, VANDUZI, Dec 29 – Sheltering from rain in a small tent, Titus Albaosui is trying to escape the fighting between government troops and rebel forces raging across central Mozambique and raising fears of civil war.
This year has seen a sharp escalation in violence, and more than 15,000 people have been forced to flee to government-run camps, relatives’ homes or across the border to Malawi and Zimbabwe.
The clashes between longtime rivals, the Frelimo government and Renamo, an armed insurgent group and also an elected opposition party, have revived the spectre of Mozambique’s civil war that ended more than 20 years ago.
“There is a war there — we could no longer live in our homes,” said Albaosui, a 24-year-old farmer who left almost everything behind to escape 130 kilometres (80 miles) to a camp in Vanduzi after his uncle was assassinated.
“Every day after 5:00 pm we had to go sleep in the forest,” he told AFP. “It was no longer possible to stay (in the village), so we fled. If you take things, you’re asked ‘where are you going’.”
Albaosui, who arrived at Vanduzi around two weeks ago with his wife and father, is one of 3,100 people now living in five government camps, according to official figures.
The authorities estimate several thousand more internally displaced people have escaped the conflict zone to stay with relatives elsewhere.
The UN refugee agency says 8,600 people have also fled from the conflict in neighbouring Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Mozambique is still recovering from its bloody 1976-1992 civil war when one million people died during years of sporadic fighting between Frelimo and Renamo.
But tensions have returned since 2013, and Renamo fighters again took up arms against Frelimo, accusing the ruling party of enriching itself at the expense of the southern African country.
– Old enemies –
Starting as a low-level insurgency, attacks have escalated over this past year.
“Since May-June, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people fleeing from attacks by Renamo gunmen,” Teixeira Almeida, provincial director of the National Institute for Disaster Management, told AFP.
Many displaced people would contest Almeida’s claim that Renamo is primarily responsible for the unrest, saying that government soldiers often treat local villagers as rebel sympathisers.
“Sometimes the army beats the population,” Pedro Zungo, a 40-year-old displaced farmer living at the Vandusi camp, said.
“When they arrive at a village and they don’t find anyone from Renamo, then they assault people and say ‘You are Renamo, because when we get here there’s nobody else’.”
A local Renamo representative also accused the government of running the camps only for Frelimo supporters.
“If in a camp, if you are a member of the opposition, you do not survive,” said Caetano Augusto.
“The political situation gets worse and worse. Our party representatives are being persecuted, they die every day,” he said, adding that government forces “have no shame, they do it in broad daylight, people get kidnapped anywhere.”
The Vanduzi camp has 40 tents pitched in straight lines and a basic health clinic for its 800 inhabitants, but the drinking water tank has been empty for two weeks and makeshift toilets were destroyed in a storm.
The fighting has often focused on Mozambique’s main roads, with Renamo attacking government convoys and civilian vehicles, and soldiers ruthlessly targeting suspected Renamo rebels in nearby villagers.
The death toll is unknown but scores of people are reported to have been killed this year, with both the Frelimo and Renamo parties also suffering assassinations of local politicians.
With more people fleeing the area, tentative moves were made in recent months towards holding peace talks under international mediation coordinated by the European Union.
But the peace process is now suspended indefinitely after setbacks including the killing of a Renamo negotiator and the failure of a planned meeting with Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama in the Gorongosa mountains, where he lives in hiding.