The death of an unarmed Mozambican woman – executed by soldiers – has been immortalised on film, the final moments of her life drawing into sharp focus the bloody toll of those caught between the army and the insurgents.
The woman, who is yet to be identified, is seen walking along a stretch of road with a group of soldiers on her heels.
She is naked, and her pace quickens as the soldiers close the distance while taunting her. One of the troops beats the woman repeatedly with a stick as she screams.
Suddenly one of the men raises his rifle and fires a shot, sending the frantic woman into a run. Her attackers follow before she is cut down by machine-gun fire.
Her body lies in a bloody heap while the gunmen jeer.
Jasmine Opperman, an analyst with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, said the extrajudicial execution had played out near Awassi, a village of great strategic importance in the province of Cabo Delgado.
The region has been the epicentre of a vicious and violent power struggle between insurgents of Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo, believed to be supported by the Islamic State group, and government forces.
Last month, in a major victory, the insurgents sacked the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia, the gateway to the heart of the country’s vast offshore gas fields, where $60bn (about R1-trillion) in projects are at risk.
In the port’s capture, fighters seized high-powered Mozambican police speedboats, which were then used at the weekend to attack a string of Mozambican islands, several of which are home to luxury SA tourist resorts.
“The soldiers told her to take them to the insurgents and when she refused, they shot her”
But as extremists and security forces trade blows, civilians bear the brunt of aggression and brutality meted out by both.
Opperman said that information from Awassi indicated that the woman had been accused of witchcraft before she was murdered.
“She had been accused of being a witch. The supernatural plays an extremely important role in the people of the northern region of Mozambique, and when she was pursued she is believed to have said that the insurgents had sent her,” she said.
“They [the soldiers] told her to take them to the insurgents and when she refused, they shot her. That is the version from my contact on the ground, and I would rate the information as reliable,” she said.
This could not be independently verified.
“Where there is a contradiction is that the supernatural plays no role with the insurgents … they don’t believe in that. We have never seen insurgents using muti or delving into the occult,” Opperman added.
She said the killing was tantamount to a war crime, and that elements of Mozambique’s armed forces had become a law unto themselves.
“Mob justice within the armed forces is present on the ground in Mozambique, no matter how much the government will deny it. If the locals start referring to the security forces as terrorists, then you know you have a serious problem,” she said.
“The military is not solving the problem, but has rather become part of it,” Opperman added.
In a statement released late on Monday the army said it considered the footage shocking and horrifying, and “above all, condemnable”.
“The FDS [Defence and Security Forces] reiterate that they do not agree with any barbaric act that substantiates the violation of human rights,” it said, calling for an investigation into the video’s authenticity.
The footage of the woman’s death follows calls by Amnesty International to investigate allegations of torture, beheadings and extrajudicial executions, allegedly perpetrated by government forces.
The government dismissed the allegations, saying insurgents regularly impersonate soldiers in an attempt to confuse national and international public opinion.
Zenaida Machado, researcher for Human Rights Watch, called for an investigation and said such acts, if committed by soldiers, sowed distrust among the population and strengthened the insurgents’ narrative.
“It’s the worst case of betrayal,” she said, adding that frightened people should not run from insurgents only to find themselves in danger from those supposed to keep them safe.
Piers Pigou, consultant at Crisis Group, said the release of the video undercut government efforts to pass off footage of atrocities as terrorist propaganda.
“It reflects a culture of impunity in elements of the security forces who obviously don’t regard the people there as human,” he said.
“It’s a rather damning indictment on a major challenge facing the security forces in terms of their long-term objective of winning hearts and minds, and putting in place a plan to address this insurgency,” Pigou added.
He said insurgent forces held the initiative and momentum in the battle for control of Cabo Delgado, and that brutalisation of civilians by soldiers hampered intelligence gathering and threatened to scupper any possibility of quashing the militants.
“We have a serious problem there. What is clear, looking at the percentage of attacks launched by insurgents, is that they retain the initiative and to a large extent the momentum,” he said.
“We have a population of people caught in the middle between the army and insurgents. They are the proverbial man in the middle,” Pigou added.