Monday 21 June 2021
In March, Islamist militants attacked the town of Palma, in northern Mozambique – the site of a $20bn gas project. They besieged a hotel, where more than 200 civilians were taking shelter. Help would soon be on its way, they were told. But the rescue never came. Why? In our new three-part series, we investigate what happened
A map of the area in northern Mozambique where the attack took place
[Clip: Sound of choppers, gunfire and men speaking]
That screeching noise that you can hear – that’s the sound of a chopper.
And as it gets closer, it starts to shoot. It’s aiming at Islamist militants – who have surrounded and besieged a hotel.
It’s trying desperately to beat them back, as more than 200 civilians are trapped inside.
To the person who filmed this video on his phone, a man called Wesley, this chopper – and that sound – brings with it the promise of survival.
They’d been waiting for nearly three days for someone, anyone, to rescue them.
“Are those big choppers coming?”Audio recorded from the hotel
And here, now, finally, someone is coming for them.
Or, so they think.
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”Audio recorded from the hotel
Nick Alexander: We suddenly realised we’re completely alone and no one’s coming to fetch us.
Janik Armstrong: And I just wrote him a message and I just said “I love you, I love you, I love you, you can do this.”
Wesley Nel: It’s like a nightmare that you’re stuck in. That this just cannot be real.
Zenaida Machado: Feeling scared. Waiting for a rescue that never came.
Victoria Hickson: They were abandoned, and that makes me so fucking angry.
I’m Basia Cummings and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast. And this week, I’m bringing you an investigation in three parts.
A story of broken promises at the Amarula Hotel in Palma, northern Mozambique, and of what happened to the men, women and children who were abandoned inside.
When the attack on Palma happened in March of this year, 2021, it was covered by the international press, but it didn’t get a huge amount of attention.
So when I first interviewed the two men at the heart of this story, who you’re gonna meet in a moment, I didn’t really know what to expect.
I knew that there’d been an attack, I knew a little about the insurgency. But I came out of the interview pale, blotchy from tears, and a bit broken.
“I’m so sorry Wesley”Basia crying
I said, slightly frantically to my colleagues, who must’ve thought I’d gone a bit mad – that this story was extraordinary.
I set out to try and understand what had happened.
I spoke to more than 20 people – contractors, aid workers, local residents, security experts, eye witnesses.
And the story that has emerged is of a 20 billion-dollar promise. About corruption and extremism, and how they feed off each other.
And it’s about three men: Nick, Wesley, and Wesley’s brother, Adrian.
It’s about how they – and thousands of Mozambican civilians – were abandoned.
So first, let me introduce you to these guys properly.
Nick: Okay, are you guys recording video as well, or is it just audio?
Basia: And Wesley Nel.
Wesley: I’m shy to say what I had for breakfast.
Basia: They were once competitors in the construction industry and now they’re friends. They’re bonded by what they went through in March.
On a humid afternoon, me in London, Nick and Wes on a patchy internet connection from South Africa, we started, of course, at the beginning.
Wes: It’s a typical little town in Mozambique.
Nick: Coastal, you know it was very remote.
Basia: Nick and Wes were in the town of Palma, in the northern province in Mozambique, up near the Tanzanian border.
Wes: When we first started driving up from Pemba to Palma, and some of the routes that we would go through, a lot of those villages had never seen white people before in their lives.
Nick: Up until recently there wasn’t even an entire road in Palma. You know, there was still wildlife there until recently.
Basia: These guys, they build things, and thanks to a huge discovery, there was suddenly a hell of a lot of building going on in Palma.
Because, a decade ago – several giant gas fields were found off the coast of northern Mozambique.
One of the largest gas deposits ever found in Africa in fact, leading to a $60 billion series of projects to extract the gas, including a $20 billion site now led by a French oil and gas company called Total.
Suddenly, this poor, remote region was the centre of attention, and international headlines were asking: is Mozambique the world’s next energy superpower?
“The tranquil Bay of Pemba in northern Mozambique is undergoing a rapid transformation….”
“It may not look like it but Mozambique is one of the world’s new energy hotspots.”News clips about Mozambique’s gas boom
But there was a catch. And it was a big one.
Since 2017, there had been attacks on towns and villages in the region where the gas was found.
Attacks by a terrorist group called Al-Shabab, or “The Youth”. But they’re not linked to the group you might have heard of before.
“For three years people living in parts of Northern Mozambique have lived with violence, death and destruction.”
“Territories which the armed groups now control are inching closer and closer towards those gas facilities.”News clips about Al-Shabab in Mozambique
They had attacked towns, beheaded civilians, abducted young girls. And by December 2020, rumours were swirling that al-Shabab were coming for Palma – this town of 70,000 people now bustling with foreign contractors there to work on the gas project.
So Total, the French energy giant leading on the billion-dollar gas projects in Palma, suspended its operations.
It was too dangerous to work.
Nick and Wes evacuated.
But in the end, nothing significant actually materialised.
And so, slowly, this year, after that first scare, the contractors started to go back to Palma.
On the morning of Wednesday 24 March, Total issued a press release and said that work would now resume on the gas project.
That afternoon, Wes was sitting with his brother and his dad and other members of his team in the canteen in their compound in the town.
They had been putting up accommodation and infrastructure for gas workers – mostly prefab buildings – these simple, metal constructions with green corrugated iron roofs. But hundreds of them.
Wes: One of our guys, a local guy from Pemba, got a phone call from his uncle who’s in the military. He came running into the camp and said, “guys, they’re attacking Palma.” So, we said, okay, are you certain, you know, like Nick said, there’s so many rumors you don’t know. And he said a hundred percent, it’s from his uncle, they’re taking Palma.
Basia: In another part of the construction site in Palma, Nick was sitting in his office when a local guy from his team came in.
Nick: The guys came into the office again and said, now, listen, this is serious. We need to leave, right now.
Basia: At around three o’clock, it happened.
Al-Shabab attacked Palma.
They shut off the main routes in and out of the area. And they shot indiscriminately.
The town was in panic.
A local street vendor called Assane described how the police rushed in and told them to evacuate.
Assane [translated]: My sister got home from school and she told us that, we got that information from her. So when she said the situation wasn’t good, each one of us got ready. But we did think it was a lie because everyday we hear that the situation isn’t good. It wasn’t true, but now suddenly it was true. We saw the police, they were saying “go, go, go, go”, they were telling us to leave the neighborhood. I was certain of it, I saw two military men leaving downtown and heading towards where the terrorists were.
Basia: Both Wes and Nick, in charge of around 65 people between them, suddenly had to move, and move quick.
And let me just draw you a map here.
We’re on the Afungi Peninsula, just below the border with Tanzania, on the Indian Ocean.
And everything that we’re talking about here is clustered together. The town of Palma is right on the coast, and the Total gas compound – which was being built for thousands of workers – is about 6km to the south as the crow flies.
The Amarula Hotel, where many of the foreign contractors had been staying – that was just a kilometer north of the town.
And that’s where Nick headed straight away.
Nick: We just drove as quick as we could. There was people running from the west into town and there was people running through town towards the beach. We just got into Amarula and the shooting started around the hotel.
Basia: Wes and his team told their staff to make their way home immediately. And then they decided to drive north, up to the Tanzanian border.
But very quickly, they realised that this was a mistake.
Wes: As we came out of our camp, there at the corner, across the road was the Amarula, on the left was Palma. We couldn’t go left because there was a whole lot of people walking from Palma town towards us. And they said, no, we can’t go that way. So we decided to go right, towards the Tanzanian border. And that’s when we first got shot at. And probably 10 shots: “bababababa”. My brother was driving, he stopped and he just did a huge donut as we call it, turned around. And everyone was just shouting, “drive drive drive.” The guys were shouting “go to the Amarula, go to the Amarula.”
Basia: And let me just make it clear – because I think some of us (me included) have a stereotype about South African contractors working in far flung bits of the continent: Wes and Nick, they’re construction experts. They build houses and offices. Wes’ ambitions for his company, Cube Modular, is to solve the housing crisis across Africa.
Neither of them had never been in a conflict zone before, or had they been shot at.
And it was fleeing the sudden onslaught of violence that on Wednesday afternoon – Nick, Wes, Wes’s dad and his brother, and around 100 other locals, came together to take shelter in the Amarula.
From there, they could hear the gunfire, the mortar shells, the bombardment of the town.
But they figured it wouldn’t be long before the situation was brought under control.
After all, the military was there – and Total too.
There was a lot of money riding on the gas project going ahead.
Surely, they would have a plan.
They know now, they told me, just how naive that was.
By Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of other people fleeing the attack were coming to the gates, begging to be let in.
In the town there had been beheadings and insurgents spotted with serious weapons – carrying AK-47 automatic rifles, RPD and PKM machine guns and heavy mortars.
And although they were nervous of being overrun, the hotel and its security guards allowed more people – mostly local women and children – to come in, to safety.
Assane, the local street vendor, was one of them.
Assane [translated]: We could hear those guys shooting, they were shooting, it was them. The second they actually got to the gates and they started banging. The security men were there, they were there listening to the voices of the terrorists. They were surrounding us all.
Basia: Though it was guarded by high walls and metal gates at the front, the back of the hotel was exposed.
And the hotel, it’s important to say, wasn’t one big building – it was lots of tiny rooms spread out over gardens, with a big helipad at the back.
It was really open to attack.
Another Mozambican man we spoke to – who asked to remain anonymous because of how traumatised he is, and whose testimony here is being read by an actor – spoke of just how vulnerable they were.
Actor: I was scared as I felt Amarula had no security, we couldn’t protect ourselves, we couldn’t believe that no one would get in. Amarula is a simple hotel, nothing special.
Basia: By late on Wednesday, around 200 people were inside the Hotel, including around 20 foreigners. In Wes’ videos you can see them all, outside, sometimes gathering in groups, sometimes alone.
And with no phone signal, the people lucky enough to still have their phones – mostly the foreign contractors – were reliant on the hotel’s patchy satellite internet to tell their families they were safe.
This is Tori, Nick’s partner – who was in England as this was all unfolding.
Tori: One said there’s been an incident close by and I was like, what? Are you okay? What’s going on? I said, you’re frightening me. He said, bringing our guys to Amarula as well, I’ll let you know what’s happening. And I said to him, please, I love you. I love you. And I said, is there a lot of security there and he said, no, not at Amarula. It’s just unarmed. And I said I need you safe. Keep me posted. And then about an hour later, he said, choppers are on the way. I said security or evacuation, he said security.
Then he tried to call me on a sat phone, so at least I had a number that I could every now and then try and get hold of him. He said we’ve been eating in the dark but people are moving back to their rooms. He said the chopper never arrived.
Basia: The civilians were hiding between the buildings to avoid being hit by stray bullets.
Wes shared a load of videos with me that he shot during the siege – and one video in particular struck me.
[Clip: Gun shots]
Everyone is lying on their stomachs, on the floor of the hotel bar, this straw roof above them.
Every so often you can hear the sound of mortar shells landing and you can see the people in the video flinching.
Adrian, Wes’s brother, looks directly at the camera and his eyes are wide.
“Dad, lie down”Recording from the hotel
It’s a moment you can see the terror. You can feel how close the militants are.
Wes: That’s when a hell of a lot of shooting started and Nick, I mean, it’s hard to even explain just thousands of gunshots and the mortars were already going off at that stage.
Nick: I think so. They intensified in the evening, but there was shots around the hotel and then a lot of shooting in town.
Wes: And so people were all in between the houses and the trees, people using the big baobab trees as shelter for the gunfire. And there was, I remember now, there was a lot of mortars going off and it didn’t feel that far away from us, you know, it felt a couple of hundred meters, if that. A hundred meters. So, really at that stage we thought shit. Now all of a sudden it becomes real and it’s not just two insurgents, like we thought.
Nick: On Wednesday, the town was just getting hammered all night. I mean, like Wesley said, an unbelievable amount of RPGs. And we heard mortars as well and just automatic gunfire went on the whole night. And it was very unsettling. We were, you know, trying to get to sleep. We’re trying to get some sleep. But yeah, by then we were scared and we felt vulnerable there. We had no security really. There was no armed security for us. We just had the hotel walls around us.
Basia: By Thursday, the numbers inside the hotel walls had grown to over 200.
Wes and Nick were awake in the early hours at around 4 or 5AM, and they were struggling to sleep.
But they figured the military would be there soon.
And this is where each step of this story just seems to get worse and worse.
Because what they didn’t know – or at least, they didn’t fully understand at that time – was that the militants were busy blocking the roads.
Better armed and organised than the army itself, they had made the chance of any land rescue much too dangerous.
So to get out, they were going to need choppers. And the military did have helicopters. Some of which could carry dozens of people.
But they weren’t coming.
By now, they had been shot at and had been pulled out.
Nick: There was a spotter plane that flew over. I think they were working for Dag or working with Dag, but the spotter plane came over and I mean, they just shot the hell out of this thing. They didn’t hit it, but it just gave us an idea of how close these guys were. They were literally just behind the perimeter wall to the hotel shooting at this plane.
Basia: That name, Dag.
They’re the Dyck Advisory Group.
You’re going to hear a lot more about them.
These guys – a South African security force, who you and I would call mercenaries – had been hired by the Mozambican ministry of the interior a year earlier as the insurgency had intensified to help the small and poorly equipped army.
And so when the attack began, DAG kicked into action, flying in to help mount a defence from the air.
“Terrified civilians ran for cover in any compound they could find. The private security company Dag flew helicopters in, to try to ferry them to safety, just a few at a time, while the insurgents attacked and killed.”News clip of Dyck Advisory Group involvement
As this was unfolding above them, the people inside were desperately trying to piece together a plan.
Nick: Probably there was, I don’t know, seven or eight expats plus the hotel manager trying to come up with a plan, but also just to get someone to, as a central point of contact, to put a plan together.
Basia: But there was a problem. Helicopters flying in, braving gunfire from the insurgents, would need fuel close by so they could keep going in and out.
But many people claim that as an air rescue mission began by the Dyck Advisory Group, by Dag, Total refused to give them fuel from their complex nearby.
Wes: And they didn’t have any fuel. So they were waiting for fuel to come from Pemba because Total wouldn’t give them any fuel.
Basia: Why was that? Do you know why?
Nick: I’d heard differently that they had been helped with fuel, but I mean, I can see from Total’s perspective, you know, how difficult that might be from a PR perspective, as to who they’re assisting. But, you know, at that stage, we weren’t thinking like that. I mean, we just wanted to be rescued. I didn’t care, you know, who came and fetched us. And I don’t think anybody else should’ve cared either, at that stage it was already a humanitarian crisis.
Basia, narrating: The longer they’re stuck inside, the more aggressive the militants all around them are becoming.
Assane – inside the hotel too – describes how the insurgents started banging on the gates. How he hid under a container with other locals and foreign contractors.
He describes how a helicopter came and started shooting and throwing grenades.
Nick: You know, if it wasn’t for Dag, we would have been overrun on Thursday, without doubt.
Basia: Dag helicopters began to land on the helipad just behind the hotel, lifting people out.
Nick: But during the course of the day there were a couple of choppers that were able to life people out. I mean the first chopper took the administrator and his family.
Basia: So he was a local?
Nick: He was the Palma administrator.
Wes: So the government official, if you want to call it the mayor of the town.
Nick: Like the mayor yeah.
Basia: He was the first to go.
Wes: Yeah, him and his family.
Nick: He didn’t waste any time. So I think thereafter there was probably two more chopper lifts.
Wes: Yeah. But it happened in quick succession. So we weren’t a part of that.
Nick: No, we weren’t aware.
Wes: Remember at that stage, they were discussing, the choppers are coming and the first people that we’re going to send is people with medical issues and women and children.
Basia: And who was communicating that to you?
Nick: That was the hotel manager.
Basia: And he was talking to who?
Wes: Well, first of all, he said to us that the first people that must go are the owners of the company or the managers, country managers, and they said, no, they’re not leaving their people behind.
Basia: The first person to be rescued from the hotel was the Palma administrator, with his family.
And when I first heard this, I did a double take. He got out, before children?
But the more people I spoke to, the more it started to make sense.
A lot of the reporting at the time of the attack suggested that the militants had besieged the hotel because they wanted to kill foreign contractors. These were the targets.
But multiple people, including one source who had direct knowledge of the security response told me – that actually wasn’t true. The insurgents were focused on the local politician. That’s why they were there.
One of the Mozambicans inside the hotel also said this.
He said the administrator “could be considered a trophy”, a way for the terrorists “to send a message.
And so Dag received a request from the army: go and get him out of there. This was an attempt at de-escalation – and an attempt to save face.
Nick and Wes and everyone else – they assumed that they’d be rescued soon after.
“They’ve still got the armoured vehicle here for ten people who’s injured or got medical conditions, and maybe women and children…”Recording of Wes speaking in the hotel
You can hear in this video, Wes speaking, telling two other people that Dag are coming for them all.
And they do: 24 people were picked up by the mercenaries on Thursday.
Nick: Thursday, we were still thinking, you know, someone out there was making a plan and that our rescue was being organised and then that subsequently turned out to be nothing – no one was organising anything. Everyone was very, very afraid. But you know, there was a sense of we’re in this together and that we’re going to get out together.
Basia: It’s now Friday 26 March. Day three.
Nick: Yeah. I think it really grew by Friday, you know.
Wes: Yeah, Friday was bad.
Suddenly, the security guards tell everyone to move away from the gates.
And you’ll have a good sense now of Nick and Wes – though they’re very different characters, with very different ways of talking about what happened, they share a forensic memory of what happened.
They remember chilling details of this, well just like a sea of horror, moving closer and closer toward them.
Wes: They said, “Everybody get down to the corner of the property.” There was a whole bunch of people standing out the front, asking to come in. And when he asked them to show their hands, they were standing behind a line of women.
He asked them to step back and show their hands. They wouldn’t do that. So they were obviously hiding guns behind the women. So he wouldn’t let them in. And that’s when he came and told everybody to get down and go down to the one corner where we lay down.
Basia: So the insurgents were trying to trick their way into the hotel.
Wes: Yeah, that’s it. That was where all of us, expats, the locals, everybody, we got them there and we told everybody just to keep dead quiet. The insurgents are right around us. That was scary. That was super scary. At this stage, I mean, this is probably at nine o’clock in the morning. Cause they told us the choppers were going to come early in the morning. So we had been down there since about seven in the morning. By nine o’clock we had people sitting further up the little pathway where all the people were hiding and lying down. We had some people there sitting and watching to make sure that no insurgents jumped over the weak area at the back by the helipad and came running towards us.
Me and my brother were lying there and we were so scared at that stage. He said to me, he’s like, if there’s 20 insurgents, there’s 200 of us and they come down this pathway, all we do, we get everybody up and we just run and attack and try and rugby tackle them. That was, at that point, you can imagine what’s going through your mind. You’re thinking that’s it, I’m willing to get up, run towards these guys and just, if we’re going to go, we’re going to go, but we are not going to get slaughtered the way they want to.
Basia: You heard that right – civilians resorting to rugby tackling armed insurgents. I mean, there are moments – and there are plenty more of them to come – when the story, the situation, descends into absurdity.
Imagine that being your last resort.
Meanwhile Nick, who had been huddling with the rest of his team, was speaking to the hotel manager – Timothy Roberts, who was known to everyone there as Robbie.
Robbie: I started working in March, 2019, I started working at Amarula Hotel as a general manager and operations manager. Well, just remember we’re in the hospitality business. So, you know, we can only do as much as we can. We’re not a militant organisation.
Basia, narrating: Robbie had been overseeing the rescue attempts, and been in contact with another aviation company.
But more than that, he had been the focal point for everyone at the hotel, helping to organise, communicating with the outside world.
Robbie: Just remember we are all stuck, we asked around, we asked the embassies, but it was a Friday and a Thursday. But on Thursday, I kept on pushing the owner to try and get us evacuation flights.
Basia, narrating: He was the one people thought was talking with Dag.
Robbie: All of us we’re doing it to the best we can, but something can happen. And therefore everybody was concerned for their lives. It was a shooting. It was right there. The insurgents were right there. What do I do?
Nick: So Robbie said to us that there’s this option that they can only fetch the expats. And we declined on that. So we said, forget it. Then there was no plan at all. And I don’t know if his plan – because the hotel had a good relationship, as I said, with Everett Aviation. So what we thought was, and this is why we had so little information, what we thought he’d planned was the Dag choppers were providing cover and then Everett choppers would land and air lift us.
Basia, narrating: After two days of relentless gunfire, Nick and the other contractors had been offered a safe route with a place on a chopper.
But they were adamant, they told me. The children, women and vulnerable they had to be rescued before the foreign contractors. No one would be leaving unless they could all leave.
And I’m being specific about this – because who was rescued, and how that was decided, is now at the heart of a fierce battle. Between mercenaries, survivors and a leading human rights organisation.
And it relates directly to what happened next – a moment which changed everything.
Basia, interviewing: And just on that, sorry to stop you, but those three helicopters that came on Friday and it was made clear to you that you as expats could go, if you wanted to. And you said absolutely not, we’re staying, we’ll be the last to leave. Who did end up leaving on those helicopters then?
Nick: Well, nobody until the last – well, the one helicopter was the hotel manager and a few of his staff. He took them and the two dogs. And it was at that point, we realised, we’ve been abandoned.
Basia: In Part 2: the story of a terrifying escape – and how a corruption scandal fuelled a deadly insurgency.
Wes: And then they left us, like shit, now what. And Adrian then said guys we cannot be sitting ducks like this. There’s a car outside, parked just outside the gate and there’s an AK-47 inside the back of the car. And Adrian thought, listen, that’s our only protection. We need that. If we have that, at least we can be safe.
So they find, someone had already pulled out two sets of helmets and World Food Programme bulletproof vests. He put the helmet and the bulletproof vest on, and that was it. No one even asked him, he just decided, we need that gun. I’m going to go get it.
Thanks for listening. This story was written and reported by me, Basia Cummings, produced by Matt Russell, with additional reporting by Claudia Williams. Sound design is by Karla Patella. This is a podcast by Tortoise Studios.