A Hidden Catastrophe, Uncovered
Just after 2pm on March 24, 2021, 500 rebels from the ISIS-affiliated al-Shabab group in northern Mozambique attacked the coastal town of Palma, adjacent to a 16,000-acre liquid natural gas (LNG) plant being built by TotalEnergies, and other partners, on the Afungi peninsula, south of town.
To assess the impact on the civilian population, I set up a survey team to go door to door in Palma and 15 surrounding villages from November 2022 to March 2023, with a survey designed according to UN guidelines, available online. They eventually visited 13,686 homes. The raw data was audited by a data specialist, Ascent, then cross-checked with community leaders and groups on the ground. In total, 1,193 were killed or are missing (presumed dead) and a further 209 people were kidnapped, making a total of 1,402 affected. The dead or missing include 156 children under 18; 24 children were also abducted. Full results below or you can download a PDF of the article here (Or in Portuguese, or Swahili.).
It is important to stress the limited scope of this survey. This count is only for the dead and missing among civilian residents of Palma, related to the al-Shabab attack of March and April 2021. It does not include injuries, deaths among Total contractors (which my reporting suggests totalled at least 55), combatant deaths among the police, army and al-Shabab (which my reporting suggests totalled several hundred), or deaths of those killed by security forces in the attack’s aftermath.
Alex Perry, June 2023.
Figure 1: A total of at least 1,402 people were killed or went missing (and are presumed dead after two years), or were abducted in the Palma attack. This chart specifies the number of deaths per location; the red column is the total for all six districts of Palma (Bagala, Barabarane, Incularino, Muaha, Quelimane and Quilaua.)
Figure 2: Number of deaths per location, which each location is broken down into deaths per gender. Pink for female, blue for male, grey for gender unknown/not given.
Figure 3: This chart delineates causes of death or event. ‘Other’ includes uncommon categories, such as when people were burned alive in their homes or died in some manner while fleeing, or those deaths with multiple causes. ‘Unknown’ indicates no cause of death was provided, mostly accounted for by unidentified bodies found in the aftermath.
Figure 4: Pie chart showing the number of each type of death or event.
Figure 5: Bar chart showing the number of each type of death, where each type of death is broken down by gender. The total bar indicates the overall number of deaths. Pink is female, blue is male, grey is gender not given or unknown.
Figure 6: Only deaths where ages were provided are shown in this graphic. There are 78 cases where age has not been provided. Beige for children, blue for adults.
Figure 7: Only deaths where ages were provided are shown in this graphic. There are 78 cases where age was not provided.
Figure 8: Bar graphic showing the number of deaths for each age group. The unknown bar indicates 78 entries where an age was not provided.
Figure 9: Pie chart showing the number of deaths for each age group. The purple unknown section indicates entries where an age was not provided.
Figure 10: Bar chart showing the number of deaths per age for cases under 18 years old. The youngest death recorded was a baby of 2 months; the oldest was 105.
Figure 11: Bar graphics showing the number of deaths per age group for each location. Bagala, Barabarane, Incularino, Muaha, Quelimane and Quilaua are districts of Palma. The other 15 locations are villages surrounding Palma also affected by the attack, plus there is one death whose location is unknown/not specified.
Figure 12: Map showing the number of deaths in each region of Palma.
Figure 13:Map showing the number of deaths per village, in location.
|Type of Death||Count|
Figure 14: Table showing the number of each type of death. There are several instances where multiple causes of death were recorded for one person, resulting in the total count (1411) being greater than the total number of deaths (1402).
Figure 153: Number of deaths per location. Bagala, Barabarane, Incularino, Muaha, Quelimane and Quilaua are districts of Palma. The other 15 locations are villages surrounding Palma also affected by the attack, plus there is one death whose location is unknown/not specified.
Figure 16: Number of deaths per woman, man and child. ‘Unknown’ indicates where the gender of the deceased was not provided.
Figure 17: Average age of the deceased per location.
Figure 18: Table showing the number of each type of death. There are several instances where multiple causes of death have been recorded for one person, resulting in the total count (1411) being greater than the total number of deaths (1402).
Figure 19: Table showing type of each death per location, per gender, per age group. There are several instances where multiple causes of death have been recorded for one person, resulting in the total count (1411) being greater than the total number of deaths (1402).
Appendix B: Methodology
The survey was carried out by a team of six surveyors and three managers, who visited each location affected by the attack, including all six districts of Palma and 15 surrounding villages, between November 2022 and March 2023. They eventually visited 13,686 homes. Taking our lead from UN guidelines available online, which advise that surveyors visit just once to minimise the risk of re-traumatisation, we designed a simple survey that would identify affected individuals (name, gender, age, address and contact number for relatives) and categorise what happened to them (shot, beheaded, drowned, abducted, other cause of death, unknown cause of death, and missing.)
The survey was limited to those caught up in al-Shabab’s attack of March and April 2021. Categories of death were sourced explicitly to eyewitnesses; many beheadings, for instance, were carried out in front of other family members. When a killing was not witnessed, or a body indicating how someone died was not recovered, the cause of death was recorded as unknown. Several killings qualified in two different categories – when someone was beheaded and shot, for instance, or their decapitation witnessed but their body not recovered. In locations where large numbers of people had died, the list of the dead was handed to community leaders to review, to double-check identities, and ensure completeness.
We did not ask for the identity of the perpetrator. It should be noted, however, that the surveyors reported that in the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator was indicated as al-Shabab. That matches a reality in which the Mozambican security forces, police and army, mostly fled al-Shabab’s advance.
It is also crucial to note that the survey would not have been possible without the cooperation of the leadership in each community. In each location, before our surveyors deployed, our team visited the district or village leaders to explain their purpose and ask for permission to work, as long as was necessary. In all cases, this was granted willingly. In some cases, village leaders had already made their own surveys, in the expectation of a visit from a higher authority (that had not arrived). In many cases, local leaders accompanied our surveyors during their work, to reassure their constituents that the survey was being conducted with their approval.
Appendix C: Survey Context and Origin
The Islamist group of al-Shabab began its insurgency in the northern province of Cabo Delgado in 2017, affiliated to ISIS in 2019, and cut off Palma and the Afungi peninsula from the rest of the country in 2020 when it captured the port city of Mocimboa da Praia. By March 2021, al-Shabab had taken hundreds of miles of territory and its war with the state had cost 3,000 lives & displaced 750,000.
In 2019, TotalEnergies – France’s biggest company, and a global energy giants – bought the African assets of Anadarko, including its interest in the gas field known as Area 1, off Palma, and the LNG liquefaction facility under construction at Afungi. Total’s project accounts for $20 billion in investment. A second project focussed on Area 4, led by ExxonMobil, accounts for $30 billion, making the combined investment in gas extraction in northern Mozambique $50 billion, the single biggest investment ever made in Africa.
From 2017, however, the risk was that Palma and Afungi were in an expanding war zone. By mid-2020, an attack on Afungi and Palma – already surrounded by the Islamists, and now a base for hundreds of white construction contractors – seemed inevitable. Hence Total’s decision to base itself inside a fortress at Afungi. Crucially, given what was to transpire during the attack, although Afungi was designed to be big enough to house all Total’s contractors and subcontractors, those accommodation blocks had yet to be built. Instead, thousands of construction workers and their managers were living outside the Afungi perimeter, on site or at hotels in Palma, without armed security guards and exposed to any rebel advance.
Such an advance had already happened once before. In the last days of December 2020, al-Shabab fought a series of skirmishes as it moved north to the gates of Afungi. That attack prompted Total to shut down its site and evacuate its staff for three months. By contrast, however, Total’s principal construction contractor CCS, a consortium led by Saipem (Italy) and including McDermott (US) and Chiyoda (Japan), encouraged its subcontractors to return to Palma within days of the December attack. In February, Total’s chairman and CEO, Patrick Pouyanné also reassured his staff, Total’s subcontractors and the population of Palma that he had a new plan in place to guarantee their security, involving the deployment of 600 Mozambican soldiers at Afungi who were to protect a 25-km radius around the site, which included all of Palma. “My highest priority is security, not only of our staff but also the staff of our partners who work onshore in Mozambique,” he said. A group of Canadian human rights lawyers hired by Total also stressed the escalating risk from the insurgency, and added that knowingly operating in a war zone came with heightened responsibilities for Total. Importantly, the Canadians said Total’s moral and legal duty of care covered contractors, subcontractors and all “Project-affected communities” – that is, the entire town of Palma. Total also “ultimately has the lead role” when it came to protecting lives, the lawyers wrote.
I investigated the attack for 15 months, and wrote an account of it, focusing on 183 contractors, workers and civilians besieged at the Amarula Lodge, for Outside magazine. The piece won a George Polk award in April. The story criticises Total for abandoning its contractors and the people of Palma, despite its security promises and intelligence that an attack was imminent. Total, an oil and gas giant, even denied aviation fuel to the lone rescue effort, by a private military company.
But there was a gap in my reporting. Because Palma’s population of 60,000 had fled, I couldn’t reach them to ask what happened to people outside the Amarula. It wasn’t until summer 2022, after my story was out, that the population returned.
In September 2022, I went back to Palma to meet them. It was soon clear the loss of life was of a scale beyond my ability to assess alone. I heard about mass graves, a pit of 20 skulls, a dugout that sank with 50 people on board, and a base of 100 policemen wiped out. But a count of the dead was evidently of utmost importance. Without it, people couldn’t really say what had happened to them, or ask for help. But neither the state nor Total had made one – which, in the face of a seeming catastrophe, was a stunning and curious omission. Hence the decision to set up a survey group, which I financed using the Polk prize money ($25,000).
Although comparisons of this sort are somewhat distasteful, for context it’s worth noting that these figures make Palma 2021 the worst terror attack since 9/11, and the bloodiest disaster in the 164-year history of oil and gas.