MOZAMBIQUE: History of sorrow and salvation in Pemba

There are stories that begin like many others. This is one: “My name is Francisco Faustino Francisco, but they call me Chico. I am a 52-year-old father of five. I am from Muidumbe, from the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish, in the Nangololo mission. I arrived in Pemba in December.”

Chico’s story is unique, an unrepeatable abyss of sorrow. Since 2017, Muidumbe, Cabo Delgado province (northern Mozambique), has been targeted by terrorist groups and Islamist extremism. More than 3,300 people have died and nearly a million have been displaced. Chico is one of them.

Muidumbe had almost 80,000 inhabitants. As Chico recalls, it was attacked twice: “In the first attack, two people were brutally beheaded and houses were set on fire. The second attack, in late October 2020, was more violent; the insurgents stayed in town for more than two months. We wandered in the forest, trying to get water. The town was full of terrorists, so at night we went out to look for water or food, like dried cassava. Days went by and our homes were torched and destroyed. I sent four of my children to Montepuez to stay with a relative; the oldest, who was 24, stayed. When people were caught trying to get food they were killed, so I told my son not to go into town because it was very dangerous.”

With no food nor water, the situation for those fleeing was desperate. “After five days, I had to go to the lower area to get closer to the river so I could drink water and wash. On the seventh day, acquaintances showed up and told me that my son had been beheaded. He had gone out with a group of young people and encountered the terrorists.” Chico went to look for his wife to give her the terrible news. Tears flowed aplenty. But in the midst of the sorrow,  the fear, the father of five children was not afraid, living the fourth commandment in reverse; he wanted to bury his son’s body: “I went back into the town at night and took the spade from my home. After two weeks, we found the body already decomposing. The head was hanging from a pole with the body lying next to it. Full of fear, we dug a grave while one person stood as a lookout. We were on the town’s outskirts. We dug a little, made a hole of half a metre, dragged the body. I took the head from the pole and put it in the tomb. After we finished, we hurried back.”

In addition to the murders and a life as a displaced person, Chico has also experienced more tragedy related to the conflict: the disappearance of loved ones and the separation of families. His 95-year-old mother, who lived with a sister, went missing during an attack: “I went to that area myself to look for her, but I didn’t find any bodies, nor clothes. No one knew anything about her. I realised then that I would never see my mum again.”

After worrying so much, Chico was reunited with his wife in Pemba, where they now live, coping with huge hardships. He tried to reunite his family, but in Pemba conditions are difficult and they did not have the means to keep their children with them. They have to sleep outdoors, in a backyard, which a good woman, Mrs Rosalina, has given them, under plastic tarps to protect themselves from the rain. Their children have been sent to different places, one in Chiure, one in Nampula, and two in Montepuez. Chico has a dream: that one day he will be able to build a house to bring all of them together. “We already have two beds; later I will set up a room, and one day I hope to have a home for my family. This is what I want the most.”

“Before all this started, I struggled so that my children could grow up better than I did. I was born at the time of the armed struggle against colonialism, then came the civil war. The war and the armed struggle lasted more than 16 years. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I worked very hard in the fields so I could support our children. I lived very close to the mission and all my children went to school. I had to work hard for this. We harvested pumpkin once a year,” the Mozambican explained. Like most local residents, Chico had some land to farm. At first, he thought to continue taking care of the land, even after the terrorist invasion, because farming was his only source of livelihood. Once, he took a risk and went out to prepare the ground for planting, but since then he has not been able to go back.

 

With the help of a microcredit project set up by Father Edegard Silva, a member of the Missionaries of La Salette who also had to flee Muidumbe, Chico opened a little street stall: “I sell all day. Every two, three, four minutes, someone shows up looking for soap or something else. There is demand and there is respect. I am busy from the start of the day. It’s important to me; when you are busy, war traumas start to subside and so you can overcome difficulties.”

Displaced people are not the only ones who suffer from traumas; Mrs Rosalina, who gave him a place in her yard, cannot sleep at night. She sees and feels so much sorrow around her: sorrow for the loss of loved ones, the disappearance of others, the separation of parents and children, language difficulties, sadness and nostalgia about lost land and home…  The diocese set up a psychosocial support group led by two nuns, Sister Aparecida and Sister Rosa, both of whom are psychologists. They formed a very well-rounded team whose mission is to listen to people. Hearing this abyss of sorrow is the first step to healing wounds.

Christmas will soon be upon us. But can one celebrate it in a situation like this? What does Christmas mean to Chico? “Christmas means to be born again. It means recovering your spirits and strength. It means the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, celebrating the human being in his fullness, welcoming those who suffer, being close to family and friends, sharing what little one has, celebrating together, helping the hungry, clothing the naked. Visit your neighbours, listen to them, give something. That’s what Christmas is all about.”

This is Francisco Faustino Francisco’s reaction, that of a 52-year-old displaced Mozambican who fled to Pemba after his town, Muidumbe, and his home were destroyed by terrorists. The father of five saw one child killed and four forced to become refugees, separated from their parents. This is what Chico says. He lives under a tarp in the backyard of Mrs Rosalina’s house, selling soap on the street in order to survive. This story of sorrow is transformed into the Gospel, it shows the true Christmas, when God became man to bring salvation to humanity. In Pemba as well.

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