‘There was a group of us for cooking, cleaning or marry the Al Shabaab bosses and if you looked like a monkey they killed you’

‘There was a group of us for cooking, cleaning or marry the Al Shabaab bosses and if you looked like a monkey they killed you’


Sheila, 30, was kidnapped for one year between 2021 and 2022. During captivity, she was forced to find food and water for the fighters and was also used as a foil to help the group kidnap other women. She lived in a crowded tent and was beaten by fighters on many occasions.

Sheila says the military saved her and several others and took them to a safer district of Cabo Delgado. She now wants to start a business and build a new life selling Matapa, a popular Mozambican stew that she’s especially good at making.

I was living in Mocimboa da Praia when al-Shabab found us on our farm. We were harvesting crops. I was kidnapped for one year, from 2021-2022, but my children were not kidnapped as they were with their grandmother.

Our job [during captivity] was to find food and water for them. If you refused you were punished or killed. They were also forcing women to have sex, and when they were pregnant, they were taking babies out of their bellies.

The first time al-Shabab took me to a farm to find food, they asked me to talk to the woman there and say: “Auntie, how are you?”. That way, the women would think the fighters were not there, and they would then attack them from behind.

There were different places in the camp: tents for workers and tents for bosses. We were 20 women in one tent, and we were sleeping on the ground. There were a lot of men; I could not count how many.

I was doing different jobs. I was cooking and sourcing food and water. There was a group for cooking, a group for cleaning, a group that had to marry the bosses, and if you looked “like a monkey”, as they said, they were going to kill you.

They abused us a lot. I was beaten on many occasions, especially if I rejected anything they asked. Even if I was doing good things, if they decided it’s the day that they punish everyone, you will be punished.

The ruins of a hospital in the coastal town of Mocimboa da Praia, which was occupied by al-Shabab jihadists between August 2020 and August 2021.

With the other women, we had unity. When somebody was not feeling well and they had a job to do, we helped her so she would not be killed. There were a lot of women who were killed when I was there. A lot of them.

One day, while I was getting water for the camp with other women, we saw armed men. I was surprised, and we started to yell. The armed men told us: “You do not have to run. We are not terrorists. We are military, and we are here to save you.”

It is easy to say I can go back, but when you remember what happened to you, you do not want to.

We did not believe them, and so we started to run. They fired their guns in the air so we stopped. They started to ask questions. “Were you kidnapped ?” We said yes. They asked if we knew where we were and had come from. We said that we knew how to get in and out of the camp but did not know where we were.

The military saved us and took us to another district of Cabo Delgado. We stayed for two weeks in a shelter there without knowing where our family was.

The military asked if we wanted to go back to Mocimboa da Praia, but we said we did not want to go back because we know what happened there. They asked us where we wanted to live. We said it was better in another city of Cabo Delgado.

We were sent to a city and we stayed for one week in a camp of displaced people. We were almost without food until some people started bringing food to support us. From there some people asked if we needed help for a house.

I stayed at several people’s houses until one woman told me I could stay at her home [on a long-term basis]. She said she was going to stay in another city and I could stay with her. Now, I am there with my children.

At this time, I was receiving food from the World Food Programme, but not from the Mozambican government. But it stopped, and I now have no help. The only person who is listening to me is the head of the community where I live.

I had a business with my husband in Mocimboa da Praia, but when I was kidnapped, he ran away to another place. Because I stayed for such a long time in the bush, he remarried.

I was feeling so sad that he remarried. He never cares about us and our children. He never comes to visit. There are times when some of my children are crying for food, and if their father was here I would have more money.

I am trying to look for a job like cleaning and washing. I had one but the owners were rude and it was very badly paid, so I had to stop. I didn’t tell my story to people around me. If I told people, nobody would accept me and take me in their home.

I want to go back to my village, but three months ago al-Shabab came back there and killed people. So I am too worried to go there. It is easy to say I can go back, but when you remember what happened to you, you do not want to.

I would love to start a business and have a new life. I am a very good cook, and I make the best Matapa (a popular Mozambican stew) you can find.

Neila, 37, witnessed her husband and several relatives being killed by al-Shabab on the day that she was kidnapped. During a month in captivity, she was repeatedly raped and forcibly married to a fighter. She managed to escape with a group of women, and her plan now is to open a shop and get her children back in school.

The day I was kidnapped, they tied my husband in front of me and told me to stand and watch what they would do. They cut off his head with a knife and also his hands. The rest of my family were also killed. My cousins did not survive, and their kids were orphaned. They are with me now.

I stayed for one month in an al-Shabab camp. They treated me like rubbish. Thank God, I managed to escape. I ran away. I managed to hide and reach a city where I found help. It was not easy for me there. Even for me to speak about it now is so hard.

[On the journey to the camp] they took everything from us so that we could not communicate with anyone. They covered our faces, so we couldn’t see where you were passing by. You walk in the bush and you do not see anything: no cars, no cities.

I have no idea how many women were in the camp, but I know there were a lot. Some were married to the bosses. They could not come to where I was, and you cannot know how many of them there were inside those other tents.

There were women who were in our group, and one day the men would tell them, “Let’s go”. And then they would never come back. So nobody knows if they are alive or if they were killed.

If they discovered that you were not a Muslim, it was more difficult for you. If they discovered that you were a Christian, they could kill you there. Also, if they found you without your head covered, they could kill you on the spot. There is no negotiating.

They put us in a line and chose women who are lighter coloured. They called us by the name of an expensive rice here: Lulu. It is the women they wanted the most, and they raped us more.

We were always thinking about escaping. I thought the worst thing that could happen would be if they caught me. But if I stayed in the camp then I would also be dead, so I decided to go.

Because of my skin colour, I was chosen to be married, and I was abused even more. Sometimes, it was my ‘husband’ raping me; sometimes it was other men. Sometimes it happened that one of the bosses picked a woman to be their wife. Nobody else can touch you then, but if you don’t have a boss saying that, any man can rape you.

It was my ‘husband’ who gave me the courage to run away. This man always came in the afternoon to me, and I was always crying. So he started feeling bad too. He told me that if you want to run away from here, you have to go in the afternoon, not in the morning. He said wait until the other men come back, so it is dark outside and so they are tired and will not go back to follow you.

I was in a group of five women. We were always thinking about escaping. I thought the worst thing that could happen would be if they caught me. But if I stayed in the camp then I would also be dead, so I decided to go.

We talked as if we were going to fetch water, and then we ran away. Each one of us went a different way, and I never saw them again, even on the road. It was not a place for you to wait for someone. If you waited too long you could be found.

I arrived in a village after running away and there were some nice people there. They helped us until we arrived here in this city. I got help not from the government, but from the community I am now part of and the Christian community. Still, not a lot of people are helping me. I hope it will change.

I am trying to build a life, and my dream is to have a shop like the one I used to have in my village. But I do not even have money to try to open a business or anything. I do not even have money to pay for books for my children to go to school. Still, I will remain here – job or not – and I believe that one day God will provide my own house here. When I hear others suggesting I go back to my village, I just look at them and I say, “I will never go back”.

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