The World

How a Dunkirk-Style Boatlift Rescued Thousands of Civilians From the Islamic State

Improvised fleet evacuates thousands trapped on Mozambique beach.

With a large ship on the water in the background, people carrying possessions walk up a dirt path toward an open gate in a fence.
Internally displaced people arrive in the sea port of Pemba in Mozambique on April 1, 2021, after evacuating from the shores of the town of Palma. ALFREDO ZUNIGA/Getty Images

While maritime traffic watchers were focused on the fate of the Suez Canal–clogging cargo ship Ever Given, a different drama was taking place to the south, in the waters off Mozambique. Over the course of several days, an improvised flotilla of dozens of boats rescued thousands of people beseiged by ISIS-affiliated insurgents in the town of Palma, in a feat observers compared to the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk.

The rescue was part of an ongoing breakdown in the region driven by the rise of ISIS’ Central African Province (IS CAP or Central Africa Wilayah). IS CAP began carrying out attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo in April 2019, and has been growing ever since. Throughout 2020, the group killed civilians in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, starting with the murder of 52 people who refused to join them in April 2020. Since then, the group has taken, lost, and then retaken the town of Mocimboa de Praia, which it declared its capital. IS CAP has also managed to free more than 1,300 prisoners and seize Indian Ocean islands where celebrities previously vacationed. The violence has forced 670,000 people to flee their homes, and more than 7,000 lives have been lost.

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The French energy company Total, which operates a gas extraction facility in the province, withdrew its workers due to this threat. On March 24, Total employees returned to their hotel in Palma, a town of 75,000 people, to prepare to recommence their work. This triggered what seems to have been a planned assault by IS CAP–affiliated Al -Shabab militants (who are not linked to the Somali group of the same name) on the town.

The militants cut phone lines and attacked from the north, joined by another column which came from Tanzania. One thousand government troops in the city were routed and two thirds of the city burned as militants beheaded civilians in the street. The task of identifying militants was made made more difficult because the IS CAP forces wear the same uniforms as government troops, and both sides seem equally fond of  beheading prisoners.

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Lionel Dyck—the founder of the South African private security contracting company Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), and a former colonel in the military of Africa’s penultimate white ethnostate, Rhodesia—said his employees were the first to respond. In an interview with CNN he said: “The situation on the ground was awful when my pilots got there. The first thing they saw were food trucks on the road where the drivers and their assistants had been pulled out and beheaded. They were lying next to their cars,”

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Nearly 200 people, including local and foreign Total workers, rushed to the Amaarula Hotel and sheltered in the lobby . They were soon surrounded with machine guns and mortars. In the courtyard, they spelled out “SOS” with white stones, hoping to get some international attention and help. Quickly, a consortium of security contractors, Total employees, and the few government troops who had not fled set about trying to rescue the people stuck in the hotel.

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By March 26, DAG had sent small helicopters to rescue people in groups of four or six. After clearing a perimeter, they evacuated approximately 20 guests until they ran low on fuel and ammunition. Larger Hind helicopters belonging to another company were forced back by the mortar and machine gun fire. The remaining hotel guests, along with local civilians, attempted to make a run for the beach, as militants controlled all the land routes out of the town. The hotel guests left in 17 vehicles, of  which only seven made it. One man, Gregory Knox, escaped carrying the body of his son.

That is when the boats stepped in. When the seven SUVs containing hotel residents arrived at the beach, along with other vehicles and local civilians on foot, they faced an uneasy wait, spending the night exposed and afraid on a beach that the BBC has said was “strewn with headless bodies.” Early the next morning, the boats began to arrive . As many as a dozen vessels joined in—”“a real motley crew of all types,” Tim Walker, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said, “including some ferries from Tanzania, as well as pleasure craft.” In among them were tugboats, some of which usually worked with offshore gas operations, and local dhows.

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As in the fabled Dunkirk evacuation, Walker said, smaller craft got close to the beach, then ferried refugees to larger ones waiting offshore. On marinetraffic.com, little blue vessels identified as “tugs and special craft” shuffled back and forward, the ferry appeared as a green dot, and the dhows weren’t visible at all. Slowly, the little blue dots started moving south in a loose formation, heading to safety

“I would not describe the assembled boats as a ‘fleet,’” Walker said, “as that implies far more organization and planning than was the case.”

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Over the course of several days, the mass rescue picked up an estimated 3,000 people, taking them 155 miles south to the safe port of Pemba. In a loose group of 8 vessels The local website Pinnacle News reported that more than 1,300 of them were rescued by the Tanzanian Sea Star ferry, which is just 100 meters long and 25 meters wide. Photos show civilians crammed shoulder to shoulder on its deckOther photos showed small dhows, totally overloaded and often taken without the permission of their owners, according to Pinnacle.

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Marinetraffic.com showed vessels making the trip from Palma’s bay as late as Monday the 29th of March and a number of tugs, passenger, and cargo vessels in the port of Pemba.

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For those arriving in Pemba, the ordeal is not over. This route south has been used for months as the insurgency in Cabo Delgado has grown, “tragedies are common,” Walker said. “For instance, in October 2020, over 40 people, many of them children, drowned after an overcrowded vessel sank while sailing to Pemba.”

So far, none of the rescue boats from Palma have sunk, but some refugees faced a three-day journey during which they didn’t have access to drinking water. Local government officials forced them to remain on their boats for inspection before allowing them off into the city. Access for journalists has been limited by the Mozambique government.

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The government has good reason to limit journalistic access. While DAG mercenaries were pivotal in the rescue of civilians in Palma, they have not always been so kind to noncombatants. Fifty three witnesses in the region told Amnesty International that “DAG operatives have fired machine guns from helicopters and dropped hand grenades indiscriminately into crowds of people, as well as repeatedly fired at civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, and homes.” Government forces have also been documented torturing and beheading captives according to Amnesty International. Official sources have dismissed the allegations, saying that ““One of the tactics used by terrorists in their macabre incursions against the population is to pretend to be elements of the FDS (Defense and Security Forces) in a veiled attempt to confuse national and international public opinion,”

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Security contractors and Mozambique’s FDS  attempted to retake the Palma on March 31, but in an interview Lionel Dyck said “”As I sit here, Palma is lost. Unless something happens, they have lost Palma. ” Meanwhile,  Human Rights Watch has called for greater transparency from the government, which continues to deny reporters access or allow questions to be asked at its press conferences In Palma, Hundreds are still missing  and as many as 10,000 still await rescue.

Walker says that maintaining control of the coast is vital in limiting the tragedy unfolding in Palma: “The best available means of escape, as well as the only feasible way to supply the increasing number of internally displaced people with aid, is to gain and keep control of the coast and help communities from the sea.”

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