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MOZAMBIQUE

Journalist confirms mass grave in Mozambique amid gov't denials

The bodies of two men found in the bush. The photo, taken by our Observer, was blurred by France 24.
The bodies of two men found in the bush. The photo, taken by our Observer, was blurred by France 24.
Text by: Maëva Poulet
6 min

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A mass grave containing several dozen bodies was discovered in rural Mozambique, in a region where tensions run high between Renamo, a political movement made up of former guerillas, and the government. Mozambican authorities have still refused to acknowledge the grisly discovery made by local farmers. Our Observer, who is a journalist, decided to investigate. He travelled to the village and took photos of the bodies he saw there.

On April 28, the first reports that farmers in the central Mozambican province of Sofala had discovered a mass grave were published by Portuguese news agency Lusa.

The grave is reported to contain 120 bodies and is located near Gorongosa National Park, in a region known for enduring tensions between the government and Renamo, the former rebel group that became a political movement at the end of the 16-year civil war in 1992.

Local authorities, however, denied the existence of the mass grave. According to the police spokesperson in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, a commission was set up to search the area but "nothing had been found". 

Since last June, there have been regular clashes in the north of the country between Renamo and government forces or those close to Frelimo, the ruling party of Mozambique. Frelimo, which was founded in the 1960s as a liberation movement, has been in power since the country’s independence in 1975. Mozambique's long civil war pitted the Frelimo government against Renamo rebels. Tensions between the two old enemies have been increasing in the past few years and only increased after Renamo contested the presidential and legislative elections in 2014.

Recent clashes have forced thousands of civilians to flee to neighbouring Malawi.

This is the area near Gorongosa National Park where our Observer saw and photographed several bodies.

"We took photos of nine bodies, but we counted 15 in all. They definitely looked like civilians"

Two local journalists went to the site on Saturday, April 30 to investigate the claims made by the farmers. Arcénio is one of them. He took a series of photos that confirmed that there were bodies abandoned near Gorongosa Park.

I work as a journalist in Beira, which is around 300 kilometres from Gorongosa [Editor’s note: Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city, is the capital of Sofala province, which includes the region where the bodies were found]. When I heard that the authorities had refuted the claims made by local farmers that they had found a mass grave, it seemed suspicious. So I decided to travel to Gorongosa with another journalist to try and find out what was going on there.

The bodies of two men, one of whom was half-naked, were found in the bush. This photo, taken by our Observer, was blurred by France 24.

When we got there, we discovered that the zone was on military lockdown and it was hard to access the area where the mass grave was supposedly located.

Locals who were closely affiliated to Renamo helped my colleague and me get close to the mass graves. We saw four bodies in the bush and then another 11 next to a bridge alongside national highway 1, near Gorongosa.

The bodies were in a highly decomposed state and the smell was unbearable. We took photos of nine bodies, but we counted 15 in all. We saw the body of one woman but the rest were relatively young men. They definitely looked like civilians. None of them had any kind of military clothing or gear. Some of them were naked.

A woman’s body discovered near a bridge alongside National Highway 1. The photo was taken by our Observer and blurred by France 24.

The situation there was incredibly tense. Several men on motorcycles were driving around as if they were keeping the area under surveillance… it was very unsettling. Then, we heard a few shots and we decided to leave quickly.

This area is known to be dangerous. It’s forested and hard to access and, because it is so isolated, very little information about what actually happens there gets out. [Editor’s note: The current Renamo leader, Afonso Dhlakama, has been hiding in the area, known as a Renamo bastion, for the past few years. Recently, he has gone even more undercover: no one has seen him since he made his last public appearance in October 2015].

Most of the local population fled in 2013, when there were clashes between Renamo and security forces [Editor’s note: On October 21, 2013, the Renamo headquarters, which are in the Gorongosa mountains, were bombed]. Some Renamo have been hiding out in the mountains since then, probably to protect Dhlakama.

We spoke to several locals who told us that there had been a significant number of disappearances in the region recently [Editor’s note: More than 25 people have disappeared since April 22, according to a representative from Renamo]. The people I spoke to said that the disappeared included people close to both Renamo and Frelimo.

As I said, it is hard to get information about what is going on there but things are obviously very tense. We think that the two groups have been threatening each other and that it may have even boiled over into violent clashes.

The body of this man was found naked. This photo was taken by our Observer and blurred by FRANCE 24.

For now, it is impossible to say how the people found in the mass grave died. But our Observer is not the only person who is worried about violence breaking out in the region.

On April 29, the United Nations human rights office said that it had received “worrying information about ongoing armed clashes in Mozambique between national security forces and members of Renamo”. Security forces are accused of “summary executions, looting, destruction of property, rape, ill-treatment and other human rights violations”.

Renamo is also reported to have committed attacks against police and military forces as well as “human rights abuses and violations against civilians perceived to be associated with the ruling party, Frelimo, or to be cooperating with security forces”, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

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