Johannesburg — Mozambique's government should urgently investigate alleged summary executions, sexual abuse, and ill-treatment by its armed forces in Tete province. At least 6,000 people have fled to Malawi since army operations began in October 2015, to disarm militias linked to Mozambique's main opposition party, the Mozambique National Resistance, or RENAMO.
Several dozen asylum seekers at the makeshift Kapise camp in Malawi told Human Rights Watch in mid-February 2016 that they fled army abuses and fear returning home. They described seeing soldiers in uniform, and some driving army vehicles summarily execute their husbands and other villagers, or tie them up and take them away to undisclosed locations. In many of cases, soldiers torched homes, granaries, and cornfields, accusing local residents of feeding and supporting the militias.
"The Mozambique army cannot use the excuse of disarming RENAMO militias to commit abuses against them or local residents," said Zenaida Machado, Mozambique researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The government should urgently launch an investigation into reports of abuses and ensure any disarmament operation is carried out lawfully."
Tensions have increased between the governing party, the Mozambique Liberation Front, or FRELIMO, and the opposition RENAMO, since FRELIMO won elections in October 2014. Earlier, RENAMO had begun a low-level insurgency, two decades after the country's devastating civil war. There was a new peace agreement in 2014, but RENAMO says the government has failed to integrate its rebel soldiers into the army and police in accordance with the agreement. The government says RENAMO has refused to hand over a list of its militia to be integrated into the national army. Tete province is a RENAMO stronghold with significant coal reserves that borders Malawi.
A 20-year-old woman from the village of Ndande said that on February 7, five government soldiers accused her family of feeding the RENAMO militia. The soldiers grabbed her husband and one hit him on the head with the butt of his gun, causing bleeding, she said. Soon after, she heard gunshots and saw the soldiers firing point-blank at her husband. She fled with her two children and hid by the nearby Mpandwe River, then walked across the border to Malawi that night.
A 22-year-old woman from Ndande said she saw soldiers detain her husband. When she later found his clothes near where he was captured, she believed he had been killed. "My relatives told me to keep his clothes with me because he might be still around," she said. "But when I call his phone, it goes unanswered." She fled to Malawi with her children.
A 33-year-old man said soldiers detained him on February 5 for several hours in Ncondezi, Moatize district, and repeatedly hit him with a sjambok, a heavy leather whip, accusing him of being a thief and a RENAMO militia member. He later escaped and crossed the border into Malawi. In the village of Madzibawe, in December 2015, soldiers arrested a man they accused of being a RENAMO militia member, put a rope around his neck and cut his head with a large knife, seriously injuring him, a witness said.
A 74-year-old man from Ndande who had been a refugee in Malawi during Mozambique's civil war, which ended in 1992, said: "Now that there is fighting again, you cannot buy life, so we decided to run back to safety in Malawi. ... Last month I came here with just the clothes I am wearing. The government soldiers burned down my house and all my property. The soldiers also burned down several other houses and cornfields in my village."
Human Rights Watch also received credible reports of sexual violence and abuse, although women and girls were often reluctant to talk about what had happened to them out of fear of stigma. A 19-year-old pregnant woman from the village of Madzibawe said that she had encountered two soldiers on her way to market in October. The soldiers ordered her to lie down, lift up her skirt, and spread her legs apart. One soldier used a stick to touch her genitalia and breasts, ordering her to tell him the name of each part. The soldiers then let her get up, kicked her on the back, and told her to go. She later fled to Malawi, spending more than a month in the bush to reach safety.
On February 18, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, reported that over 6,000 asylum seekers, mostly women and children, had been registered in Malawi since mid-December. The majority are housed in a makeshift camp in Kapise, Mwanza district, 300 meters from the border with Mozambique. The crowded camp is difficult to reach and at the time of a Human Rights Watch visit, there were only two borehole wells and four pit latrines to serve the growing numbers of residents. The camp had no school facilities.
The Malawian government has not registered the new arrivals as asylum seekers, nor alleviated the camp conditions. Instead, officials have made it clear they want the residents to return home. A senior official in the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security, Beston Chisamire, told Human Rights Watch: "We have verified that the refugees are coming from Mozambique's Moatize district in Tete province. We have no intention to open a camp for them. Instead, our focus is on their repatriation."
In its statement on February 18, UNHCR urged both Mozambique and Malawi to respect the right of the new arrivals to seek asylum and raised concerns about pressure on them to return home. Mozambican government officials have visited Kapise at least three times since mid-January to speak to the asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they do not want to go back to Mozambique because they fear violence and harassment from government soldiers. They dismissed claims by the Mozambique government delegations that it was safe to return. "Why would I leave my home, my fields, and my property to come and live in this overcrowded camp if it was safe to be in Mozambique," one elderly woman said.
In January, the Mozambique government denied that the new arrivals in Malawi were refugees from Mozambique, claiming instead they were farmers who regularly cross the border. On February 17, the spokesman for the Mozambican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Antonio Matonse, told Human Rights Watch that following a high-level government visit to Tete province and the Kapise camp, the government concluded that "military tension, sporadic clashes and severe drought" may have caused people to flee.
"Malawi's government should promptly allow asylum seekers to lodge protection claims and should facilitate emergency aid in a functioning and safe refugee camp," said Dewa Mavhinga, senior southern Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The governments of Mozambique and Malawi shouldn't try to send people home without first ensuring that they will be safe."