Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
Maputo, Mozambique. Picture: REUTERS

MWANZA — Mozambican refugees are flooding into Malawi by the hundreds, recounting how government forces are torching their homes and barns in the hunt for supporters of Renamo opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama, who aims to seize power in six provinces.

The former rebel leader’s bid rekindles tension in the country thought to have been buried 24 years ago. "The soldiers came in government vehicles to burn houses and maize barns and accused us of sheltering Renamo soldiers," farmer Omali Ibrahim told AFP on arriving at the Kapise refugee camp in Malawi’s southern district of Mwanza with his wife and five children.

Mr Ibrahim and his wife and children were among about 300 refugees, many of them women and children, who trudged into the camp under scorching sun on just one day last week.

Most had walked several days to reach Kapise camp, just 500m from the border with Mozambique’s Tete province.

The camp now houses 1,580 people — up from 300 in June last year.

Mr Dhlakama, who led Renamo in a 16-year civil war which ended in 1992, has refused to accept the results of 2014 elections, which saw him beaten once again by his old enemy, the Frelimo party led by President Filipe Nyusi.

Sporadic clashes between Renamo and government forces have taken place in recent months, but tension rose further when Mr Dhlakama vowed on December 16 to take power by March in six of Mozambique’s 11 provinces.

Tete is one of the six, all of them located in the centre and north of the country.

Mr Dhlakama said he would gain ground thanks to public support, but warned he would retaliate with force if the government tried to prevent his takeover.

The account of rampaging government troops told by Mr Ibrahim was supported by several other families at the camp when an AFP team visited last week.

"We could’ve been killed by government soldiers if we hadn’t hidden in the bush for two days," said Luciano Laitoni, who arrived with his visibly exhausted wife and five children.

"Our house and a barn full of maize were burnt, but thanks we are here safely," said Mr Laitoni, carrying the few possessions he managed to salvage.

Flora Manuel, who arrived at the camp with six children and her husband, also said her house was torched and her animals slaughtered.

"All our livestock of 16 pigs and six goats were killed and a barn full of maize burnt, but luckily we survived and ran away," she said.

Charles Luka said he was not at home when his house was burnt down and has been unable to find his wife and two daughters.

"We are simply farmers and I have never seen a Renamo soldier. We are not Renamo," Mr Luka said.

Tete provincial police denied the refugees’ claims.

"This is not true. The police are here to protect the people — it’s inconceivable (that the army would burn houses)," police spokesman Luis Nudia said.

"We are not in the situation of an armed conflict."

But he admitted there was political tension in the area and described them as a "temporary situation".

Local media reported a clash between government troops and Renamo in Tete on December 31, in which six houses were burnt down, but gave no further details.

Renamo spokesman Antonio Muchanga said: "There’s been clashes. The armed forces started to burn down the houses of some people, that’s always the way they operate."

The sudden influx of refugees to Kapise camp had become "a big problem", said Bestone Chisamile, a senior official in Malawi’s ministry of Home Affairs who visited the camp with officials from the United Nations (UN) refugee agency last week.

He said the government had received reports that a new wave of insurgency in villages around Zobue and Moatize districts in Tete province had driven the refugees across the border.

"More needs to be done as Malawi alone cannot manage this. We need space and food for the refugees, but the solutions to end the conflict are with the Mozambican government."

He said Malawi had engaged Maputo through diplomatic channels and a regional security grouping to help sort out the problem.

"The camp has no food, water nor proper shelter," said Yohane Kapise, a local chief who gave the land for the establishment of the camp in 2014 when the first refugees arrived.

"It’s tough on these people and we hope government and other agencies can do something," he said.

Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) are providing assistance at the camp.

MSF field co-ordinator Labana Steven said the charity began work at the camp in November, providing medical aid, blankets and mats.

AFP