The first that people in the Mozambican city of Palma knew of the attack by Islamist militants was the sound of gunfire that erupted at 4pm on Wednesday afternoon.
A focus of natural gas development in the Indian Ocean, the town, located close to the border with Tanzania, was under sustained attack from two directions by the Isis-affiliated al-Shabaab group, who have mounted a campaign of escalating terror in the northern Cabo Delgado region. The group do not have any known connection to Somalia’s jihadists of that name, and have been active in Cabo Delgado since 2017, but their attacks have become much more frequent and deadly over the past year.
The picture of precisely what occurred between Wednesday and Sunday, when a flotilla of boats rescued hundreds of people, including many foreign workers, from Palma’s beaches, remains deeply confused.
But emerging accounts paint of picture of a brutal, days-long siege and deadly ambushes on those fleeing. Survivors have described hiding while waiting to be rescued by boat from a beach strewn with headless bodies.
“It was total chaos,” said Lionel Dyck, the founder of the South African private security company Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), which helped evacuate a number of those trapped by helicopter. “They completely wreaked havoc, and there was no evacuation plan.”
The militants, who cut telephone lines as they entered Palma, were aware it was a high-value target. Located close to a multibillion gas-field development project at Afungi, run by the French energy company Total, the former fishing town has seen new hotels spring up to house foreign workers.
Among them is the Amarula Lodge, a complex of cabins around a swimming pool close to the beach to which foreign workers fled as the militants closed in and laid siege to the hotel.
Total’s workers had only returned to Amarula on the day the siege began, having been evacuated after a previous security scare – suggesting meticulous planning on the part of the attackers.
By Thursday, with the militants in control of large parts of the town and the Mozambican forces overwhelmed, the situation at the Amarula Lodge was desperate. Those inside spelled out SOS to helicopters in the air with whitewashed stones.
One South African who was rescued early in the siege described the town being overrun. “The Amarula lodge was completely surrounded and under attack from mortar and machine-gun fire. And these guys [DAG] came in with their choppers and cleared the perimeter to get at least four chopper-loads of people out: 23 of us.
“I was on the last chopper out, luckily, because they stopped because of a lack of fuel and daylight.”
Larger Hind helicopters, able to carry between 30-40 people and run by a second security company, Paramount, appear to have been forced to pull back from the rescue efforts for as long as 36 hours, after they came under fire.
According to audio of security debriefing calls passed to the Guardian, a second plan – for the smaller DAG helicopters to give air cover to a convoy of those trapped at the Amarula Lodge so that they could get to the beach and be rescued by boat, collapsed. The pilots reported no signs of boats nearby, and there were reports of boats elsewhere being driven back by mortar and machine gun fire.
On Thursday night, the DAG helicopters withdrew, low on fuel and ammunition and unable to operate in darkness.
At that point, said the South African, those inside the lodge sent out a last desperate call for help, and decided to “make a run for it [the following day] because the place was being assaulted with heavy weaponry”, despite advice from DAG to stay put and wait for a rescue because of the risk of ambush on the road.
On Friday afternoon, 17 four-wheel drives gathered in the hotel car park and were loaded with everyone that they could carry, perhaps unaware that the militants were in control of nearby coastal road that runs parallel to the beach.
“They headed towards the coast,” said the South African. “They went through two ambushes. One of my supervisors was killed. And I don’t know how many others.”
The first ambush, by all accounts, was almost by the hotel gates, with the second hitting the cars a little later. Of the 17 vehicles to set off, only seven broke through from the siege, and among those seven cars, seven people were killed and several more were wounded.
Among those killed was Adrian Nel, aged 40, a South African working on building accommodation for the Total gas plant at Afungi, who was in a car with his father and younger brother.
Also missing was a British citizen who worked at RA International, a contracting company headquartered in Dubai.
In interviews, Nel’s mother, Meryl Knox, said her husband, Gregory, managed to make it out of Palma carrying the body of their son, and was rescued. Her other son was also able to escape.
“This could have been avoided,” she added. “My son could still be alive today.”
By Sunday, as Mozambican forces appeared to be gaining control of the town again and the militants withdrew back into the bush, rescue boats – including an offshore tug, a supply ship and a ferry chartered by Total – were able to reach many of those trapped, rescuing hundreds, as DAG’s helicopters joined the search for dozens still missing in the convoy attack.
Commenting on the level of planning involved in the attack, Nathan Hayes, Africa analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit said: “The attack by the insurgents seems well planned and organised, with sophisticated military tactics employed, suggesting that the attacks were not purely reactionary to Total’s earlier announcement.
“The insurgents would, nevertheless, have known that work in Area 1 [the Total Afungi site] would soon resume, and the liquid natural gas sector is a major target.”
As the cost to families, Total’s energy business, and Mozambique begins to be counted, for now the effort is focused on those missing who might still be alive and hiding in the bush.