Conflict, Security, Peace and Reconciliation

MAF partner, ‘Ambassador Aviation’ evacuates refugees in Mozambique

20th June 2021

Ambassador Aviation’s 2nd evacuation flight from Afungi Airstrip in Mozambique

Thousands of people have fled Palma on the northeast coast of Mozambique following terror attacks on 24 March. Since 31 March, local MAF partner – Ambassador Aviation – has rescued more than 800 refugees in a joint emergency evacuation effort…

On 24 March, militants raided Palma – a town in Cabo Delgado Province causing some 70,000 people to flee their homes (source: UN). According to the BBC, Palma’s total population is around 75,000.

On 31 March, Ambassador Aviation made their first two round-trips from Palma to the region’s capital, Pemba –  a 50 minute flight south – to evacuate 13 adults, 12 children and six babies.

A mother and her children, including her newborn baby, are evacuated to safety

Due to the number of casualties caused by ongoing fighting in the area, medical teams have set up a temporary treatment facility in Quitunda Village near Palma.

On 13 and 14 June, Ambassador Aviation flew several health workers to Afungi (nearest airstrip to Quitunda) plus over 300 kg of medical supplies. They treated around 270 patients.

34 critically injured patients were flown to hospital in Pemba including the elderly and children – one two-year-old boy was shot in the leg.

On 21 June, Ambassador Aviation flew a further four health workers to Afungi to treat a growing number of patients. Another eight passengers who needed critical care were flown to Pemba including a baby whose mother was killed.

Orphaned baby flown to Pemba Hospital

To date, Ambassador Aviation has evacuated more than 800 refugees on over 150 flights.

One passenger and eyewitness who runs a nursery in Palma told MAF that the attack began right outside his nursery – gunfire shook the building. The man fled into the bush and hid there for 15 days.

When attempting to return home, he learned that insurgents had broken into his property using it for their own ends. Following his ordeal, the man is very grateful for the evacuation flight to Pemba.

Most of the passengers were women and children. I helped carry a few of their bags – all their possessions after fleeing their homes.  One woman had her foot wrapped in cloth and was limping along. I saw another hand her baby to her child, who was about 4 years old, and try to carry this woman on her back. 

Most didn’t speak Portuguese, only the local language. Although just an hour’s flight away, they were going to a city with a different language after living in a remote town. Getting on a plane, as foreign as it was to them, was the least scary thing they’d done – they had fled violence.  Imagine leaving everything and facing a completely unknown future.  
Jill Holmes, MAF’s Disaster Response Specialist

Storm Jobo has made matters worse

Since 31 March, Ambassador Aviation pilots Dave LePoidevin and Dave Holmes, have been coordinating evacuation efforts from Afungi Airstrip, which is six miles from Palma. A Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft had been used to evacuate refugees from the area.

To make matters worse, Storm Jobo hit Cabo Delgado Province on 22 April delaying Ambassador Aviation’s delivery of food and emergency supplies.

Barefooted children are amongst the evacuees from Palma

The Afungi peninsula is heavily guarded due to the intermittent construction of a multibillion-dollar liquified natural gas project owned by French energy giant ‘Total’. Private security forces, local police and the Mozambiquan military maintain control of the area that includes Afungi Airstrip.

The terrorist attack was launched just hours after Total announced that it would resume work on its gas project. Since then, Total has been forced to suspend their operations and evacuate their staff.

Emergency evacuations of local residents are being undertaken by Ambassador Aviation, other agencies and by boat.

A long queue of evacuees waiting to be vetted at Afungi Airstrip to prevent infiltration

Deciding who to rescue

Evacuees entering Afungi Airstrip are screened by police and security forces to prevent terrorist infiltration before they are accepted on the flights. This has resulted in long queues of hundreds of people.

Once vetted, passengers are given a hot meal.

Many of the evacuees are not originally from Palma and do not speak Portuguese, but were working in the area when they were forced to leave the volatile situation.

A wounded evacuee is unloaded at Pemba Airport and met by the Red Cross

Unfortunately, Ambassador Aviation aircraft can only seat up to 14 passengers at a time, so deciding who to rescue is incredibly difficult.

The most challenging part is deciding who to put on the flight. There are sick and injured people, pregnant women, and families with many children.

We are unable to take them all and we can’t break up families with many children, so it’s never a simple process. It’s so difficult to look into their eyes and hear them plead to be on the flight, and leave some behind.

Diniz Cardoso, MAF Operations 

Evacuees land in Pemba where they are helped by the Red Cross

Engineers and equipment also flown in

Palma’s hospital, banks and the state prosecutor’s office have all been destroyed in what the BBC describes as ‘one of the biggest’ extremist attacks in the region since militants launched their insurgency in 2017.

In addition to evacuations, Ambassador Aviation has flown in mobile phone tower engineers, cables, a power supply and repair equipment in a bid to restore damaged communications infrastructure.

Ambassador Aviation is also working in partnership with local humanitarian agency, VAMOZ (Voluntários Anónimos de Moçambique) flying in over 2,700kg of food, drinking water, clothing and mosquito nets.

Some supplies are for fleeing survivors who had attempted to enter Tanzania but were prevented from crossing the border and had nothing with them to sustain them.

Mother and child rescued by MAF affiliate, Ambassador Aviation

The need for evacuation flights, food, medical supplies and other relief continues. In response, MAF has secured another aircraft and pilot from partner, Mercy Air in South Africa.

In total, nearly 3,000 people have been killed and almost 800,000 have fled the region since the extremist attacks began in 2017. Half of the refugees are children (source: Al Jazeera).

MAF partner, Ambassador Aviation, doing what they do best: