Luisa Jose, a 52-year-old mother of five, said that she came face-to-face with Islamic State-linked insurgents when they attacked the town of Palma in northern Mozambique 10 days ago.
“I was running to save my life... They were coming from every street,” she told reporters from a stadium in the city of Pemba that is housing some of the thousands who fled the violence.
“I saw them with bazookas,” she added. “They wore uniforms with red scarves ... tied to their heads.”
Jose said that the militants quickly overran her hometown of Palma, next to huge gas projects worth US$60 billion.
Aid workers believe tens of thousands of people fled the assault, which began on March 24.
However, only 9,900 of those displaced had been registered in Pemba and other parts of Cabo Delgado province, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
Many could still be hiding in the surrounding forest, Doctors Without Borders said, while those who emerged have recounted seeing bodies of others who died of hunger or dehydration along the way.
Some were also killed by crocodiles or perished in deep mud, said a contractor, whose employee witnessed both.
Most communications to Palma were cut when the attack began, and it has not been possible to independently verify witnesses’ accounts.
A Mozambican Ministry of Defense spokesman declined to comment on Saturday, while calls to the national police went unanswered.
The province of Cabo Delgado, where Palma is located, has been home since 2017 to a simmering Islamist insurgency now linked to the Islamic State group.
Clashes between the militants and government forces around Palma continued as recently as on Friday, security sources said.
South Africa on Saturday said that Mozambique’s neighbors would meet next week to discuss the insurgency.
The Mozambican government has said that dozens were killed in the attack on Palma, but that the full scale of the casualties and displacement remains unclear.
Fato Abdula Ali, 29, said that she was separated from her husband and three children in the chaos.
Nine-months pregnant, she could not keep up with other residents as they made their escape and delivered her baby son alone in the bush.
She cut the infant’s umbilical cord with a tree branch, she said, adding that the next day, she stripped herself of her blood-soaked clothes and found another group of people who took turns carrying her to safety.
“My whole body aches,” she told reporters at a hotel in Pemba.
Luisa Jose said that she spent almost five days in the bush, eating bitter cassava tubers and drinking from cloudy pools of water before making it to Quitunda, a village for people relocated by the mega gas projects led by major oil companies, including France’s Total.
From there, she said that she was evacuated by Total, but had to leave behind more than six family members, including her husband and a daughter, because there was no room on the boat.
Total on Friday pulled all of its remaining workforce from its project site near Palma, two sources with direct knowledge of site operations said, leaving it in the hands of the military.
Total declined to comment.
Jose has had no news of her family since she left them behind.
They are among thousands believed to be stranded in Quitunda, aid workers and diplomats, said.
“Are they safe? Do they have shelter? Will they come back? I don’t know,” she said.
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