YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A recent surge in violence in Cabo Delgado, a city in northern Mozambique, has escalated the humanitarian crisis, displacing over 100,000 residents.

The spate of violence from February 8 to March 3 has led to the disappearance of at least seventy children. These children are feared to have either perished in a river or been abducted by the insurgents, as reported by the Protection Working Group—a coalition of NGOs and UN agencies.

In the wake of these events, over 30 families now taking refuge in the southern province of Nampula have implored the police for assistance in finding their missing children.

These recent onslaughts have extended to regions previously untouched by the conflict, signaling a potential shift in the jihadist insurgency that began in 2017. Aid organizations suggest this could represent a new phase in the conflict, which has already driven more than a million people from their homes and resulted in thousands of deaths.

The insurgents have claimed responsibility for 27 attacks in the month of February alone. These attacks have led to the deaths of at least 70 individuals and the destruction of 500 churches, alongside numerous homes and public buildings within the Chiúre district.

“It is a catastrophe,” said Johan Viljoen, the Director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute, DHPI, of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference.

He told the story of Eduarte Cristiano Tumbati and his family who fled their home in terror, taking only a few kitchen utensils when they abandoned the village of Ntoli, in Cabo Delgado.

“Tumbati, 38, his wife and three children travelled five hours on foot to the safety of a displacement camp after extremist militants attacked Ntoli and murdered Tumbati’s brother,” he wrote in an article.

“My brother and his wife were in their cassava field when the insurgents showed up,” Tumbati told UNHCR.

“They cooked food and, after eating, they told his wife to see what they were going to do to him. They beheaded him and told his wife to disappear. She ran home and told us what had happened. We did not return to our village, and we did not bury my brother,” he said.

Such traumatizing experiences run deep in times of crisis, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

“Displaced people often have been highly traumatized by the violence,” says Esperança Chinhanja, MSF psychologist in Macomia, one of the most affected districts of Cabo Delgado.

“Some people experience anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia and isolation. Some share that they have lost the meaning of life and mention suicidal thoughts,” Chinhanja said.

Even as the needs continue to mount, a funding shortfall means thousands of IDPs will not be able to get the help they need, according to Viljoen.

“At the beginning of the year UNHCR announced to its implementing partners (including Caritas Nampula) that they do not have funds to provide humanitarian support to anyone in Mozambique,” the DHPI director told Crux.

“The addition of 100,000 more displaced people is a disaster, if even the existing number of IDP’s cannot be provided with any form of support. We are facing disease and starvation,” he said.

Timber smuggling funding insurgents

Authorities in Mozambique have suggested that the insurgents might be using proceeds from smuggled timber to fuel their murderous campaign. It is estimated that timber smuggling in Cabo Delgado earns smugglers 125 million meticais ($1.9 million) a month. Such money in the hands of rebels could be behind the rise in armed attacks, according to the authorities.

“Mozambique is a country with a vast forest cover of around 31,693,872 hectares, of which 25 percent are environmental conservation areas, with a great diversity of fauna and flora,” reads the National Terrorist Financing Risk Assessment Report.

“In this sense, the sector is vulnerable to criminal activities that can easily be associated with terrorist financing. Illegally exploited resources have a high commercial value, with the biggest clients coming from Asia, driven by commercial appetites in search of raw materials. However, although there is no record of their direct links to terrorism, the fact that the smuggling of timber and other forest products takes place in areas with an active terrorist threat suggests that this activity has been a source of income for terrorists, since it is estimated that timber smuggling in Cabo Delgado is earning smugglers around 125 million meticais a month,” the report adds.

The report further talks about “a very high number of suspicious activities that have been reported in the last three years,” some of which “are associated with terrorist financing, as they occurred in areas with an active terrorist threat.”

It also identifies that the activity of cutting down forest and wildlife resources involves national and foreign citizens, “as intermediaries and agents, recruited by terrorists.”

Viljoen disputes these claims, arguing that the account is a diversionary tactic to take focus from the root causes and real actors involved in the violence.

“I have personally seen vast swathes of indigenous forest disappearing,” he said.

“However, it should be remembered that illegal timber logging happens everywhere in Mozambique, not just in the conflict zones in the north. It might be so that timber is being sold by insurgents to traders in areas that are controlled by them,” he continued.

“However, these areas are not very big, and do not have enough trees to account for the funding of the insurgency. Claiming that illegal timber is funding the insurgency is a convenient argument – it removes the focus from the culpability of government, political elites and multinational corporations in fuelling the war, reducing it to a simplistic equation,” Viljoen told Crux.

Regional force

The recent attacks come at a time the mandates of the SADC and Rwandan forces that were deployed to the region is coming to an end, sparking fears that this could create a vacuum for further violence.

Viljoen again disputes this account, noting that these forces were never deployed to fight the insurgency, but to protect the interests of foreign multinationals.

“We should remember that both the SADC force and the Rwandan Army were used to guard mines, and the TOTAL installations at Afungi. They were not used to protect the civilian population,” Viljoen told Crux.

“That is why the insurgents have been so successful in attacks in Chiure District. There are no mines, and consequently there are no foreign military forces,” he said.

“The withdrawal of the SADC forces will not make any difference to the situation of local populations, as the SADC forces were never used to protect them in any case,” he said.