Wednesday 23 June 2021
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?
Left to die: Escape from the Amarula – Part 1
Left to die: Escape from the Amarula – Part 2
Tori Hickson: He was very scared. He was very scared. He gave me all his passwords to all his accounts just in case. And that’s when I started to get very anxious.
Basia, narrating: It’s Friday 26 March.
Contact from inside the Amarula Hotel has been cut.
Nick, Wes, Adrian, Alfredo and Assane, they’re all getting into cars – they’re going to try and speed out of the hotel, past the insurgents, to safety.
“So who’s going in the armoured car?”
“Can we go, is it clear?”Sound of convoy leaving from Wes’s video
Back in the UK, Tori Hickson, Nick’s partner, was in the dark about what was happening.
All she could do was wait.
There was so little information making its way out of Palma, such scant details, that she was searching frantically, anywhere she could, for some news.
And on Twitter, she read that the convoy had been hit.
Tori: I was so fucking angry that someone could put something like that on Twitter when there’s hundreds of people not knowing.
Basia, narrating: Nick was in the last car of the convoy to leave the Amarula.
Nick: So my colleague was driving. I was in the passenger seat. And it all just happened so quickly. Suddenly everyone was driving off.
Basia, narrating: They’re heading in the direction of the quarry too, like Wes, and his brother Adrian.
But as they leave – they realise that the security guards, the ones who had opened the gate to the convoy, have been left behind.
And so they stop so that the men can run up and clamber in.
By now, they’re separated from the main convoy.
Nick: I mean, we just didn’t expect an attack that soon. It’s just naive, we’re not army people, so we didn’t anticipate just quite how bad it could be. And so we just got past the airstrip, and so that’s a kilometer from the hotel, these two guys just stepped up from the right-hand side of the bush and started shooting at us. And those are the two that Wesley, well, I don’t know how many shots hit him, but that was the first ambush.
And I said to my driver just put foot, let’s drive straight at them. And the car just flooded and bogged down because of this fuel problem it had, you know. So he jammed on the brakes and, I mean, I just don’t know how we weren’t hit.
Basia, narrating: I’m Basia Cummings and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast. This is the third and final part of our investigation into what happened at the Amarula Hotel, and why more than 200 men, women and children were left inside, to die.
Previously in episode two, we heard the harrowing story of what happened to Wesley, and his brother Adrian.
In this episode: Nick’s torturous escape, and the question that lies in the dust of this brutal attack: who really abandoned them?
Like with every car ahead of them, Nick’s car was hit by an ambush almost immediately.
Nick: And then the bullets were cracking past us. With rifles like that, you actually only really hear the supersonic crack as it comes over you or next to you. And so Niraj, put it in reverse and we try to go back. But we just weren’t going quick enough. And these guys were advancing, running towards us. At that stage they were probably about 60 meters away from us.
Basia, narrating: And at the time of the attack in March, news reports suggested that Nick had used that ancient AK47 – recovered by Adrian – to kill two insurgents.
But that wasn’t the case.
The gun didn’t work – it had seized up. After all the effort that had gone to recover it, it was useless. Just a symbol, nothing more.
Nick: We decided to get out of the car and we ran up this embankment. We were clambering up. So it was Niraj and myself and the one security guard, we were together. The other guys ran in other directions, which we’ve only sort of pieced together, subsequently. Some of them only eventually got back two weeks later, they hid in the bush for two weeks. And our accountant, Anil, he didn’t make it. I think he was killed there. So we were clambering up this embankment, the bullets were cracking past us and I got over the embankment and I had a clear shot at both of them. Click, rack the gun, click – by then it was clear that this thing just wasn’t gonna work. But we held onto the gun.
And we got into this gully, Niraj had fallen and dislocated his elbow quite badly. And I had a white t-shirt on which I took off. Because I thought it just makes me even more visible. So we were in this gully next to the runway. But we had to make it across this runway. It’s about 120 metres of open ground. And that’s where I think we stood the best chance of getting hit. So we said, okay, look, we’ve got to make a run for it. And as we ran, you know, they were shooting at us.
It’s just a miracle we didn’t get hit. The bullets were flying so close to us, I thought it’s just any second now we’re going to feel the burn or things are just going to go black.
Basia, narrating: Nick, his colleague Niraj Ramlagan and a Mozambican security guard managed to make it to the other side.
They crawled into the undergrowth, surrounded by insurgents who had just fired at them.
These were the most terrifying hours of his life, Nick said.
Nick: They were still walking up and down the runway, looking for people and we heard intermittent shots very close by. And I think that’s where Anil was killed. And they’d obviously shot three or four other people. And we thought if they come through the bush, it wasn’t thick enough. They would see us very easily. It was just trying to get through that time, in a sort of one minute at a time. My biggest worry was thinking, how would my children and my partner come to terms with the fact that I died and died in that manner, you know?
We’re wondering if it would be quick or you know would they drag it out like they have with killing locals, you know? Eventually we heard the car start up and they honked the hooter and they drove off. We waited until it was dark. The best route seemed for us to head west, up into the, there was like this long hill.
Basia, narrating: By now, Nick was half-naked.
Niraj, his colleague, was in agony – he’d dislocated his elbow in the escape from the car. They hadn’t eaten anything since Wednesday afternoon – two days before.
Nick: The security guard we were with stumbled across some wild watermelons and he picked two of them up. He carried them and, sort of half an hour into the walk, we stopped, he broke them up, and we shared them.
Basia, narrating: It was a full moon, not ideal for taking cover.
They reached the crest of a hill, and crawled into the long, green grasses, and beyond those, into dense cashew nut and mango trees which had these thick shrubs beneath them.
There, they could rest – hidden.
Thousands of other civilians from across the town had done the same thing.
Nick: So the three of us, in a huddle together just to keep warm for the night. It was a terrible night, sleeping without wearing much on the hard ground, just wondering if anyone was out looking for us, and just worrying because nobody knew where we were, we could have headed in any direction or we could have been dead on the side of the runway.
Basia, narrating: By now, at least seven people in the convoy had been killed, including Adrian Nel. But some Mozambicans who were caught up in the ambush said that number could be even higher.
And some of this information was filtering out into the world – and to Tori.
Tori: We heard quite quickly that not all the cars had made it, and we didn’t know which cars had. We didn’t know who was in which car. Then we heard that something like, I think there was 16 or 17 vehicles, and I think only less than 10 made it. And that was just, I can’t explain to you what that feels like, not to know, you know, just not to know.
Basia, narrating: Other things were becoming clear, too.
There were reports that soldiers had been fleeing in the face of the insurgents. That they had just abandoned their positions, and ran.
The place that was protected – where the army hadn’t fled – was the multi-billion dollar Total compound, to the south of Palma, where hundreds of civilians were now gathering at the gates and begging to be let in.
Much of the town was now on fire. And around 50 civilians had been decapitated or shot.
Reading through scattered news reports from that moment, now three months later, you can start to piece together the bigger picture. Beyond what was happening at the Amarula.
And it’s clear that this was a betrayal on an industrial scale.
The government was nowhere to be seen.
“A military spokesman said seven died in the ambush, but dozens were dead in all, though Mozambican troops have been accused of failing to engage the jihadis for several days.”A news clip about the ambushes
Total, we know, allegedly refused to refuel helicopters rescuing civilians.
And Total themselves were late to help with evacuations – chartering a ferry which carried around 1,200 people to the state capital, mostly its own employees. And another, a week after the attack, with other civilians.
But the rest? The tens of thousands of others?
They were, it seems, no one’s responsibility.
Zenaida: I have spoken to mothers who saw their sons being killed, I have spoken to mothers who lost their babies on their way to safety.
Basia, narrating: Zenaida Machado, from Human Rights Watch, has been interviewing survivors. And what they told her, well, it sums it up.
Zenaida: And one of the things I find amazing is when you ask them about the soldiers, did you see any soldiers, did you see any authorities on your way that would help you. There’s one answer from a woman that I can never forget. She told me, yeah, we saw them when we went on the boat, they flew over us. These people don’t really expect any help from the authorities.
Basia, narrating: By Saturday morning, Wes and his Dad had been picked up by the helicopters run by the Dyck Advisory Group, the South African mercenaries, along with Adrian’s body.
Wes: It was the hardest thing ever. When I walked around to get into the chopper, my brother’s body was there and it wasn’t covered.
The security guard that had been with them had managed to make his way through the bush back to his village.
But Nick and Niraj. They were trapped. And their luck, well, it was about to turn.
For a moment, at least.
Nick: So eventually the sun came up and we heard talking, I mean, literally like three or four meters away, voices. But it sounded friendly voices and we’d obviously landed up next to a family of people, I wouldn’t call it a village cause they didn’t have anywhere to live. And so we could hear ladies and men and an older guy and we thought, you know, what do we do? We’re not going to get any closer to being rescued if we just hide out there.
So we decided, okay, we’re going to go and show ourselves. And the minute they saw us, they just bolted in all directions except the men, they were just terrified of us. And you know, that population is, I think, just so brutalised over years and years. We just made it very clear that we weren’t trying to hurt anybody. And the old guy, he was obviously the head of the family. And then he literally took the shirt off his back and gave it to me. They sat us down and they had nothing, it wasn’t even a formal village, they were living under the trees, probably running from the insurgents elsewhere in the region and were just hiding out.
So they sat us down, they brought us water, and they cooked us a wild pumpkin. I mean this is a family who had nothing. And they were putting themselves at risk just by helping us, I think.
Niraj: Probably late 60s, early 70s and he massaged my hand, you know, it was literally this old man with a wet shirt, massaging my hand – it’s just crazy.
Basia, narrating: When Nick and Niraj were describing what this man did for them, I felt like I was listening to a parable.
A man with nothing, gives them the shirt from his own back. Feeds them with what little he has. He guides them in the direction of safety.
It’s a rare moment in this story when things change pace – a moment of calm, of peace.
Nick: It was amazing. It’s just incredible how out of something so ugly the day before, you know, something quite special and unique happened to us in the midst of that. I mean he literally saved our lives.
Basia, narrating: But Nick and Niraj, they couldn’t just sit, and wait. If the insurgents found them, they’d surely be killed. Already, there were reports of foreign contractors being beheaded.
They needed to try to catch the attention of the aircraft overhead.
Nick: So we spent most of Saturday trying to get the attention of the choppers and the spotter plane. So we could see the choppers engaging with the militants. The Mozambican choppers were up and down there as well, but they were just too far away for us to get their attention. It was a good, by then, probably four kilometers, I think.
Basia: And how were you trying to get their attention?
Nick: My partner tried to reflect his watch, we had a dish we’d found that we were eating breakfast out of and tried to get some reflection on the sun. But yeah, it just wasn’t working. It was too far away.
Basia, narrating: In fact, Nick – who has been piecing together what happened to him ever since those days in March – shared a picture with me on WhatsApp.
It shows two crumpled pieces of paper – printouts – one with just Nick’s face on it printed across the whole page, him sort of awkwardly smiling, wearing a blue t-shirt, and the other is a grainy satellite image, with a red square drawn around some buildings.
It was sent to him by someone who worked at the Dyck Advisory Group, and the caption reads: “This is what we were given… to locate you!” Thumbs up emoji.
[Clip: Helicopter sounds]
How a pilot would spot him from that A4 printout is, well, it’s impossible.
And the choppers, of course, they didn’t stop for them.
Exhausted, and still wearing almost no clothes, Niraj’s hand still purple and swollen, they made their way to a compound run by a construction company – around a 2-hour walk away.
There, they found soldiers who had been separated from their unit.
Nick: So we were there for Saturday night. And it was the most uncomfortable night. At any stage people could come into that and attack us.
So we broke into these accommodation units, five of us per room. I mean, it was so hot, you know, there was no air conditioning.
Basia, narrating: Tori, Nick’s partner, knew none of this.
She got a call from Nick’s daughter, asking her to fly out to Johannesburg from the UK.
Tori: Saturday morning Jade said to me, can you get here? And I was like, yes, I can. And I flew on Saturday night. I didn’t know if I was going to a funeral or a reunion.
Basia, narrating: Out in the bush, Nick and Niraj had made the decision to follow the soldiers – to walk with them back to Afungi, where the Total compound was. But to do this, they’d need to walk straight through Palma – or, what was left of it.
A final pilgrimage, or a suicide mission – Nick wasn’t sure.
Nick: So these ex soldiers and ourselves left, walked straight down the main road of Palma, the bank’s generator was still running, the lights were still on, could have gone and drawn cash on the ATM. It was quite surreal. There was just, sort of the leftovers of the attack over the last three days.
Not a lot of dead bodies, but they were dead bodies that we saw and some dead animals. Because I think most of the attack was further down the road towards all of the public buildings, and we were up at the other end. We were just following them. We knew the area very well, but we let them take the lead. The Mozambican military choppers then spotted us. And we got their attention, and they got much lower, hovered there for 40 minutes and didn’t pick us up. They sent in a little troop carrier thing, also circled us, didn’t pick us up. So we thought, maybe they want us to get into a clearer area, maybe they’re worried about an ambush or something. So we’re walking up this dirt road to try and get to the open area.
This guy steps out from behind one of the shacks and just opens fire on us. And I mean, we were just running for our lives and the bullets were flying past and going through the shacks again next to us, and we got split up. So the five army guys that had guns were in the front, we never saw them again.
Basia, narrating: What Nick didn’t know at this time, was that all around him – the only force airlifting civilians, was Dag.
The Mozambican helicopters had allegedly flown once, been shot at, and never flew again.
In the military’s absence, Dag rescued 240 people in total.
Videos and photographs shared with me show Dag helicopters filled with women and children, women crying into the crook of their arms, young men looking wide-eyed at the camera.
In a vacuum of leadership, the mercenaries stepped in. They were contracted – paid – to provide air assets, not to launch a humanitarian rescue.
And so it came as a surprise when just two months after the attack, Amnesty International, one of the world’s leading human rights organisations, published a report.
It said that there had been “blatant racism” in the rescue effort.
They claimed that the hotel manager, Timothy Roberts, known as Robbie, and Dag had prioritized the safety of white contractors over local Black people.
In an earlier report, published before the attack in March, Amnesty also accused Dag of war crimes. I haven’t investigated those earlier allegations, but I did ask everyone I spoke to, over 20 people for this report, about that accusation of racism.
“Why do you think that narrative has come about? And that question over who they rescued has been very controversial, hasn’t it? I would like to hear what you think about the Amnesty report. Just to pick up on that, because this Amnesty report that came out… because of this Amnesty report that suggested that the rescue attempt by Dag was racist…”Montage of Basia asking questions about Amnesty
And the thing is: no one I spoke to supported the Amnesty account. I spoke to three survivors from the Amarula who weren’t white, who had been inside, watching everything unfold, in addition to human rights experts, other survivors and humanitarian observers.
The question of privilege came up, of course, a nuanced point about who had access to phones, who had leverage. We know that white and foreign contractors were offered spaces on private chartered planes organised by the hotel, but that they refused to take them.
Zenaida, from Human Rights Watch, talked about how local civilians knew that white contractors would have been more likely to be rescued, that their privilege might mean that somebody would come for them.
Zenaida: Talking to people who say we joined our white colleagues because we felt that there’s always going to be help for them. Yeah. I got that kind of sentiment from people that, when I saw my white colleagues running to Dag’s side, I said, well, let me join them there will always be help for them because our government will not come for us, but their government will come for them.
Basia, narrating: But what Amnesty was claiming was different. They were claiming racist intent.
At another hotel nearby, called the Palma Residence, the owner confirmed that Dag helicopters rescued their hotel staff, all but one of whom were Mozambican, the other, was Nigerian.
Dag claimed that of the 240 people that were rescued on the peninsula only 12 were white, and two of those were bodies – including Adrian Nels – that were recovered so that they could be returned to their families.
[Clip: phone ringing]
Basia: Hi David,
David: Hello, how are you doing?
Basia: thanks so much for calling me back, have you got ten minutes now just to chat?
Basia, narrating: When I asked them, Amnesty stood by their report. They said that despite evidence that the mercenaries did rescue Black civilians at other locations, they were focused only on the Amarula. They’re now calling for an independent investigation.
Robbie, the hotel manager, was adamant, when I spoke to him.
He said that of 24 people rescued on choppers, 6 were white, he believes one of them was Lebanese – and the rest were Mozambicans.
He denied that race had played any part in the rescue, and said, simply – that he had done what he could.
He showed me a handwritten list of people – full of Mozambican names – that he said he had drawn up for when the choppers arrived.
Robbie: No-one came to help us. Except… the only people prepared to come in to help us to take the people out was Dag. No-one else.
Basia, narrating: Back in Palma, Nick had just fled for his life for the third time.
He was caught in what seemed like an unending nightmare, I imagined it like a warped, hideous game of Sonic the Hedgehog, Nick racing across this landscape, every time he seems to level up, and get closer to safety, another deadly obstacle is thrown in his way.
And after being shot at, again, he and Niraj raced to the compound.
Nick: Choppers were still circling us, never came down to pick us up. Um, and yeah, it took us about 40 minutes. We got back to the BHR pen and we were just shattered by then. Starving, thirsty, and we thought let’s just regroup. I lay down on the bed.
Basia, narrating: They were close to giving up.
At least Niraj, Nick’s colleague, was still with him.
Niraj: We heard the choppers again and it was in my head though, you know, it’s like another waste of time, you know, because they never see us.
Nick: I heard the spotter plane and I just ran outside. And as I ran out, one of the Dag choppers flew past me.
Niraj: I heard the chopper getting closer and closer and closer.
Nick: And they saw me and two or three minutes later, they were on the ground, picking us up.
Niraj: I can see Nick telling me, come come come come.
Nick: I can’t tell you the relief, I mean it’s just incredible.
Niraj: We just ran to the chopper and both of us just burst out crying. Emotionally we were finished.
Basia, narrating: It was a miraculous survival.
Two nights trapped in a hotel surrounded by insurgents. Two nights spent hiding in the bush.
They were both in a bad way. Nick hadn’t taken the medication that he needs for days, he was weak. Niraj’s arm was swollen and useless. They had both contracted malaria.
A blurry photo that Nick sent me, shows them soon after they were rescued.
Nick is topless, his jeans are ripped, he’s holding a phone to his ear and I imagine that he was calling Tori, finally able to tell her that he’s safe.
Niraj, his arm is in a rudimentary sling, and he’s sitting, staring into space. This small bottle of water at his feet.
Tori: I was standing in the queue at passport and my phone rang and it was a guy called Lee from the foreign office saying, he says to me, Tori, we’ve been tracking your plane. We’ve been waiting for you to get off so we can send you, you know, the good news, but I need to send you proof of life.
And he sent me a photo of Nick, after he was rescued. I can’t tell you what that feels like.
Basia: What was the photograph?
Tori: It was him sitting with no shirt looking a little bit shell shocked, but smiling.
Basia, narrating: Nick and Niraj were taken to the state capital, Pemba and from there, they were evacuated back to Johannesburg.
Tori was waiting.
Tori: And I waited for his kids and everyone to kind of have their quick moment of seeing him. And then I had longer with him. I walked into that room and he was sitting on a bed wearing a pair of shorts and nothing else, nothing, no shoes. His feet were so scratched. No shirt. He was cold. He was wrapped in a blanket and he was just sitting there looking broken, just broken. They were abandoned. And that makes me so fucking angry.
Basia, narrating: I said earlier that parts of Nick’s story felt like a parable, that in his story there was a moral to learn about resilience, and integrity, and if you allow me to be a bit grand for a moment, a lesson about humanity.
I think it’s the same for the rest of this story.
As I was grappling to understand what happened and piecing together this chaotic, brutal five days, where people’s memories conflict, where data – things like numbers and times, and dates, and deaths, are all jumbled – it struck me that at its core, the story of what happened in Palma is about value – it’s about what we value, and who.
The discovery of gas in 2010 brought with it the promise of tens of billions of dollars to Mozambique. It made this poor, remote part of the country valuable.
But that value was, it turns out, so limited.
Limited to inside the walls of the Total compound, and to the pockets of politicians.
Enormous loans were taken out against future gas profits that now seem unlikely to ever fully materialise. These are loans that the Mozambican people will have to repay.
The same people, who were left to die as security forces fled, and what few remained protected not them, but the billion-dollar gas compound.
It’s why that detail – about the Amarula hotel being besieged not because of the foreign contractors, but for the local politician – is so important.
Because it’s a symbol of that fatal link between corruption, extremism, and poverty. The insurgence target was the face of the government – those who had forgotten them. Those who had promised them jobs which had never materialised.
And Total? Well it might not surprise you to hear that they didn’t answer any questions I put to them.
Total has now evacuated… and the longer the delay, the less likely the project will ever go ahead. The window for fossil fuels, after all, is closing. And perhaps, so too is an era of gas and oil extraction. The end of a chapter where multinational companies can exploit the weaknesses of a poor state, take what they want, ignore the local population, and just leave.
Meanwhile, no one knows the true cost of the insurgency.
More than 80 people are thought to have died in the attack in March…
Including 10 of Wesley’s own staff, who were beheaded in Palma.
In total, more than 730,000 people have been displaced in northern Mozambique since 2017.
And attacks, smaller now, are still targeting civilians. Here’s Zenaida Machado…
Zenaida: From what we are seeing now, two months later, I think they’re far from having the complete control of the town.
Basia, narrating: Assane, who survived the convoy, is now stuck, alone in Pemba. He doesn’t know where his family is. He said that since the military arrived, nothing has changed.
Assane, voiced in English by an interpreter: My life, I’ve got nothing to do, I’m just suffering, I’ve got nothing. I’m not with my family. I don’t know where my family is. I don’t know what I’ll do, my family, I still don’t know where they are. I’m alone in Pemba.
Basia, narrating: But that armoured truck full of women and children? That went first in the convoy? Well they made it to safety. They made it to the beach, and they were rescued.
Wes and his Dad are home now in South Africa but they still haven’t been paid. He’s chased the contractors that he was working for on the Total site – two of the biggest engineering companies in the world, but they won’t even reply to his emails, he told me.
He says he thinks that he’s got maybe one more month to go before the company that he runs is just going to have to close.
But he sees Janik, Adrian’s wife, and Adrian’s three children a lot.
They had a really beautiful funeral for him. They built a raft, kind of like a viking ship, covered in messages of love, and set it alight on the beach…
[Clip of cheers from Adrian Nel’s memorial]
And Janik, she asked me to say in this podcast, to have it on the record: that in one of Adrian’s last ever messages to her, sent before he left in the convoy – he said: “my babes I love love love you and the kids forever. Please let them know that everyday if I don’t make it out of here.”
And she’s doing just that.
And Wes, he’s in therapy. He is grieving, he’s fragile, he’s still coming to terms with what happened.
And he’s raising money in Adrian’s name.
Wes: I made him a promise that I would look after his family, I know he would do the same for me so I’m trying to raise as much money as I can.
Basia, narrating: Alfredo is also struggling to come to terms with the trauma, but he’s carrying on. He was incredibly brave to speak to us.
Niraj has just had surgery on his elbow, and he’s recovering well.
And Nick? He’s safe at home, reunited with his family. Recovering. Happily back in the company of a rather grumpy-looking chihuahua that he clearly adores.
[Clip: dog barking]
Nick: Can you hear the dog yapping?
Basia, narrating: The only contact he’s had from the Amarula Hotel since he fled has been chasing payment for his stay.
He’s ignoring the email.
But he has a plan.
He wants to return to Palma, when it’s safe.
He wants to find the man who saved his life.
Nick: My colleague had a GPS on his watch and he took the coordinates. So when it’s safe, we’re hoping to get back there. We’re desperate to get back and to try and meet up with him and, you know, do something to show our thanks and appreciation.
Basia: What would you say to him?
Nick: I dunno. Just tell him the whole story of how we survived and just how much, I mean what he did for us was just so incredible and brave on his part. I really hope we get to do that.
Basia: I hope you do too.
Nick: Yeah. But it just shows you how sad the situation is up there, and that’s just one family of ordinary people just trying to survive. And have been running for their lives for the last 18 months and with no one to take care of them.
Basia: Thanks for listening, this story was written and reported by me, Basia Cummings, produced by Matt Russell, with additional reportined and fact-checking by Claudia Williams. Sound design is by Karla Patella.
A podcast by Tortoise Studios.