On his way from his garden, he heard screams of agony inside his neighbour’s house. There was fire engulfing the house; surrounding it were soldiers watching their handiwork with cold, hard eyes.
He had a dreadful premonition that his house—and with it his life and that of his family—were next.
Suddenly, there was a shout from a voice he recognised as one of his children’s from a nearby bush.
Stealthily, he moved towards the direction of the voice and found his family whimpering with fear under some shrubs.
He cannot recall where he got the strength, but he somehow gathered his family and crept away from the macabre scene, into the unknown, leaving behind everything they knew and had.
That is how 50-year-old Mumderanji Juao Mesinjala and his family fled his ancestral land at Ndande, north of Tete in Mozambique where a civil war is raging although the government in Maputo continues to downplay its gravity, especially on its civilian population.
Today, the father of eight has clocked 10 days at Kapise Refugee Camp, some 20 kilometres (km) north—west of Mwanza Boma, where he is recuperating alongside family members after running away from atrocities in his home country.
The year 2016 will ever remain etched in Mesinjala’s mind. First, he lost his neighbours in a ghastly manner through the fire and then left all the property he had accumulated over the years to violent political conflicts.
Conflicts in Mozambique’s western Tete province between the governing Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) and the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo) militias of long-time opposition leader Alfonso Dhlakama, has displaced tens of thousands of people since last year.
The mineral-rich Tete province is said to be Renamo’s stronghold and the asylum seekers claim the atrocities on civilians are being perpetrated by government forces.
The number of refugees trudging into Kapise Camp continues to rise daily. The people are fleeing from Zobue and Moatize regions, particularly in districts around Nkondedzi, Ndande and Mojo.
This development is raising concerns of a new refugee crisis in Malawi having previously hosted over a million other Mozambicans at Luwani Camp in Neno during the 16-year-old civil war which ended in 1992 following a ceasefire.
Malawi is also already hosting some 25 000 refugees at Dzaleka Camp in Dowa who fled conflicts and hunger in the Great Lakes Region and beyond, notably Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia and DR Congo.
Before embarking on his imprecise flight to Malawi, says Mesinjala, he was a respected farmer with property.
Today, the robust and once affluent farmer is a mere number among 11 274 as of yesterday, and rising, asylum seekers at Kapise Refugee Settlement Camp in a life-threatening situation.
He relives his last moments before escaping to Malawi as the most tragic of his half-century old life.
“That day will forever live with me. I saw death coming; I imagined my children and wife being killed mercilessly. But perhaps it was not just our time to die,” lamented Mesinjala in an interview with The Nation last weekend.
At that moment, Mesinjala explained, he did not know and still does not remember how he pulled himself together to hurriedly whisk them away.
“We never looked back afterwards. That was our survival because the next thing, from a distance, we saw our house on fire,” recalled Mesinjala who, among other assets, lost goats and pigs.
For two days, Mesinjala said, they walked a “very dangerous journey” looking for protection and carrying with them a few possessions. He does not remember how he managed to grab the few possessions, mainly children’s clothes.
“How we survived those days and nights only God knows,” recalls Mesinjala, who was yet to be provided with a tent at the time of the interview.
Mesinjala was a little boy in 1977 when Mozambique’s deadliest civil war that lasted 16 years killing up to a million people and displacing over five million others broke out between the two factions.
He had heard how people deserted his village in Ndande to Malawi for safety. Now, Mesinjala is in Malawi seeking protection of his children and wife. But he still has a sense of unease at the camp.
“For how long shall we remain dependent on well-wishers to feed us, dress us? We also have children who need education,” the tearful Mesinjala said.
Thousands of similar scenes are playing out each day as thousands of migrants cross the border into Malawi seeking an escape from the violent conflict and persecution in their villages.
Others are walking for several days, with just the clothes on them, to reach the camp, which is situated about 500 metres away from the Malawi-Mozambique border.
“We didn’t leave our homes for no reason. We fear war, there is war. Government soldiers are killing innocent civilians; they are persecuting people from the area for supporting Dhlakama,” a visibly worn out and penniless Maganizo Wenala from Kajiya 1 in Paswende said.
He said when government soldiers found him at his home; he was accused of feeding and harbouring Renamo soldiers.
“They entered my house while others stood guard on the veranda. Later they started burning my house, a maize barn followed; then they slaughtered my livestock. That we are still alive today, glory be to God. We have seen several of our relations losing their lives after being set ablaze in their houses,” he said.
More pitiful is an account of 16-year-old Lyness Stefano from Nkondezi who, besides being a single mother of a two-year-old baby, is compelled to also fend for her two little siblings and a cousin—all below the age of 12.
All wearing tattered clothes and barefoot, their image of desperation offers a thousand words of suffering.
They do not know where their parents are because they did not bid them farewell. Equally, Lyness cannot trace the father of her pale child.
They are not sure whether they are alive or dead because they have no information about them.
The violence allegedly carried out by government soldiers compelled Lyness and her relations to take their chances and cross into Malawi. They joined scores of other families and walked for nearly 48 hours to reach their destination.
She and her relatives, just like hundreds others, have just erected a flimsy makeshift shelter from wood and grass while waiting for a tarpaulin tent from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Village Head Kapise l, in whose area the refugees are accommodated, said most of the asylum seekers were reaching the area exhausted and hungry but with hope, only to encounter more challenges at the camp.
However, the village set up a local committee that welcomes the ‘guests’ alongside UNHCR officers before officially registering and settling them where there are spaces.
UNHCR field officer for Mwanza, Elsie Bertha Mills-Tetty, said in an interview the people undertake hazardous trips when fleeing their homes and it was the responsibility of the aid agencies to ensure that their predicaments are lessened upon reaching the camp.
Mills-Tetty also said the situation was now improving with the establishment of a UNHCR office at Mwanza which is monitoring the situation throughout. n