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Fear of recruitment in Cabo Delgado resettlement centres not matched by reality

Instead of focusing on resettlement centres, insurgents continue to recruit in places they attack -- but that may change in the future as the insurgency requires more manpower

This article is excerpted from the Cabo Ligado monthly report looking back at May 2021, published on 15 June 2021

Concerns about insurgent infiltration among displaced populations in Cabo Delgado have grown considerably since the 24 March attack on Palma. Displaced people fleeing Palma by boat expressed concern that insurgents had traveled with them, leading the government to institute draconian security measures as they docked at Paquitequete beach in Pemba City. There were cases in which government forces kept boats carrying IDPs waiting to dock for up to 11 hours while conducting security checks that largely consisted of inspecting passengers’ luggage. Suspicions of insurgent infiltration were also noted in Quitunda, where the government made it difficult to evacuate people held there for fear of the presence of insurgents among the population.

Since then, the authorities have started to ask for greater vigilance from the population in monitoring potential insurgent activity, especially in places with a greater influx of displaced people such as IDP centres. Reports of insurgent activity in IDP centres are infrequent, and rarely verified. In May, Cabo Ligado reported an incident in which a woman working on her farm near a resettlement centre in Metuge district claimed to have seen insurgents in the area, which led to the massive flight of displaced people from the centre. The claim turned out to be false, but the fear driving the response to it was real. Some volunteers working in IDP centres reported cases where people suspected of being insurgents caused unrest. The individuals concerned were reported to the authorities, but little was done in terms of investigating these cases. The close quarters of the resettlement centres increases reporting of perceived insurgent activity, as there is little privacy and any suspicious behaviour can be seen by many.

If insurgents are to expand their areas of control, as well as consolidate areas in their possession, they need to increase their capacity and group size through recruitment. With most villages attacked by insurgents  deserted or unpopulated, IDP centres appear at first glance to be enticing sites for recruitment as they host large numbers of vulnerable people. However, there is a huge gender imbalance at the IDP centres that would make these places unappealing to insurgents. According to an IOM report, of the more than 60,000 people displaced by the Palma attack who are in shelters, 31% are women, 41% are children and only 26% are men. Although there is a growing tendency to recruit children, insurgents recruit mostly young adults, mainly males.

Women in resettlement centres have their own views on the origins of this gender imbalance, according to a recent study published by the Mozambican think tank the Rural Environment Observatory (OMR). Some women in resettlement centres whose husbands are not with them believe that they were either killed, detained, or linked to the insurgency. There are two main reasons why men stay behind when their wives move to resettlement centres. The first is that they are afraid of being mistaken for insurgents by the authorities. Several individuals have been detained and tortured by the authorities, and later found not guilty for lack of evidence. Others simply never reappeared. The second reason is the fear of falling into the hands of the insurgent group. Insurgents have often captured civilians fleeing violence both on land and at sea. With the journey so treacherous for men who are ripe for recruitment, some families prefer to just send women and children to IDP centres.

Some suggest that a number of women in resettlement centres secretly have relatives in the insurgency. Behaviors like talking frequently on the phone or spending money profligately drive suspicions of insurgent connections. If there is recruitment in resettlement centres, it is likely done by family members or insurgent contacts among the IDPs.

Instead of focusing on resettlement centres, insurgents continue to recruit in places they attack. Most recruitments remain forced because captured civilians know that if they do not join the insurgency, they might be killed. During a recent attack on Pangane, insurgents captured several 15- to 16-year-old children. However, many others went voluntarily. The insurgents have mechanisms for turning those recruits into fighters -- former insurgent captives have reported that the group is carrying on military training in their camps. In the future, insurgents will require more manpower. With people fleeing towns and villages, they will probably look into recruitment at resettlement centres. However, recruitment there will not be easy due to the growing level of vigilance in the centres.