Palma – As jihadist fighters advanced in northern Mozambique, Henriques Laba saw only one route of escape.
“We fled into the bush,” said Laba, head of the village of Mute.
“We ate what we could – monkeys, elephants.”
Laba survived a jihadist offensive last year that ultimately was crushed, yet even today leaves the region deeply in shock.
In March 2021, fighters affiliated to the Islamic State group attacked the port city of Palma – the jewel in the crown of a gas project that would supposedly shower Cabo Delgado province with good jobs and desperately-needed infrastructure.
Dozens of people were killed and tens of thousands fled their homes, some of them, like Laba, seeking shelter in the countryside and foraging for wild animals.
The attack marked a turning point in a five-year Islamist insurgency, prompting the deployment of Rwandan forces and troops from other African countries several months later.
The security forces have since regained control of much of the territory, but Palma’s administrative centre is all but in ruins and most Western-led projects to exploit the gas – the largest deposits south of the Sahara – have been placed on indefinite hold.
Illiteracy and jihad
The suffering in poor, remote and still-insecure Cabo Delgado has remained outside most of the world’s vision.
But among local people, why and how their region became embroiled in an Islamist uprising is a source of anguish and debate.
“Some people think the issue is poverty, while the government blames foreigners who came and beguiled young people,” explained Jonas Alvaro Jose, one of the few teachers to have returned to Palma district since the jihadists were ousted last year.
Only two schools are currently open in the area.
“It’s easier to manipulate and recruit young people for little money if most are left without education and have only their religious beliefs to hold on to,” said Jose.
Cabo Delgado has the highest illiteracy rate in Mozambique – one of the world’s poorest countries. Around two in three people are unable to read or write, according to US development agency USAID.
“No youth from my village has joined the bandits,” said Laba. “But they recruit mainly Mozambicans, so I believe what leads them to join their ranks is poverty.
“I hope the government will take efforts to prevent this happening.”
The province is the only part of Mozambique with a Muslim majority.
The capital, Maputo, is more than 2 000 kilometres (1 240 miles) away.
“The government has significantly increased its budget for the northern provinces, which demonstrates that there is an awareness of the issue,” said Mirko Manzoni, the UN’s special envoy to Mozambique.
But lack of information on the inner workings of the jihadist group – known locally as al-Shabab, though it has no links to the Somali militants of a similar name – hampers the battle for young minds, he added.
“We must weaken their ability to recruit, and this is not only a question of economic opportunities.”
Little food, little hope
Violence has subdued in the months since foreign troops were deployed in support of the Mozambican army.
But sporadic attacks continue and the jihadists have started to stage incursions further south.
In Olumbi, a village a few dozen kilometres (around 20 miles) from Palma, most houses have been razed to the ground. The settlement is mostly Muslim but the attackers made no distinctions.
“What happened to me has also happened to my neighbours,” said Najum Ntete, a trader who lost his home and several members of his family.
“We lack food and can’t make ends meet,” said Ntete.
Humanitarian assistance has been slow in coming, as roads are still under threat from the insurgents.
To some, foreign forces are the only lifeline.
“If the Rwandans leave, I’m leaving too,” said Markito, a local resident who gave only his first name, repeating a refrain often heard across the province.