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Three Mozambican women’s stories of enslavement by jihadist insurgents

Reading Time: 14 minutes

By Margaux Solinas & Paloma Laudet

Three women who escaped enslavement and sexual abuse by jihadist fighters in northern Mozambique have told The New Humanitarian they are struggling with social stigma and a lack of assistance, even as they try to rebuild their lives and put the suffering they endured behind them.

Hundreds – and possibly thousands – of women and girls have been kidnapped by the group known locally as al-Shabab (“the youth” in Arabic), which began a rebellion in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado province in 2017. Many of them have been forcibly married and repeatedly raped in military camps.

“There were different men sleeping with me… and it was not only one person: they would come together and rape you together,” said Amina, who was kept captive from early 2020 until late last year. “Everyone who felt like sleeping with me could.”

Amina, who is 27, said she was rescued by the army while harvesting cassava in a farm near an al-Shabab encampment. She has now reunited with her children, and is seeking opportunities to train as a teacher and to counsel youth not to join the militants.

Since escaping the camps, the women who spoke to The New Humanitarian said they have received support from community well-wishers, religious networks, and civil society groups. However, these local groups have limited means, and some have been targeted by the insurgents because of their work.

“We do not receive enough help, and I cannot help those women to go back home or to [build] a new one,” said a pastor who is supporting dozens of affected women and who asked not to be named. “The current situation is very, very, very sad.”

Due to his support for survivors and advocacy against the violence, the pastor said he has been targeted by al-Shabab. He said two of his nieces were recently abducted and raped, before being released after two days. “It was to send a message to our family,” the pastor said.

Shelia, a 30-year-old former captive, said women had “unity” inside the camps, which helped them survive the abuse and eventually escape. “When somebody was not feeling well and they had a job to do, we helped her so she would not be killed,” Sheila said. “There were a lot of women who were killed when I was there.”

Read the full accounts of the three women – the challenges they are facing and their hopes for the future – in their own words below. Their testimonies have been edited for length and clarity, and their names have been changed. Other identifying details, including the cities where the women are currently living, have been removed.

Amina: ‘I feel better, but I never really feel free’

Paloma Laudet/TNH

Amina, 27, was kidnapped by al-Shabab from February 2020 to August 2023. She was separated from her children and only found out they were alive after breaking free. Her life was threatened in the camp and she was repeatedly raped. “You are not a person to us,” fighters told her. Amina moved to a safer city after escaping the militants, but didn’t receive help from the government or army and later fell pregnant. She now wants to return to school and would like to teach youth about the perils of joining the insurgency.

I was with my family members on the day that I was kidnapped. [Fighters] entered [our village] with weapons and I thought they were from the military. I only started to doubt that because of the way they were asking questions. 

When one of the leaders of my family said we were doing a ceremony, one of the [fighters] told him that he was not allowed to talk. He was killed with a weapon just after. Then I was sure it was al-Shabab. 

Our neighbours ran away when they realised it was al-Shabab, but we couldn’t run. They wanted to close the door of our house, and they started to kidnap women. Ten women of my age and three men [including my husband] were taken.

We were tied with ropes and we could not move. They told us: “If you run, we will kill you and your family, and we are going to cut you with a knife, and take your head off. So you have to accept everything we say.”

I was raped. They took all my clothes off. They started raping me and all of the women there. After raping us, they gave us their jackets and they took us to a base of al-Shabab where there were a lot of people.

Women were not allowed to see men in the camp. They said [the men] needed to be part of al-Shabab to go and kill others. So [my husband] was taken for training and he never came back.

From that day until today I do not know what happened to my husband. You see my scar, it is because I was beaten by a belt. I was beaten because I asked where my husband was.

We stayed for three days [initially] without any food. My cousin was taken with me, and she asked [a fighter] if we could have food because we were so hungry. She was not answered and was beaten instead.

There were so many al-Shabab fighters. Every week they were bringing new men. There were a lot of women being kidnapped too. Every week men came and women too. 

They said: “We told you, you can’t say anything so just obey. If you open your mouth again, you are going to die. There is no food for monkeys and dogs. You are not a person to us”.

After three days staying there without food, there was a meeting with al-Shabab and all the people there. They told us what our job was. When we woke up we had to go to a farm and we had to find cassava. 

“After you find cassava you can take it and eat it,” they said. “And there are a lot of fruits in the bush, so you can eat there and not ask us for food. But you’re not going alone and if anything happens there – if you feel like escaping – know that you will die there.”

After that day, there was some cassava porridge every morning. But for us to eat this, we needed to read the Quran first. We had to learn. We had to read and understand before we ate. 

There were so many al-Shabab fighters. Every week they were bringing new men. There were a lot of women being kidnapped too. Every week men came and women too. Because there were so many, some of us had to sleep outside.

There were different men sleeping with me. Sometimes it was the bosses who would come in the morning, and in the afternoon the lower ones in the hierarchy would come.

And it is not only one person, they come together and they rape you together. I had no husband there, every man wanted me. I had no right to choose. Everyone who felt like sleeping with me could.

One of the women didn’t accept to be used like that, so they took her and they said: “Your friend is rejecting us, she does not want to do this thing for us. So what we are going to do, you will see it”. They tied her up and they beheaded her in front of us.

I don’t know why they attack people. I never knew what they wanted. They never communicated well when we were there, not even their plans. The only thing they said a lot was: “We would only need the order to kill you and we will.” 

After a few years we were allowed to pick up food without them. They thought we were not going to escape. One day like that, we saw a group of people. They said: “Do not move, and raise your hands on top of your heads”. So we did.

It was the Mozambican and Rwandan armies. “Why are you here in the bush in the middle of nowhere,” they asked while our hands were raised. We said we were with al-Shabab, that they had kidnapped us, and that our job was to find food for them. 

We were asked to show them where the base is, so we took them there. They then said there were not enough of them to fight al-Shabab, and that they would take us to a safer place and then invite other soldiers. 

I was taken to a [military camp] called Mahati. The military treated us very well. They gave us food, drinks, bread, and no one slept with us.

We were asked if we wanted to go to one of the big cities of Cabo Delgado that are safe. I answered that I wanted to go to one of them. I chose the city because maybe I could find my husband and my children there.

Paloma Laudet/TNH

A beach in the Paquitequete district of Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado province and one of the main towns hosting internally displaced people.

When I arrived here, though, I didn’t receive any more help from the government or the army. After a month, I discovered that I was not feeling well in my body. The owner of the house took me to the hospital, and I discovered I was pregnant. 

I feel bad when I think about the baby because I have two children without a husband and I do not know what to do. But it is not the baby’s fault what happened.

One of the leaders of the community here took me to the pastor José. I was saved by the pastor. He told me that he knew someone who is on their farm a lot and not always here in the city. He said maybe I could stay in that house for free. 

I would like to go back to school but I cannot, I stopped at grade two. I do not know how to continue school because of a lack of resources. But, hopefully, God is my refuge, and I believe things will get better.

I feel better, but I never feel really free. When anything is happening outside, I am always tense. When someone knocks on the door, I am afraid. I am always attentive, and I never manage to sleep well.

I never communicated or met any of the other women [from captivity] again. I feel very bad about it. When I came here, whenever I tried to sleep I was dreaming, suffering, and urinating in my sleep. I was thinking about how others are still there, and that makes me cry.

But the church helps me a lot. When I am going there, the mothers are hugging me and saying: “Sorry for your story. God will restore your life”. I believe in God. I still believed that God was in control when I had no hope there and was seeing others being killed.

I want to stay here in this city. I want a life for my children and I would like to have the opportunity to take care of other children, to teach them, and to counsel them to not [join the insurgents].

Sheila: ‘We were 20 women in one tent, and we were sleeping on the ground’

Paloma Laudet/TNH

Sheila, 30, was kidnapped for one year between 2021 and 2022. During captivity, she was forced to find food and water for the fighters and was also used as a foil to help the group kidnap other women. She lived in a crowded tent and was beaten by fighters on many occasions. She said the military saved her and several others and took them to a safer district of Cabo Delgado. She now wants to start a business and build a new life selling Matapa, a popular Mozambican stew that she’s especially good at making.

I was living in Mocimboa da Praia when al-Shabab found us on our farm. We were harvesting crops. I was kidnapped for one year, from 2021-2022, but my children were not kidnapped as they were with their grandmother. 

Our job [during captivity] was to find food and water for them. If you refused you were punished or killed. They were also forcing women to have sex, and when they were pregnant, they were taking babies out of their bellies. 

The first time al-Shabab took me to a farm to find food, they asked me to talk to the woman there and say: “Auntie, how are you?”. That way, the women would think the fighters were not there, and they would then attack them from behind.

There were different places in the camp: tents for workers and tents for bosses. We were 20 women in one tent, and we were sleeping on the ground. There were a lot of men; I could not count how many.

I was doing different jobs. I was cooking and sourcing food and water. There was a group for cooking, a group for cleaning, a group that had to marry the bosses, and if you looked “like a monkey”, as they said, they were going to kill you.

They abused us a lot. I was beaten on many occasions, especially if I rejected anything they asked. Even if I was doing good things, if they decided it’s the day that they punish everyone, you will be punished.

Paloma Laudet/TNH

The ruins of a hospital in the coastal town of Mocimboa da Praia, which was occupied by al-Shabab jihadists between August 2020 and August 2021.

With the other women, we had unity. When somebody was not feeling well and they had a job to do, we helped her so she would not be killed. There were a lot of women who were killed when I was there. A lot of them. 

One day, while I was getting water for the camp with other women, we saw armed men. I was surprised, and we started to yell. The armed men told us: “You do not have to run. We are not terrorists. We are military, and we are here to save you.”

It is easy to say I can go back, but when you remember what happened to you, you do not want to.

We did not believe them, and so we started to run. They fired their guns in the air so we stopped. They started to ask questions. “Were you kidnapped ?” We said yes. They asked if we knew where we were and had come from. We said that we knew how to get in and out of the camp but did not know where we were.

The military saved us and took us to another district of Cabo Delgado. We stayed for two weeks in a shelter there without knowing where our family was. 

The military asked if we wanted to go back to Mocimboa da Praia, but we said we did not want to go back because we know what happened there. They asked us where we wanted to live. We said it was better in another city of Cabo Delgado. 

We were sent to a city and we stayed for one week in a camp of displaced people. We were almost without food until some people started bringing food to support us. From there some people asked if we needed help for a house. 

I stayed at several people’s houses until one woman told me I could stay at her home [on a long-term basis]. She said she was going to stay in another city and I could stay with her. Now, I am there with my children.

At this time, I was receiving food from the World Food Programme, but not from the Mozambican government. But it stopped, and I now have no help. The only person who is listening to me is the head of the community where I live.

I had a business with my husband in Mocimboa da Praia, but when I was kidnapped, he ran away to another place. Because I stayed for such a long time in the bush, he remarried.

I was feeling so sad that he remarried. He never cares about us and our children. He never comes to visit. There are times when some of my children are crying for food, and if their father was here I would have more money.

I am trying to look for a job like cleaning and washing. I had one but the owners were rude and it was very badly paid, so I had to stop. I didn’t tell my story to people around me. If I told people, nobody would accept me and take me in their home.

I want to go back to my village, but three months ago al-Shabab came back there and killed people. So I am too worried to go there. It is easy to say I can go back, but when you remember what happened to you, you do not want to.

I would love to start a business and have a new life. I am a very good cook, and I make the best Matapa (a popular Mozambican stew) you can find.

Neila: ‘My dream is to have a shop like the one I used to have in my village’

Paloma Laudet/TNH

Neila, 37, witnessed her husband and several relatives being killed by al-Shabab on the day that she was kidnapped. During a month in captivity, she was repeatedly raped and forcibly married to a fighter. She managed to escape with a group of women, and her plan now is to open a shop and get her children back in school. 

The day I was kidnapped, they tied my husband in front of me and told me to stand and watch what they would do. They cut his head with a knife and also his hands. The rest of my family were also killed. My cousins did not survive, and their kids were orphaned. They are with me now.

I stayed for one month in an al-Shabab camp. They treated me like rubbish. Thank God, I managed to escape. I ran away. I managed to hide and reach a city where I found help. It was not easy for me there. Even for me to speak about it now is so hard.

[On the journey to the camp] they took everything from us so that we could not communicate with anyone. They covered our faces, so we couldn’t see where you were passing by. You walk in the bush and you do not see anything: no cars, no cities.

I have no idea how many women were in the camp, but I know there were a lot. Some were married to the bosses. They could not come to where I was, and you cannot know how many of them there were inside those other tents.

There were women who were in our group, and one day the men would tell them, “Let’s go”. And then they would never come back. So nobody knows if they are alive or if they were killed.

If they discovered that you were not a Muslim, it was more difficult for you. If they discovered that you were a Christian, they could kill you there. Also, if they found you without your head covered, they could kill you on the spot. There is no negotiating.

They put us in a line and chose women who are lighter coloured. They called us by the name of an expensive rice here: Lulu. It is the women they wanted the most, and they raped us more.

We were always thinking about escaping. I thought the worst thing that could happen would be if they caught me. But if I stayed in the camp then I would also be dead, so I decided to go.

Because of my skin colour, I was chosen to be married, and I was abused even more. Sometimes, it was my ‘husband’ raping me; sometimes it was other men. Sometimes it happened that one of the bosses picked a woman to be their wife. Nobody else can touch you then, but if you don’t have a boss saying that, any man can rape you.

It was my ‘husband’ who gave me the courage to run away. This man always came in the afternoon to me, and I was always crying. So he started feeling bad too. He told me that if you want to run away from here, you have to go in the afternoon, not in the morning. He said wait until the other men come back, so it is dark outside and so they are tired and will not go back to follow you.

I was in a group of five women. We were always thinking about escaping. I thought the worst thing that could happen would be if they caught me. But if I stayed in the camp then I would also be dead, so I decided to go.

We talked as if we were going to fetch water, and then we ran. Each one of us went a different way, and I never saw them again, even on the road. It was not a place for you to wait for someone. If you waited too long you could be found.

I arrived in a village after running away and there were some nice people there. They helped us until we arrived here in this city. I got help not from the government, but from the community I am now part of and the Christian community. Still, not a lot of people are helping me. I hope it will change.

I am trying to build a life, and my dream is to have a shop like the one I used to have in my village. But I do not even have money to try to open a business or anything. I do not even have money to pay for books for my children to go to school.

Still, I will remain here – job or not – and I believe that one day God will provide my own house here. When I hear others suggesting I go back to my village, I just look at them and I say, “I will never go back”.

This article was first published on The New Humanitarian:

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