba.
“One of them is the Ukrainian crisis, which has been drawing more international attention than the conflict here. Organizations that had been investing in Mozambique are now focusing there,” he told Crux.
The Church, Paixão said, tries to keep helping the neediest among the refugees, but it has not been possible anymore. According to Manuel Nota, Caritas was running ten donation programs last year, and now there are only three.
“Our ability to intervene has drastically fallen,” he said.
To make things worse, this part of the year is usually marked by hunger, when the food stocks are low, and the new crops are not ready for harvest, explained Paixão.
“Over the past three years, the displaced people were not able to regularly produce food. Rains have been irregular. That is why famine is now severe,” he said.
Nota added that many people who decided to return to their lands were not able to plant, because they arrived there after the rainy season.
Malnutrition has been intensifying the effects of malaria, which became endemic among displaced people in some areas.
Besides donating food, the Church has been supporting the resumption of agriculture by distributing seeds and sharing best practices with small farmers.
That is the case of a project led by Brazilian-born Father Edegard Silva Junior in Metuge. Named Our Xima (a kind of porridge made with corn flour, which is the most common dish in Mozambique), the initiative is supported by the Brazilian bishops.
Corn seeds are distributed to groups of displaced people, who donate part of their crop back to the Church – which then gives it to children. More than 500 families have benefitted.
“But maize is still growing and maturing. Even in the markets products are now scarce,” Silva told Crux.
Manuel Nota says that hunger will be reduced within a month and a half, when the harvest begins. But the Church keeps looking for donors in order to keep its programs running and help the displaced people to face the current crisis.
“Thankfully, we were informed that the WFP will be able to partially resume donations later this month,” he said.
Until relief arrives, the people who opted to return to the war districts – usually groups of men who left their wives and kids in the camps – are gradually “getting used to the risk of attacks,” said Paixão.
“A couple of weeks ago, two members of my former community were killed. The attacks are not so powerful as they used to be, but violence continues,” he said.
The security forces – the Mozambican Army has been reinforced with troops from neighboring nations – have been successfully combating the insurgents, and the frequency of attacks is falling, Nota said. Hunger is apparently affecting the rebels as well.
“We heard that they have been facing difficulties to get food, so many of them are preferring to surrender,” he said.