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From the file

Left to Die: Escape from the Amarula | When Islamist militants besieged a hotel, the 200 civilians inside were told help would soon be on its way. But it never came.

Slow Newscast

Left to die: Escape from the Amarula – Part 2

Left to die: Escape from the Amarula – Part 2

In the second part in our series investigating how 200 civilians were left to die at the Amarula Hotel in northern Mozambique, we tell the story of their harrowing escape


Catch up

Transcript

Nick: 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. They locked up the food. We had one meal since Wednesday night. So they locked up the food, they’d denied us access to the wifi from Friday morning. And that was it. 

Basia, narrating: With around 200 civilians still trapped inside, the manager, known as Robbie, had been airlifted out of the Amarula Hotel with his staff and his boss’s two German Shepherd dogs.

The food was locked and the wifi had been switched off, or wasn’t working any more, depending on who you speak to. 

“So Robbie’s gone?”

Wes from video in convoy prep

The man they had looked to for leadership, who the civilians trapped inside understood to be organising their escape, he’d gone. 

It’s a hard thing to imagine, as somebody who grew up in the west. To imagine that you would just be left, to die. 

But it’s an important point to acknowledge here in this story. To confront, head on. It’s a point about privilege. 

As a foreign contractor, you’d assume, wouldn’t you, that efforts would be made to come and save you. That your employer would organise something. Embassies would kick into gear. That there would be levers to pull. 

It is, perhaps then, the definition of privilege, to think that your life matters to someone, beyond just you. 

It wasn’t the same, of course, for the Mozambican civilians – people who lived in the remotest, poorest region of the country, who were used to being forgotten. It’s a privilege that they didn’t have. 

Their army wasn’t coming for them. In fact, they were as terrified of the army as they were of the Islamists. 

And so by this point, three days into the attack, everyone was relying on the leverage of the foreign contractors and hotel management, to get them out. 

And it’s why, when Timothy Roberts, or Robbie, left – it hit everyone so hard. 

“It’s like a nightmare that you’re stuck in that just cannot be real.”

“You had so many people feeling scared, waiting for a rescue that never came.”

Montage of clips of people being abandoned

I’m Basia Cummings and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast, and part 2 of our investigation into what happened at the Amarula Hotel in Palma, northern Mozambique. 

In episode 1: an Islamist insurgency hits the town of Palma in Northern Mozambique, and civilians rush to the Amarula Hotel, to take shelter. Over three days, they wait for a rescue that never comes. 

In this episode: the story of their harrowing escape. 

And I need to warn you, this episode is a difficult listen.

After Robbie left, it was a clear sign – they were alone. 

Black, white, local, foreign – they were all in the same position. 

Assane, the local street vendor, was one of them. 

Assane [translated]: On the last day they were transporting people by helicopter. The helicopter came but it only took the owner of the Amarula Hotel, a white man, and two dogs and one Black man who was also responsible for Amarula. We, and the other white men, stayed behind.

Basia, narrating: And around the time that Robbie was escaping in the private chopper, a plan emerged. 

Wes’ older brother, Adrian, usually worked as a commercial diver. But the pandemic had made work really difficult to pin down. He had three children, and a wife, and after months of struggling to get by, he accepted an invitation from his brother to join the construction project in Palma. 

And Adrian, well by now, he’d had enough. He had decided he was going to try and recover a gun. 

Janik: He was with them every step, he never delegated. He was never on the side. He always did everything.

Basia, narrating: This is Janik, Adrian’s wife. She’s Canadian, and she was 18 when she met Adrian. They’ve been together for 21 years. When I spoke to her, she told me: this was typical of Adrian. Of course it would have been him to come up with a plan like this.

Janik: About two years ago we were driving with the kids in the car and he saw a lady and her car was on fire and she was on the side of the road and he rushed us all to the nearest restaurant. He ran in the restaurant, he basically stole their fire extinguisher, or got like a quick permission, then he raced us all back, parked us far away so that the car could not explode. And he went and he put out the fire at the car and like, there’s just, there’s millions of these stories

Basia, narrating: When contact had been fully cut off on the Friday, that’s when Janik really started to worry.

Janik: So on the Friday, it was the only day that – I’d been working from home for a year and a half – it was the only day I went to the office because it was the one year anniversary of lockdown, so we all went and worked in the office. I mean, ridiculous. And it’s only when I lost communication with Wesley that I started to become really concerned.

Basia, narrating: What she didn’t know at the time, was that Adrian was taking matters into his own hands. 

Wes: Adrian then said guys we cannot be sitting ducks like this. Someone was with us told us, listen, there’s a car outside, parked just outside the gate and there’s an AK47 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. 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. So he went there with a local security guard, opened the little peep hole. By now the gates had gotten bullet holes through the gate. Opened there, looking around, couldn’t see anybody. I got out a bar stool, put it up on the wall and I crept up over the wall. And I put my phone up to try and see with the camera and I was watching the camera to see if I could see anybody. It looked quiet. So I peeped my head over. It looked quiet, but there’s thick bush on the other side of the road.

Basia, narrating: There’s a video of this whole episode and it is hair-raising. 

Wes climbing on a bar stool, looking over the wall of the hotel with his phone. You can see Adrian, this oversized helmet, sitting wonkily on his head creeping towards a pick-up truck on the other side of the road outside the hotel wall.

Wes asks everyone to be quiet – as Adrian tries to get out onto the road outside. 

Wes: I said to him, well, it seems clear. So he opened the door and he went running to the car. He had the guys car keys. Got to the door, tried to open the door. He couldn’t open, trying to push buttons, it wouldn’t open. So then he went to the other side, opened the door with the key, opened it and the alarm went off.

[Clip: Alarm going off]

Wes: My heart just sank. And then he is struggling with the keys to turn the alarm off, got the alarm off. He’s looking in the car, he finds a big duffel bag, which is a military bag. He grabs that and he runs back to the pedestrian gate, drops that off. They start ripping out everything. They look at it. No gun. 

So then, shit. He decides to run back to go look again. Now he ran around the car to the front, opened it, looking under the seats every way he can. Nothing. Now I’m shouting to him, listen, I can hear a car. “Adrian, come back, come back.” So he says, hold on, hold on.

[Clip: Wes anxiously telling Adrian to come back]

Wes: Eventually he comes running back, he says he can’t find it. Everyone said, well, maybe it’s behind the backseat. So then, the third time, he runs back. This time one of the local security guards runs with him. He manages to unlock the backseat, finds the gun there. The security guard took the gun and they ran back. I’ll tell you at that moment, we felt amazing, it was a victory. We had protection.

Basia, narrating: They were risking their lives to recover one, knackered AK47 – Wes said it looked like something that had come up out of the Titanic. 

And I don’t think you can quite hear it on the recording, but when Wes was telling me this story I was barely breathing, wincing as he told me about the car alarm, watching him on the Zoom screen through my fingers. 

Again, it was just the absurdity of it all that hit me – hundreds of insurgents all around, Wes with a bar stool and his phone, all to recover one ancient gun to protect them.

Wes: Adrian and Nick and everybody, we started to get everybody, even the locals, to start carrying blocks, those bricks, back to reinforce the gates. Because now we thought, okay, we’re going to have to spend another night. So while they were carrying all that with all the other people, I was with all the other people that were still trying to get information on evacuation and so on. So when I was with those guys, they said, listen, one of the problems we’ve got is we don’t have communication.

Basia, narrating: There had been talk of a satellite phone, left in one of the rooms. So Wes went and got it, and they managed to dial on to one of the shipping channels. 

Wes: Once the Dag choppers were in the air, they don’t have communication with the ground. So someone said to us that there’s some radios in one of the bedrooms. So I went hunting through the room and I found the radios. I brought it back to our little group that was trying to communicate with whoever we could, while everyone else, Adrian and I think Nick you as well, you guys were carrying all of the blocks to the gates.

We turned on the radios and we got in touch with Total, the shipping channel. We told them, listen, this is us, at the Amarula, we just want to find out what’s going on. Is anyone coming to get us? Someone came onto the line and said, oh, but we thought that you’ve already gone in the convoy. And we said, no, we haven’t gone. No one could give us confirmation that we’re going to get air support and the choppers have already left. So now we’re thinking shit. The choppers have left and here they’re thinking, everyone’s thinking, that we’d gone.

Nick: Well, we had just overheard on the other channel, them saying in Afrikaans that they were getting called, they used the expression 80 times a day, by family wanting to know what’s happening with us. And they don’t know what to tell these people anymore. In fact, the words were, I don’t know what to fucking tell these people anymore. But it was in Afrikaans. So that was on the shipping channel, but –

Basia: And who was saying that? That was somebody who worked for Total?

Nick: Yeah, well, it was on the shipping channel, so I assume it was them and their logistics people. You know that, and with Robbie leaving and it’s getting dark and DAG not being able to provide air cover in the dark we realised we were left with one option and that is to try and break through with the Commonwealth.

Basia, narrating: Given how serious this attack was – how sophisticated it was – I had to wonder about the risk that Total and the Mozambican government had taken to even start this gas project. 

Why hadn’t the insurgency been brought under control before more and more people began pouring into the region? Had the militants attacked Palma because of the gas? And why hadn’t anyone been prepared?

And the answer to these questions lies in part, in a scandal.

Let me rewind for a moment. 

Mozambique was one of the last countries in Africa to free itself from its colonial ruler – Portugal. 

Samora Machel – political leader and fighter – finally declared independence on the 25th of June 1975, after a 10-year liberation struggle. 

[Clip: Samora Machel, “keep freedom declaration running underneath.”]

Machel’s Marxist party, called Frelimo, took power. 

46 years later, and Frelimo still rules the country – and after a long civil war finally ended in the 1990s, Mozambique’s economy was looking up – and then, that incredible discovery is made. Giant fields of natural gas, discovered first by an American company, called Anadarko, in 2010 – followed by an Italian company, called Eni, in 2011.

And just to capture the scale of it – it’s now estimated there could be over 20 billion barrels of natural gas – and that they could earn almost $100 billion over the next 25 years. 

It was a blessing – it was going to transform Mozambique. 

But it was also a curse. 

Because, after the discovery of the gas but before anyone had secured the money to actually get it out from under the seabed, $2 billion in questionable bank loans were taken out by Mozambican state-owned companies from two banks – the Swiss bank Credit Suisse, and a Russian bank called VTB. 

“Mozambique in the meantime is disputing, fiercely disputing claims by the IMF that it has hidden loans of over a billion dollars more than previously disclosed.”

“Many loans were taken and concealed, causing a scandal that continues to stay on the political agenda.”

News clips of the Credit Suisse scandal

Around $1.2 billion of it was taken out in secret. 

After all, what’s $1.2 billion if someone is saying you’re sitting on £100 billion. 

But, of course, it wasn’t that simple. 

Around 2016 gas prices were collapsing and the development of the gas fields was delayed. 

It left Mozambique with a huge debt – before any real work had started. 

And it’s the context in which the oil and gas giant ExxonMobil pitches up in 2017 and then the French company Total, arrives in 2019, taking the reins on a project worth $20 billion. 

And it’s the context in which the Mozambican government, now horribly in debt, promises to protect the gas project from the rumbling extremist threat. 

They need this to go ahead. 

“We don’t want out partners starting to panic. The good thing is there’s a lot of cooperation between us and the multinationals responsible for transportation of natural gas. But we’ll have to take measures – extraordinary measures, if needed – to make sure this doesn’t overshadow Mozambique’s growth in the region.”

Mozambican president says Mozambique ready to take “extraordinary measures” to secure gas fields (translated)

And of course, the Islamist militants operating in the north of the country – well, they used this to their advantage. 

Jason Burke: So you end up with a situation where you have all the groundwork done for some kind of insurgency. You’ve got a marginalised, peripheral, part of Mozambique, you’ve got deep resentment at a distant elite, you’ve got criminal networks that are working there, you’ve got very poor people. 

Basia: Jason Burke is an old colleague of mine, and he’s the man to talk to about extremists. 

Jason: There’s no doubt that the big foreign investments in Cabo Delgado, for the gas, have had a significant negative effect. That a lot of people see a massive amount of money being spent in their backyard and potentially a massive amount of money being made, of which they will get very little.

Basia: Add to this, a village resettlement programme – basically the moving of families from their homes to make way for the gas project – which upset many local people. This is Tomas Queface, an expert of the region. 

Tomas Queface: The resettlement process was a little bit problematic because many, many young people in Palma there were saying that the project is employing more people from other regions of Mozambique.

Basia: So by 2019, when Nick and Wes and hundreds of other contractors began working on the gas project, this was the landscape that they were entering into. 

One where billions had been spent already, where corruption had added urgency to the gas project, and where a forgotten population, promised jobs that never materialised, were now vulnerable to extremists promising them wages and a gun. 

Back inside the hotel, a plan was taking shape. 

It’s not clear exactly how it came about, who first suggested it, but suddenly, there was talk of a convoy. 

And I had in my mind that it was like a flock of birds taking to the sky. 

There’s never just one bird that starts it, but it’s a moment, a critical mass of movement. 

And it’s what seems to have happened inside the Amarula. 

Everyone was waiting, until, they just weren’t waiting any more. 

They were going to escape. 

They’d realise that Robbie had left.

“He’s gone in that fucking helicopter that landed.”

“Did it land already?”

The people inside the hotel discussing Robbie leaving

And I tried to imagine the psychology of it: the powerlessness. Each key moment in this story so far – the recovery of the AK47, trying to build a wall with the blocks, these were tiny moments of autonomy. About taking back some control in the face of total, fatal chaos. 

And the plan that emerged was this: they were going to assemble all the cars that they had – and drive out of there, in a convoy. Around 150 people. 

Assane said by this point they just felt they couldn’t risk another night in the hotel.

Assane [translated]: He called me at the last minute, 4:15 pm, saying shut the door. Tomorrow we will have help, the helicopter will come to the rescue and you’ll leave. We were not sure if that was a plan or not. But we thought we can’t stay here, we have to leave. That was the fifth day.

Basia, narrating: And it was the foreign contractors who came up with the convoy idea. 

They were the ones with the satellite phones, and after all, the cars belonged to them, or their companies. They were trying to reach the mercenaries, DAG, to see if they could provide air cover if they did decide to drive out. 

In a video Wes shared, you can see a mish mash of vehicles – just enough to cram 150 people in. 

No bags, they tell the civilians, they’re gonna take up too much space.

“Only space for one person, leave your bags”

“No bags.”

Sound of the vehicle convoy packing up, over the sound of screeching and gunfire

In total, around 17 vehicles left the Amarula Hotel in a convoy late afternoon on Friday the 26th of March, just before the sun began to set. 

One car, the only armoured vehicle, went first – filled with women and children. 

“So who’s going in the armoured car? Kids?”

Discussions about the convou

And the moment that this convoy leaves the hotel – is where Nick and Wes’ stories diverge. 

So let me start with Wes – who crammed into a car with his dad, his brother Adrian and some local Mozambican civilians.

“How much fuel you got Adrian?”

“Full tank.”

“Can we go, is it clear?” 

Wes, Adrian and his dad in the car

You can feel the tension. Everyone is nervous. They’re sweating – it’s hot. Who’s opening the gate, one Mozambican man asks. 

“Who’s opening the gate?”

You can see pick up trucks crammed with civilians in the back – utterly exposed, squashed together.

Wes and Adrian’s car was fourth in the convoy. Adrian is in the driving seat, the car is packed – two men are tucked away in the boot. 

“This is going to the drive of your life bro.”

Wes speaking to Adrian

Adrian tells his brother Wes to get the first aid kit ready – the one with the blood coagulant in it. 

“Get that pack out… I need the bag down there. There’s medic… first aid stuff in there.”

Adrian telling Wes to get the first aid kit out

Wes: I remember when we pulled out there, that was just, from that moment we pulled out, it was just terrifying. And Adrian put his foot down and we were going as fast as we could without crashing. You know, it’s a dirt road with lots of big puddles and holes in the road, so you’re trying to be careful but we’re going a hundred k’s an hour down this road, and there’s just a lot of dust in front of us, from the cars ahead of us.

It was just after the road going into the airstrip, that was where we first got shot at and you just remember “bababababa” and that sound of the bullets hitting the car and hitting the steel is something else. I felt a bullet come underneath my foot. It hit the bottom of the car and I could feel where it hit and my foot came up from it. Checked everybody’s okay but there was panic and we’re driving as fast as we can. Straight after that, about 800 meters down the road, one of the cars in front of us had got hit badly with bullets and the front of their car was smashed. So I don’t know what they hit, if they hit the side of a tree or something, but they were flagging us down.

We came, stopped next to them, and they’re saying their car’s done. They needed to get in but our car was full. I think we had nine people in an SUV. So we were full. We told them, we stopped next to them, there was a minibus behind us in the convoy. They stopped and they ran and they jumped into the mini bus, left the car rolling backwards down the little hill. Carried on driving, not knowing, you know, is there another ambush or what the case is, but flying. 

Basia, narrating: In South Africa, Adrian’s wife Janik hears about the escape plan. 

Janik: I was getting messages about helicopters arriving and not arriving and I speak Portuguese, so my mother-in-law was sending me a lot of things, so I was translating those things as they were going live and sending them to her. And it was only when we got the message, it was sort of a detailed message about the plan for the convoy, because nothing else was working. And that’s when the ball sort of dropped for me. I started to get very anxious, there’s nothing you can really do. It’s just like you look up and wait. And the message said that they would be doing this between 4:30 and 5:00.

Basia: Back on the road out of the Amarula, Wes and Adrian’s car had made it through the first ambush. 

They were heading to a quarry nearby, where they thought they could make a run to the beach, and get picked up from there. 

Adrian had his foot on the accelerator. They were racing to get to safety. 

Wes: We get to this one straight piece and that’s when we got ambushed for the second time. And that’s where they fired into the car and the side window smashed. And I just remember Adrian screaming, “I’m hit, I’m hit!” I looked down at his shoulder and there’s a big hole in his shoulder, just behind the shoulder. Panic starts to happen. He had given me this little medical kit that actually had these things that you put in for bullet wounds that stops the bleeding.

So, struggling to open that up, get it open, it’s got an applicator, like a plastic applicator, it’s like a big injection. I did this, he’s still driving at this stage, but now he’s shouting, “guys, I can’t drive, I can’t drive!” And they’re saying, just keep on driving. He’s like, “my leg is off.”

So we didn’t know that he had been hit in his leg as well, I thought it was just behind his shoulder. His right arm had dropped and he was driving with his left arm and a guy next to him, sitting in the passenger side, started helping him steer. Adrian was carrying on driving with his left foot on the accelerator while hit.

And when I put that applicator, that anticoagulant medicine in, half my hand went into his shoulder. That’s how big the wound was. And I just panicked at that stage and he’s saying, “guys, I can’t drive, you need to take over.” Everyone’s shouting back to him, just keep on driving. And he says, “I can’t, I’m going. I’m going.” And that was when he started to – his eyes closed and, his foot came off the accelerator and we came to a stop

Basia: Wesley jumped out – and pulled his brother from the front seat. 

He started driving, with Adrian now sitting behind him. 

Wes: As we came around the one corner we saw there was a whole bunch of trucks, big dumper trucks, that were parked and sort of facing us.

And when we got closer there, we had seen that all the drivers, the doors were open and the drivers had been killed and some of them were decapitated and they were put lying across the road to block us, or any vehicles driving. So we just drove as fast as we could over, which was just unbelievable feeling, over the bodies. There was nowhere else for us to go. We couldn’t get through anywhere. So we had to drive over them. We got to the quarry and we managed to catch up to the armoured vehicle and where we were meant to turn right into the quarry and there was another road going straight and we tried to hoot at them to tell them to turn right. But we also don’t want to make it too noisy. So they carried on straight and we turned right. And some of the other cars that had caught up to us from behind followed us into the quarry. When we came to a stop at the quarry, turned off the car and I just looked back at my brother, and, yeah, he was already dead at that time.

There was so much blood everywhere and my dad was shaking, absolutely uncontrollable shaking, and he’s like, “just get to us to the containers. I can’t lose both my sons.”

Basia: Adrian Nel died just before his 41st birthday. He’d saved the lives of everyone in the car. 

Janik: Adrian’s been in crazy situations and things, it just never really dawned on me. So I got the message and it said between 4:30 and 5:00, I actually had a colleague’s 30th birthday party that evening. I left work and as I was driving, it’s about a 20 or 30 minute drive in the traffic on a Friday afternoon. And all of a sudden I just had this enormous urge that I had to pull over and stop on the side of the road. And I just wrote him a message, and I just said, I love you, I love you, I love you, you can do this. I had really thought that, that time when I pulled over and I looked at my messages, and it was 5:08 that I was driving home from work, and in my heart I had thought that that must have been the moment that he passed or something. But I later found out that because of the ambush, they had to leave much earlier. So he had, he was already gone a long time before.

A man that we’re calling Alfredo, one of the Mozambicans at the hotel who was praised for his leadership, his car was headed straight to the beach with almost a hundred people. And it was there that he was picked up and taken to the provincial capital – Pemba. He wanted to stay anonymous, so this is an actor reading his testimony.

Actor: When we got to the beach we separated into small groups so we could enter a handmade boat, so we could go to an area further from the shore. The first boat could only take 70 people, we decided that on the first boat would go a member who had been shot on the knee, and we were able to put him on a small boat as he couldn’t stand up or move much and that was safer. He lost consciousness, but then he woke up again and we put him in a position where he would lose less blood. That’s how we started organising. But the managers who were there, white and South African, they supported the organising of the first and the second boat. The second boat we could make a private call, we had to consult with all the security and make an evaluation of who was a priority: us who were already far from the village and safer or the people at the village? So that probably delayed things a bit. 

Basia: Alfredo had taken the same road as Wes, and they’d seen the same bodies, decapitated, on the road. The victims of the insurgency, strewn all around. 

Actor: It was distressing since we left through the gate, crossed the valley, we rode through bodies on the ground because it seems there was an attack on some trucks. The driver was on the ground. I was right in front seeing if the road was open. I was in the front as a copilot, behind us were the ladies and the children in an armoured car, the best car we had, we wanted to put them there so the women and the children were protected. 

Back at the quarry, Wes and his dad, with Adrian’s body, suddenly found themselves alone. 

Wes: My dad said we have to go now, we have to get to the bush in case there’s insurgents around, with all the noise that’s been going on. We covered him up. And I remember there was this, on the seat, there was this big pile of congealed blood, it just disgusted me to see so much blood and I picked it up and I threw it out the car.

I was just covered in blood from head to toe. We had some water with us, which they used to wash my face and my arms, some of the blood off, but that was still all over. From there he said, we can’t take him with us too, we don’t know if it’s a far walk to the bush and to the beach, but we’ll come back.

So we walked through the quarry and, you know, the sun was already going down at that stage. We walked into some thick bush on the other side of the quarry and we managed to find a very big tree with some very thick dense bush around it. And we walked into this and hid under there and we were all just in complete shock thinking, what just happened.

Basia: So Adrian was still in the car?

Wes: Yeah, he was in the car. Which breaks my heart. And we just sat there trying to figure out what to do. We didn’t know how far we are from the insurgents or if there’s anyone around. So we huddled into the bush around it, under the dense bush, hiding behind the tree.

And yeah, I just, all I had in my mind was that I just can’t believe that this has happened. It’s not real, my brother’s not dead. So, at that stage there, Martin had a satellite phone and he went into a little opening and he phoned his company up in Joburg and told them what had happened. And they said to him, just stay there, they’re going to try and get hold of Dag to come in and rescue us in the morning, which we did. We covered up for the night and tried to go to sleep. The problem was whenever somebody fell asleep, they would start snoring and we would wake them up because it was so loud that we thought somebody or that insurgents would hear us.

Basia: There’s these little moments of absurdity, aren’t there, that both of you have encountered, you know, the barstool or the cheers over the AK rescued from the back of the car, amidst this just unbelievable story.

Wes: I remember after Adrian got the AK, I kept on saying to him, you know, if we were in the military, you would have gotten a medal of honour for that, or bravery, and just I’ve never met anyone as brave as him. And that goes throughout my life. But, yeah, coming to terms with what happened that night was just, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to even contemplate. It’s like a nightmare that you’re stuck in. It just cannot be real. 

Basia, narrating: They spent the night sleeping, exhausted, traumatised, in the bush. 

And on Saturday morning, Wes woke up at 5am. 

And finally, the rescue came. 

But before he agreed to be taken anywhere, he asked the pilots to make him a promise.

Wes: Before I got on the chopper, I made them promise, that I’m not getting on the chopper without them coming back to fetch my brother, which the guy did.

So they took us eventually over Palma, over the sea to Afungi, dropped us off there. And, yeah, we waited there, they said they’re going back to go fetch my brother, which they did.

When they arrived back, they said to us, okay, they’ve got my brother, we must get in the chopper, they’re going to take us to their base in Vamizi Island. And from there we can catch a little plane of theirs back to Pemba. So, it was the hardest thing ever. When I walked around to get into the chopper, my brother’s body was there and was not covered.

And we had to get in next to him and that’s extremely hard. This is somebody that I love, my brother, extremely close. They took us to the island, I remember this, Dag asking them to bring up black bags to cover him. So they covered him. And then carried him and put him into the little plane, three seater plane, they loaded him into the back of the cargo thing and I had to lie right next to him, all the way back to Pemba. I just, all the way back, I just held his hand and closed my eyes.

Got to Pemba and a friend of ours who lived there, got there. He drove straight to the airport and when I saw him he was just in tears. All of us, he gave my dad his phone and my dad said he had to phone my mum.

As he phoned my mum he just shouted into the phone, “I’m so sorry. I could only bring one of them back.” Then he just collapsed on the tarmac.

Basia: I’m so sorry, Wesley. 

Wes: They unloaded my brother’s body into an ambulance. Our friends, they had prepared a space at the mortuary and took him there. Later, I found out that my brother had actually been shot three times. He took all three bullets, none of us had been hit, and he got shot in the chest, just above the bullet proof vest, just above it, in the shoulder and the hip.

And he still continued to drive that way.

Basia: So, he saved your lives. 

Wes: A hundred per cent. I’m still struggling to come to terms that I got out and he didn’t. I just wish that I could swap places with him.

Basia, narrating: Wes’s story moved me, deeply. You can hear it in the recording – I was in tears, my producer was in tears, Nick – also on the call – was in tears, though he’s heard the story many times. 

And so, of course, I wanted to speak to Janik – to get a sense of who this remarkable man was.

Janik: I focused on the fact that he was a hero and that he had to sacrifice his life and that he saved his brother and his father and other people. And I told them, which is what I feel, that he is in the sun and he’s in the ocean. So I kept going, whenever the sun comes up, and it’s quite sunny here, and just feel it on your face, I go and I do this and it always comes out when I need it to, all the time. Even on the Memorial celebration day, it was supposed to be bad weather.

And if it’s not the sun, then it’s the ocean, which is always there, coming in and out. And, then he said, and this just sticks with me, I’m actually making a necklace now with it, and it’s one of the last things he said to me, and it just sticks with me and it’s exactly him. He said, “Janik, you know, I’ll always follow you into the fire”. 

Basia, narrating: And I have to say here that I was unprepared for Janik. 

She challenged me – head on. She was one of the most remarkable people that I spoke to in the course of reporting this story. She’s utterly headstrong, clear-eyed, and generous about how she thinks that this story should be told. 

She told me, in no uncertain terms, don’t you dare tell a story only about Adrian and Wes. 

This is the story of the Mozambican people, she told me – of Assane, Alfredo, and thousands of others who have suffered in the insurgency. 

Janik: That’s like my hugest thing is, don’t forget that. Like I don’t want to explore our grief again, it’s always the story. Like I would almost like to match it, in my mind. Where is the story to match it about the other hero? That’s somebody that doesn’t have the privilege, that doesn’t have the contacts, that doesn’t have that. And why are we not talking about them as well?

Basia: And of course, she’s right. 

And so in a way, I’ve failed her. 

For me, a journalist from London, it’s easier to tell Nick and Wes’s stories. I could reach them, they’re safe, though they’re grieving, back in South Africa. They can speak freely to me. 

It’s not the same for Alfredo, and Assane. They’re still in Mozambique, living in fear of the military, who could target them if they speak to journalists. 

Which brings me back to the question of privilege – not just in who was rescued, who was able to plan an escape, but whose story is told. 

Nearly 68,000 people had to flee their homes after the attack in March. 

In just a year, the number of people internally displaced in the northern region of Mozambique has increased from 172,000 to over 732,000. They’ve got no food, no homes – they’re hard to reach, and humanitarian organisations can barely get to them as the insurgency carries on. 

So, more than anyone else in this story, no one is coming to rescue them. This is Zenaida Machado – from Human Rights Watch. 

Zenaida Machado: It is unacceptable and it doesn’t make sense that two months after the Palma attack, you still have people living in some areas of Palma and experiencing fighting, because there is ongoing fighting in Palma at the moment. It is unacceptable also that people in those areas are still not having access to first aid, medical assistance, food and other humanitarian assistance because apparently the local authorities and international aid groups don’t seem to agree on mechanism methodology for how to operate.

But then again, I suppose I don’t fully agree with Janik. Adrian’s story deserves to be told, too. 

It’s a story of remarkable bravery, one which she treats with her brilliantly sober view of the world. 

Janik: Cause sometimes I get momentarily angry with him because he had three kids. And why was he going for the gun? And why was he driving? You know, just those questions come up. And, so this is an example of who he was, so when I have those moments and I think about confronting him about it, and I write him messages on both his numbers, pretty much every day, every now and then I get mad about it. And then I think, it’s exactly what he would have said, and that makes me laugh, is that whenever he did anything naughty or stupid or something that he could have been more responsible about and I call him on it, he would say something exactly like this, “you’re right Janick, dick move.” He’d just be like “it was a dick move.” And I asked Wesley, I was like, so just wondering why was Adrian the driver? And he said, Jan, there wasn’t even a question. Adrian was always the driver. It’s like, “get in the car, and Adrian’s driving.” Yep, that’s right, it’s always Adrian, he’s the guy, he’s the yes man for everything. The yes man.

Basia: In all the videos that Wes shared with me, there’s one that’s quieter and shorter than the others. 

Wes and Adrian are sitting outside in the Amarula Hotel.

Wes turns his phone camera to focus on Adrian’s face. 

It’s a brief moment, between brothers.

“I love you, bro.”

Wes to Adrian

“I love you, my man.”

Adrian responds

And the look on Wes’s face… is…. just full of pride. 

In the third and final part of this story: Nick’s escape from the Amarula.

“We’re wondering if it would be quick or if they would drag it out, like they have with killing locals.”

Nick

Basia: How accusations of racism were levelled at rescuers. And a final promise.

“We’re desperate to get back and try to meet up with him and do something to show our thanks and appreciation. I mean I really hope we get to do that.”

Nick

Adrian is survived by his wife and 3 young children living in South Africa. If you have been moved by his story, and you’d like to support his family and his legacy, you can make a donation in his name at www.backabuddy.co.za/adrian-nel.

Thanks for listening. This story was written and reported by me, Basia Cummings, produced by Matt Russell, with additional reporting and fact-checking by Claudia Williams. Sound design is by Karla Patella. A podcast by Tortoise Studios.

Next in this file

Left to die: Escape from the Amarula – Part 3

Left to die: Escape from the Amarula – Part 3

Nick Alexander tells the story of his torturous escape from the ambushed Amarula Hotel convoy – and the question left lying in the dust of the attack: who, really, abandoned them all?

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