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June 21, 2012

Mozambique Struggles to Find Source of Kidnappings

by Jinty Jackson

MAPUTO - Authorities in Mozambique have rounded up 22 people in connection with kidnappings that have terrorized the Muslim community in recent months.   The government and Islamic leaders have agreed to work together to try to stop the crimes.   

The call to prayer as dusk falls in the bustling heart of Mozambique's capital, Maputo.

These days, heeding that call can be risky.  Kidnappers have snatched people leaving mosques in the past.

The mysterious spate of kidnappings began last December, targeting a small set of wealthy, Muslim businessmen and their families. It is unclear how many, but reports say more than the 14 kidnappings reported to the police so far.

In some cases families have coughed up as much as $2 million for the release of loved ones.

Until now a shroud of official silence has surrounded these crimes.  Instead the news has filtered out, through the Mozambican media contributing to a climate of fear among Muslims and feeding the rumor mill as to whom is responsible.

Few are prepared to speak in public about what has been going on.

People are afraid to go out at all says Shahid Omar, a worshipper at one mosque in Maputo.

"This is a big problem because you can not walk free here now," said Omar. "People are saying gossipy things you know people around say there is a people, Indian people, crook people.  Maybe there is police involved in these things.  We do not know."

Lack of cooperation

The police have been working non-stop to find out what is behind the abductions.  Maputo city police spokesperson, Arnaldo Chefo says the main obstacle has been the lack of cooperation from the families of the victims.

This is where the problem begins, he says.  In most cases the payment of ransom takes place without having the police involved or even without the police knowing about it.  In most cases families do not want to invite the police from taking place in the exchange of the money.  That stops the police from doing their part.

Four million Mozambicans are Muslim, more than 15 percent of the population. The country's ties to the Islamic world go back to pre-colonial times.  Muslims have traditionally been traders and businesspeople.

Victims

Muslim Yusuf Ahmat says it is a mistake to think the kidnappers are targeting Muslims in general, as the kidnappers tend to target only those of Indian or Pakistani origin.

"Actually it is not the Muslim community," said Ahmat.  "The Muslim community is not formed by the Asian people alone.  As you see in the mosque we are all mixed.  The kidnappings have been Asians, especially the businessmen have been kidnapped."

Twenty years after the end of a civil war that left  Mozambique's economy in tatters, the country is at last poised for a boom.  Large coal and natural gas deposits are attracting foreign investors.  

Muslims like Sheik Cassimo David are worried these unsolved crimes will scare them off.

"With these happenings, these assassinations will make people from outside frightened to come in so the government has to do something," he said.

Authorities say they made dozens of arrests connected to the case after sitting down to share information on the kidnappings with Muslim leaders last week.  And, they are eager to prove Mozambique is safe for Muslims and safe for business.