More than 1,000 miles to the south, however, government officials in the capital Maputo say the insurgency is under control and are encouraging the displaced to return to their homes and energy companies to resume their projects.
“The terrorists are permanently on the run,” Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi assured investors during the Mozambique Energy and Gas Summit in Maputo in September. He urged the meeting of international energy managers to resume work on their stalled liquefied natural gas projects.
Mozambique’s army and police, supported by troops from Rwanda and support from a regional force from the Southern African Development Community, have managed to contain the extremist insurgency, officials say.
“These places are now normalized and civilians are coming back,” said the Rwandan brigadier general. Gene. Ronald Rwivanga, told the Rwandan newspaper The New Times this month, that normal life is returning in the Palma district.
Energy companies say they want to see displaced people back to the area. The $60 billion liquefied natural gas projects led by France-based TotalEnergies and ExxonMobil were suspended last year after insurgents briefly captured the neighboring city of Palma in March.
During the summit in Maputo, Stéphane Le Galles, the head of TotalEnergies’ gas project in Mozambique, said that “the direction is very good”, but the company still wants to see “a sustainable economic situation, not only in Palma but … everywhere in Cabo Delgado.”
Despite the strong presence of Mozambican and Rwandan soldiers, the attacks by the extremists continue. Earlier this month, the rebels first spread their violence to the neighboring province of Nampula, where a Catholic mission was targeted and an elderly Italian nun among the dead.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees said it believes “security conditions in Cabo Delgado are too unstable to facilitate or promote returns to the province,” in a statement released earlier this month.
“People who have lost everything are returning to areas where services and humanitarian aid are largely unavailable,” the UNHCR said.
Those who return will face a mixed situation. Economic life is starting to return, but basic infrastructure and public services are still lacking. Few schools are open and health care is scarce.
In the provincial capital of Pemba, where more than 100,000 displaced people have sought refuge, an elderly woman sat outside a shack where her family of 15 lived two years ago after fleeing an insurgent. They live on a meager diet of cornmeal and plain rice. They cannot find work and have no money for clothing or other necessities, she said.
“Certainly, we want to go back. This is not a home,” the grandmother said, speaking for her safety on condition of anonymity.
With their villages further north devastated, she says it will be even more difficult to resume normal life.
Weighing the risks and costs of return, many have decided to stay despite the hardships they face in the refugee camps.
“There is war and hunger there,” said another displaced person in the Nanjua camp. “We wouldn’t go to a better place.”
A mother rocking a small child while sitting on a turf said the threat of extremist violence remains a concern. She said many are haunted by their experiences from the insurgents: “It’s hard to sleep in a place where you’ve seen a snake.”