Survivor recounts terrifying escape from Islamists in Mozambique

Many more are still unaccounted for.

Andre is a foreign contractor who doesn’t want his real name disclosed for fear of repercussions. The memories of his three-day ordeal are etched on his mind.

He and his team had been working at the huge complex run by French oil company Total a few miles north of Palma.

It was early afternoon and he had just finished taking a shower at the Amarula Hotel when he first heard gunfire. The hotel is just one of a handful in the area and popular with contractors.

Palma was under attack from three directions by Islamist militants known locally as Shabaab — or the youth.

Shabaab has carried on a brutal campaign in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado for four years, but until now almost all of its attacks have been against villages, the province’s Christian population and the security forces.

Things started to unravel quickly as other foreigners who lived or were staying in Palma began arriving at the hotel, looking for shelter.

Shortly after, the militants destroyed a local cell tower and communications went down.

Internally displaced people arrive in Pemba by boat on April 1, 2021, from the coasts of Palma.

Desperate calls for help

Inside the hotel, guests and staff did what they could to avoid drawing the insurgents to the hotel. All services, including food preparation, were suspended and electricity was cut off to reduce the noise.

“We spent the entire afternoon trying to get help,” Andre says. Some guests who had satellite phones called anyone they could. But with the local military quickly overrun and no help materializing from the Total complex, dozens of foreigners and Mozambicans began hunkering down — and praying they’d survive the night.

“We spent the night under heavy fire,” he recalls.

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Audio and video obtained by CNN from someone at the hotel tells of a frightening scene, with loud bursts of gunfire splitting the night.

The next morning, the first helicopters began hovering over Palma, some shooting at insurgents and others plucking a few to safety.

The helicopters belonged to a South African military contractor, the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG).

“Some DAG helicopters came and attacked insurgent positions, who were close to the hotel,” Andre says.

DAG CEO Lionel Dyck told CNN in an interview on Tuesday that his men became aware of people holed up in the hotel as they were “flying around Palma looking for terrorists.”

“One of my pilots in the afternoon landed at the hotel inside the grounds and told them he would take people out,” Dyck said.

“One helicopter did four trips, rescuing six people per trip, 24 in total,” Andre says. “We selected people with disabilities, diseases, the eldest, and had them go first.”

But dozens were left behind — under siege.

Andre, who is in his 50s, was one of the next group of six due to be rescued. But he says the DAG choppers didn’t return that day.

“The last helicopter left at 14h30, at 15h30, we realized they were not coming back,” he says. “We kept calling but on the other side we were told that the helicopters had gone off to refuel.”

An internally displaced man gestures as he arrives in Pemba on April 1, 2021.

‘Bullets flying overhead’

In his interview with CNN, Dyck explained that daylight was the main issue. “[My pilot] took 20 or 22 people out,” he said. “Then it was too dark, and we had to get out.”

Dyck says his crews were still conducting their flights into Palma and rescuing civilians nearly a week after the insurgents first arrived.

Andre faced another night not knowing whether the terrorists would overrun the hotel.

“All this time bullets were flying overhead, hitting trees, we could hear explosions nearby, there was real panic,” he says. “It was even more chaotic when we realized we would have to spend another night at the hotel.”

British contractor Philip Mawer is presumed dead, his family says.

Food was running low and there was no sign of the Mozambican army or police.

“We tried to get help at any cost, each of us calling their contacts, whomever they may be, but on the other end of the line everyone was unavailable to help,” Andre says. “It was horrible.

“We heard their cries of Allah-Akbar (“God is great,” in Arabic) all night. All night,” he says. “But we managed to get through it; and the next morning everyone was alive.”

He still doesn’t understand why the insurgents didn’t attack the hotel.

“We weren’t killed because they didn’t want to kill us,” he says — and wonders whether the insurgents had been told to hold back. “They were inside the hotel, they could have shot us if they wanted to,” he says.

Families wait outside the port of Pemba on April 1 for a boat carrying evacuees from the coasts of Palma to arrive.

A terrifying escape

Early on Friday, Andre and the remaining guests began to think of ways to escape. “We debated whether to stand still, waiting for them to attack us and slaughter us like lambs or if we should make a run for it.

“Around 11.00 am the helicopters returned and we thought the evacuation was going to resume, but we figured that the helicopters had returned to carry out more strikes,” Andre says.

“We realized we couldn’t stay there.”

A convoy of 17 vehicles was assembled.

“The first car of the column was an armored vehicle and in that car we put all the women and children and it was the car that was leading the convoy,” Andre explained. “Immediately behind that car was me.”

Andre prepared his pick-up. Some 25 people crammed into it, some clinging to the top of the vehicle.

Internally displaced people arrive in Pemba on April 1, 2021, from the boat of evacuees from the coasts of Palma.

By mid-afternoon, the convoy made a dash for safety, heading north towards Tanzania.

“There was no immediate fire when we left the hotel, I think they were caught by surprise, they didn’t expect us to leave in those conditions.”

But minutes later, the convoy ran into an ambush.

“The gunfire started when we got onto the dirt road,” Andre says. “One kilometer later, I felt bursts grazing the top of the pick-up, fortunately they didn’t hit me.

“Another 500 meters and the armored car gets hit by a bazooka. It wobbled a little but still managed to carry on,” Andre adds.

Then he was hit — a bullet penetrating the car door and hitting his leg.

“There was blood everywhere,” he says, his voice quivering. “I asked the person next to me to hold on to the steering wheel and I still managed to drive another three kilometers with just one leg.”

Along the way they saw corpses in the middle of the road. “I didn’t count them, but there were many.”

People evacuated from Palma arrive on an humanitarian flight at the airport in Pemba on March 31.

‘My leg was destroyed’

Andre and the rest of the convoy drove north until they reached a fishing village close to the Tanzanian border, only stopping when Andre nearly fainted due to the loss of blood.

“My leg was destroyed,” he says.

It was only when they reached the beach that the group realized many of the vehicles hadn’t made it.

“Of the 15 cars, only eight made it onto the beach. The others fell behind,” Andre explained.

Many of the occupants of the convoy are still unaccounted for — one week later.

Mozambique’s Defense and Security Forces (FDS) responding to the attacks said it regretted the deaths of “a group of citizens who rushed into a vehicle convoy to leave the hotel.”

Dyck says they told people sheltering in the hotel that they would be there the next morning, but the occupants decided to make a dash for it.

“They decided not to wait — maybe they had better information, but we knew the terrorists were outside and we had shot at a number of them and they were engaging us from outside.”

The group was eventually picked up by small boats, which took them south to Afungi — and Andre was later airlifted to a hospital in South Africa.

He faces more surgery and a long rehabilitation. Despite his ordeal, Andre plans to go back to Mozambique.

“Mozambique is a beautiful country. The problem, like in many other places around the globe, is everything else.”

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