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Survivor shows the horrific escape from terrorists in Mozambique

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Many others still do not count.

Andre is a foreign contractor who does not want his real name revealed for fear of repercussions. Memories of his three-day ordeal are etched in his mind.

He and his team had worked on the large complex run by the French oil company Total a few miles north of Palma.

It was early afternoon and he had just finished taking a shower at the Amarula Hotel when he first heard gunshots. The hotel is just one of a handful in the area and known by contractors.

Palma was under three-pronged attack by Islamic militants known locally as Shabaab – or youths.

Shabaab has waged a brutal campaign in Mozambique’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado, for four years, but so far almost all of his attacks have been against villages, the province’s Christian population and security forces.

Things started to fall apart quickly as other foreigners living or staying in Palma started arriving at the hotel, looking for accommodation.

After a while, the militants destroyed a local tower and communication was cut off.

Internally displaced people arrive in Pemba by boat on April 1, 2021, off the coast of Palma.

Desperate cries for help

Inside the hotel, guests and staff did everything they could to prevent the insurgents from retreating to the hotel. All services, including food preparation, were suspended and electricity was cut off to reduce noise.

“We spent the whole afternoon trying to get help,” says Andre. Some guests who had satellite phones called anyone they could. But with the speed of the local army and no aid materializing from the Total complex, dozens of foreigners and Mozambicans began to fall – and beg to survive the night.

“We spent the night under heavy fire,” he recalls.

Brutal attacks in Mozambique are a 'game changer' and jeopardize the financial future of an entire country

Audio and video taken from CNN by someone at the hotel tells of a scary scene, with loud gunshots splitting the night.

The next morning, the first helicopters began flying over Palma, some fired at the insurgents and others uprooted some in safety.

The helicopters belonged to a South African military contractor, the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG).

“Several DAG helicopters came and attacked the positions of the insurgents, who were close to the hotel,” says Andre.

DAG CEO Lionel Dyck told CNN in an interview on Tuesday that his men became aware of people riding in the hotel while they were “flying around Palm in search of terrorists”.

“One of my pilots in the afternoon went down to the hotel inside the premises and told them he was going to get people out,” Dyck said.

“One helicopter made four trips, rescuing six people for each trip, 24 in total,” says Andre. “We picked people with disabilities, diseases, the elderly and made them go first.”

But dozens were left behind – under siege.

Andre, who is in his 50s, was one of the other six people to be rescued. But he says DAG choppers did not return that day.

“The last helicopter left at 14:30, at 15:30, we realized they were not coming back,” he says. “We kept calling but on the other hand we were told the helicopters had left to refuel.”

An internally displaced person makes gestures as he arrives in Pemba on April 1, 2021.

‘Bullets flying high’

In his interview with CNN, Dyck explained that daylight was the key issue. “[My pilot] pulled out 20 or 22 people, “he said.” “It was very dark then and we had to go out.”

Dyck says his crews were still conducting their flights to Palma and rescuing civilians nearly a week after the insurgents first arrived.

Andre faced another night not knowing if the terrorists would overtake the hotel.

“All this time the bullets were flying up, hitting trees, we could hear explosions nearby, there was a real panic,” he says. “It was even more chaotic when we realized we would have to spend another night at the hotel.”

British contractor Philip Mawer is presumed dead, his family says.

The food was running out and there was no sign of the Mozambican army or police.

“We tried to get help at all costs, each of us calling his contacts, whoever he was, but on the other end of the line everyone was unavailable to help,” says Andre. “It was horrible.

“We heard their cries for Allah-Akbar (‘God is great,’ in Arabic) all night. All night,” he says. “But we managed to get through it; and the next morning everyone was alive.”

He still does not understand why the insurgents did not attack the hotel.

“We were not killed because they did not want to kill us,” he said, wondering if the insurgents had been told to hold back. “They were inside the hotel, they could shoot us if they wanted to,” he says.

Families wait outside the port of Pemba on April 1 for a shipping ship arriving evacuated off the coast of Palma.

A terrible escape

Early on Friday, Andre and the remaining guests began thinking about ways to escape. “We debated whether we would stay in place, waiting for them to attack us and slaughter us like lambs or if we should try for it.

“Around 11.00 in the morning the helicopters came back and we thought the evacuation would continue, but we realized the helicopters had returned to carry out more attacks,” Andre says.

“We realized we could not stay there.”

A convoy of 17 vehicles was assembled.

“The first car of the column was an armored car and in that car we put all the women and children and it was the car that was driving the column,” Andre explained. “Right after that car was me.”

Andre prepared his take. About 25 people filled it, some had climbed to the top of the vehicle.

Internally displaced people arrive in Pemba on April 1, 2021, from the evacuation ship off the coast of Palma.

By mid-afternoon, the convoy made a safety run, heading north toward Tanzania.

“There was no immediate fire when we left the hotel, I think they were caught by surprise, they did not expect us to leave in those conditions.”

But a few minutes later, the convoy encountered an ambush.

“The shooting started when we got on the dirt road,” says Andre. “A kilometer later, I felt volleys grazing the top of the truck, fortunately they did not hit me.

“Another 500 meters and the armored car is hit by a bazooka. It shook a little, but again managed to continue,” adds Andre.

Then he was hit – a bullet that penetrated the car door and hit his leg.

“There was blood everywhere,” he says, his voice trembling. “I asked the person next to me to hold the steering wheel and I again managed to drive another three miles with only one foot.”

Along the way they saw corpses in the middle of the road. “I did not count them, but there were many.”

People evacuated from Palma arrive on a humanitarian flight at Pemba Airport on March 31st.

‘My foot was destroyed’

Andre and the rest of the convoy headed north until they reached a fishing village near the border with Tanzania, only to be stopped when Andre nearly fainted from blood loss.

“My leg was destroyed,” he says.

Only when they reached the beach did the group realize that many of the vehicles had not reached them.

“Of the 15 cars, only eight reached the beach. The others were left behind,” Andre explained.

Many of the residents of the motorcade are still not counted – a week later.

The Mozambique Defense and Security Forces (FDS) in response to the attacks said they regretted the death of “a group of citizens who got into a convoy of vehicles to leave the hotel”.

Dyck says they told people sheltered in the hotel that they would be there the next morning, but the occupants decided to make an effort for him.

“They decided not to wait – maybe they had better information, but we knew the terrorists were out and we had shot at a number of them and they were engaging us from the outside.”

The group eventually took on small boats, which took them south to Afungi – and Andre was later airlifted to a hospital in South Africa.

He faces more surgery and a longer rehabilitation. Despite his ordeal, Andre plans to return to Mozambique.

“Mozambique is a beautiful country. The problem, as in many other countries around the globe, is everything else.”

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