OPINION | Focus on fighting 'terrorists' ignores real humanitarian needs in Cabo Delgado

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Families wait outside the port of Pemba on 1 April 2021 for the boat of evacuees from the coasts of Palma, Mozambique.
Families wait outside the port of Pemba on 1 April 2021 for the boat of evacuees from the coasts of Palma, Mozambique.
Alfredo Zuniga / AFP

Jonathan Whittall writes about his concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province, which hasn't been helped by the United States classifying the armed group operating in the area as a "terror" organisation.

Three significant developments took place in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province in less than six weeks, all of which will have a significant future impact on human lives.

First, in mid-March, the United States government designated an armed opposition group operating in Cabo Delgado as a "terrorist" organisation and sent military advisors to train the Mozambique army in counter-terrorism measures.

A fortnight later, the town of Palma – close to a multi-billion-dollar gas project run by the French company Total – was attacked by an armed group in a high-profile and brutal assault that killed and displaced a still unknown number of people. And in early April, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries "condemned the terrorist attacks in strongest terms; and affirmed that such heinous attacks could not be allowed to continue without a proportionate regional response".

SADC deployed a "technical mission" to Mozambique that will soon announce its findings, which could include a regional military deployment.

Little political attention

Much of this recent attention on Cabo Delgado was fuelled by claims of the opposition group's link to the Islamic State (IS) and the killing of foreigners in the attack on Palma. While the conflict has been going on since 2017, it has received very little political attention from regional governments or international actors – except those interested in Mozambique's gas reserves or private military contracts.

Much less attention has been given to the growing number of displaced people – now more than 700 000 – and the province's critical humanitarian crisis.

Cabo Delgado might not be a forgotten conflict, but it certainly is a neglected humanitarian crisis. And now, with the attention from the SADC region and the Mozambican government's international backers fixed almost exclusively on "fighting terrorism", the solutions being proposed may once again overlook the urgent need to save lives and alleviate the suffering of scores of conflict-affected communities.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled violence and insecurity, and they have ended up living in overcrowded camps or being hosted by local communities with already limited resources. People have experienced significant trauma: a decapitated husband, a kidnapped wife, a son or daughter from whom they have no news. Many walk for days to find safety after hiding in the bush, often without food and water. Others remain in locations where humanitarian actors cannot reach because of the ongoing insecurity.

READ | Menzi Ndhlovu: Palma insurrection: A blight on Mozambique's economy

While the reasons for this conflict might be multifaceted and complex, the consequences of the violence are elementary: fear, insecurity and a lack of access to the basic needs for survival, including food, water, shelter and urgent healthcare.

Meanwhile, significant restrictions are placed on the scale-up of the humanitarian response due to the ongoing insecurity and the bureaucratic hurdles impeding the importation of certain supplies and the issuing of visas for additional humanitarian workers.

Having recently returned from Cabo Delgado, I have seen first-hand how the scale of the humanitarian response in no way matches the scale of the needs.

Scaling up of counter-terrorism operation

What seems set to be scaled up is the regionally supported and internationally funded counter-terrorism operation that could further impact an already vulnerable population.

In many conflicts, from Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan, I have seen how counter-terrorism operations can generate additional humanitarian needs while limiting the ability of humanitarian workers to respond.

Firstly, by designating groups as "terrorists", we often see that the groups in question are pushed further underground – making dialogue with them for humanitarian access more complex. While states can claim they "don't negotiate with terrorists", humanitarian workers are compelled to provide humanitarian aid impartially and to negotiate with any group that controls territory or that can harm our patients and staff.

Many aid organisations shy away from this in places where a group has been designated as "terrorists" out of fear of falling foul of counter-terrorism legislation.

For Doctors Without Borders (MSF), successfully providing impartial medical care requires reserving a space for dialogue and building trust in the fact that our presence in a conflict is for the sole purpose of saving lives and alleviating suffering.

READ | Timothy Walker: Mozambique attacks: The region cannot remain 'seablind'

Yet, counter-terrorism operations try to bring humanitarian activities under the complete control of the state and the military coalitions that support them. Aid is denied, facilitated or provided to boost the government's credibility, win hearts and minds for the military intervening, or punish communities accused of sympathising with an opposition group.

The most vulnerable can often fall through the cracks of such an approach, which is why organisations like MSF need to work independently. The problem for humanitarian workers with being aligned with a state and its military backers is that states and those affiliated with them are clear targets of armed opposition groups. Being aligned to a state that is fighting a counter-terrorism war can reduce our ability to reach the most vulnerable communities to offer medical care.

Trapped communities

At MSF, we know this can come at a time when we are needed the most.

In counter-terrorism wars around the world, we often see civilian casualties being justified due to the presence of "terrorists" among a civilian population. Entire communities can be considered "hostile", leading to a loosening of the rules of engagement for combat forces. In these situations, we have often seen hospitals destroyed and entire villages razed to the ground in attacks that fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets.

Communities are often trapped between indiscriminate violence by armed groups and the counter-terrorism response from the state.

The current focus on "terrorism" clearly serves the political and economic interests of those intervening in Mozambique. However, it must not come at the expense of saving lives and alleviating the immense suffering facing the people of Cabo Delgado.

- Jonathan Whittall is based in Johannesburg and is the director of the Analysis Department at Doctors Without Borders (MSF)

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