JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - At least 100,000 rural Mozambicans are paying the price for the nation’s stalled peace talks, after armed opposition fighters allegedly attacked and looted at least two health facilities in the past month, depriving patients of basic medical care and supplies.
Human Rights Watch said Wednesday armed men linked to Mozambique’s main opposition party, Renamo, have stormed emergency rooms, threatened patients and staff and seized basic hospital supplies in the towns of Morrumbala and Mopeia in central Mozambique.
The attackers’ take reportedly included bed sheets, mosquito nets, HIV tests, antibiotics, syringes, vaccines and essential supplies used to deliver babies.
Renamo did not confirm or deny responsibility for these attacks, but the party’s leader recently ordered attacks across the country amid stalled peace talks with the ruling Frelimo party.
The rights watchdog says it also received reports of other hospital and clinic attacks, but could not confirm those incidents.
Why attack a hospital?
Human Rights Watch’s Mozambique researcher, Zenaida Machado, paused when asked: Why attack a hospital?
“Well, that’s a good question for you to ask them,” she said, adding that perhaps they needed some of the supplies for their wounded compatriots.
“In our opinion, those raids are such a repugnant strategy, and the only thing they can do is damage health facilities, loot medicines and prevent people in remote areas who much need health care from accessing the hospital and medical treatment,” she said.
If that was the strategy, it has worked, she noted. Many patients who fled the attacks said they were afraid to return to the medical facilities.
The rights group has called for fighters to immediately cease such attacks, calling that demand “non-negotiable.”
But negotiations are at the heart of this matter. For months now, Renamo and Frelimo have been negotiating to reach a deal that will persuade Frelimo to lay down its weapons for good.
The two parties originally opposed each other as armed groups in a bruising civil war. The two forged a peace deal when that war ended in 1992, but the deal has broken down in recent years, especially after Renamo refused to accept the ruling party won the 2014 national elections.
Neither local nor international observers said they found strong evidence of large-scale vote manipulation in those polls.
Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama has often resorted to threats and violence, as he did after the election. When it appeared talks would fail he ordered more attacks and called them “a military strategy.”
Observers have noted other small-scale attacks in the past month in central Mozambique. Several of the attacks targeted public facilities like police stations. Mozambique experts estimate about 4,400 refugees remain in neighboring Malawi because of the violence.
Analyst Nelson Alusala of the Institute for Security Studies said he doesn’t see the country returning to all-out war. But, he said, unless the two sides forge a deal that includes disarmament and guarantees from international mediators, this low-level violence may continue.
“What you are seeing, attacks on civilians, attacks on public facilities, attacks on the main highway leading between the north and the south, passing through central Mozambique, are reminiscent of the [civil war]. That will continue for a while until that conflict has a sustainable resolution to it,” he said.
But that would require compromise, which is one thing the characteristically confident Dhlakama appears uninterested in.In a recent interview with local media, he rejected the idea of being appointed as vice president in a power-sharing government, saying, “it is impossible” to work with Frelimo.