Refugee crisis brewing on South Africa's doorstep

2016-02-29 08:30
One of the refugees, Mai Liginesi who says it is better to suffer from hunger in Malawi than to be shot dead in Mozambique. (Supplied to News24)

One of the refugees, Mai Liginesi who says it is better to suffer from hunger in Malawi than to be shot dead in Mozambique. (Supplied to News24)

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Blantyre - Malawi, which once battled to shelter more than a million Mozambican refugees fleeing that country's brutal civil war, has gradually found itself in the same quagmire once again.

Unlike the huge numbers of refugees it hosted during the conflict between 1977 and 1992, Malawi is currently hosting about 6 000 Mozambicans, but the figure increases daily.

The old foes, the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) and the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo), have reignited a guerrilla war being fought without any regard for civilian welfare and human rights.

While on paper Mozambique is a peaceful nation, in some provinces like Tete, which lies on the border with Malawi, fierce gun battles are almost a nightly occurrence and civilians have not been spared.

Abductions, rape

According to some refugees who have crossed into Malawi's border district of Mwanza, remnants of Renamo are attacking police stations with the aim of stealing firearms as one way of arming themselves.

At the same time, members of the armed forces have since October last year been attacking Renamo bases in an operation aimed at completely disarming the former rebel group.

"Civilians have become casualties as government forces are burning houses of villagers suspected to be sympathisers of Renamo militants," said one elderly woman, who identified herself as Mai Liginesi.

"The troops are also killing and abducting civilians. Women are molested and raped. We had no option but to flee to cross the border."

Unfortunately for most refugees, they are fleeing from a land of flying bullets into a land ravaged by hunger, with over 2.8 million people requiring food aid in Malawi.

"Despite the challenges we are facing, we are happy to be living peacefully unlike in our country where clashes between government forces and Renamo fighters haunt us…. All we need is food.

"Because some of us don't have any food, we are sharing with our friends who have some food," Liginesi said.

A statement issued by Human Rights Watch on February 23, puts the number of Mozambicans who have crossed into Malawi at 6 000.

The statement urges Maputo to probe allegations of summary executions, sexual abuse, and ill-treatment perpetrated by its armed forces on innocent civilians in Tete Province.

Many women refugees at Kapise Camp in the border district of Mwanza have corroborated the Human Right Watch statement that Mozambican troops are committing human rights violations and abuses.

Refugees are living in makeshift grass-huts in Southern Malawi’s border district of Mwanza. (Supplied to News24)

'Better to die of starvation than to be butchered'

"To some of us, it is better to die of starvation in a peaceful Malawi than to be butchered by cruel soldiers in our motherland," said another female refugee at Kasipe Camp.

"Some of us witnessed the barbaric slaughter of our husbands and sons who were accused of being Renamo sympathisers. Some heartless soldiers burnt down our houses and granaries.

"We cannot go back to Mozambique where government soldiers who are supposed to protect us end up torturing us," she said.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malawi has confirmed the upsurge of Mozambicans fleeing the war in their country.

A UNHCR report titled "Inter Agency Operational Update - Malawi" issued this month indicated that the number of Mozambican nationals seeking asylum has increased by 778.5% from 700 to 5 450.

Because of the food crisis Malawi is facing, the government has been reluctant to host asylum seekers from Mozambique.

Malawi's Secretary for Home Affairs and Internal Security Beston Chisamire said the government would like to have the Mozambican refugees repatriated to their home country. But UNHCR has warned Malawi to respect the right of refugees.

Camp supervisors say despite reluctance by Malawi to host Mozambican refugees, they are still registering almost 40 refugees a day.

Mwanza District Commissioner Gift Rapozo said in an interview that his office together with their Mozambican counterparts has been holding discussions with the refugees assuring them of safety back home, but they have refused to go back.

"Those of us in Malawi and our counterparts in Mozambique have failed to convince the asylum seekers to return to their home country. Most of them are still afraid to go back to Mozambique at this point in time," Rapozo said.

Renamo leader vows to seize power

Meanwhile, armed attacks and counter-attacks continue in Mozambique where recently Renamo gunmen injured several police officers in an ambush along a road running between Chimoio and Tete.

The attacks continue as Renamo leader Alfonso Dhlakama, currently living in the bush, has vowed to seize power in six provinces in Mozambique from next month.

"I am organising myself to seize power in my target provinces of Manica, Sofala, Tete, Zambezia, Nampula and Niassa," said Dhlakama in an interview with Canal de Mocambique weekly.

The provinces he wants to control are where Renamo received a majority of votes in the presidential elections held in October 2014.

Dhlakama’s outbursts began after the government shot down his proposal of a unity government, which would have seen him appointed second Vice President.

Government later rejected his political demands that Renamo should appoint governors in the provinces where he received the majority of the votes. On its part, Dhlakama rebuffed government's proposal to disarm Renamo's residual rebel forces.

Read more on:    frelimo  |  renamo  |  mozambique  |  malawi  |  drought  |  southern africa  |  refugees

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