Last summer our three-part podcast Left To Die told the harrowing story of 200 civilians trapped in a hotel in Mozambique under siege by violent extremists. This week, we’re looking back to find out: what happened next?
Why this story?
Stories rarely end at the moment of publication, but newsrooms have a tendency to just move on to the next thing. At Tortoise we try to slow down and dig deeper, but we also think that slowing down means staying the course – and following a story. Has anything changed? Has there been any accountability, or a reckoning? And where do we go from here?
In this special episode called ‘Left to Die: The Next Chapter’, we’re looking back at one of our most significant investigations to find out what happened next? David Taylor, Editor
Basia, narrating: Hello. If you’ve been listening to the slow newscast for a while now, you might have gotten the idea that we like to do things a bit differently. We don’t do breaking news; instead we investigate stories to reveal what’s driving the news. At Tortoise, the newsroom where I work, and the newsroom where all the brilliant reporters who you hear on this show work – we also think that slowing down means staying the course – and following a story…
Has anything changed? Has there been any accountability or a reckoning? And where do we go from here? I’m Basia Cummings. And this week on the Slow newscast, we’ve got a special episode called Left to Die. In the next chapter, we’re looking back at one of our investigations to find out what happened next.
We’re going back to a really harrowing story that I reported last summer called Left to Die. It was a series – in three episodes – about what happened when a Western energy giant tried to establish itself in a dangerously unstable region in Mozambique, where extremists were on the rise. And it was a story of what happened to the people who were left behind as violence erupted – 200 civilians who were left under siege by an armed militia – but it was about so much more than that. It was about colonial capitalism and corporate responsibility and what happens when a 20-billion gamble goes really, badly wrong. Here’s a taste of how the investigation unfolded.
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.”
Basia, narrating: 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.
Both Wes and Nick, in charge of around 65 people between them, suddenly had to move, and move quick.
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, narrating: Everyone is lying on their stomachs, on the floor of the hotel bar, the 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.
Wes: That’s when a hell of a lot of shooting started… thousands of gunshots.
Basia, narrating: By Thursday, the numbers inside the hotel had grown to over 200. Wes and Nick were awake in the early hours at around 4:00 or 5:00 AM and they were struggling to sleep, but they figured the military would be there soon.
And this is really 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 gonna need choppers. Helicopters began to land on the helipad just behind the hotel, lifting people out.
Nick: So during the course of the day, there were a couple of choppers that were able to lift people out. The first chopper took the administrator and his family. He didn’t waste any time.
Wes: Thursday, we were still thinking that someone out there was making a plan and that our rescue was being organised. That subsequently turned out to be nothing. No one was organising anything.
Basia, narrating: It’s now Friday, the 26th of March. Day three.
Wes: Yeah. Friday was bad. So Robby said to us that, you know, 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. It was at that point, we realised, you know, we’ve been abandoned.
Basia, narrating: 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 and to confront head on. It’s a point about privilege. As a foreign contractor, you’d assume that efforts would be made to come and save you, or that your employer would organise something, or embassies would kick into gear, or there would be levers to pull. It wasn’t the same, of course, for the Mozambique civilians, people who lived in the remotest and poorest region of the country, who were used to being forgotten.
Wes: We realised we were left with one option, and that was to break through with the convoy.
Basia, narrating: The foreign contractors came up with the convoy idea. They were the ones with the satellite phones and the cars belonged to them or their companies. They were trying to reach the mercenaries, DAG the Dyke advisory group, to see if they could provide air cover if they did decide to drive out. In a video that Wes shared, you can see a mishmash of vehicles, just enough to cram 150 civilians in. No bags. They say to people they’re gonna take up too much space.
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.
Wes: It’s gonna be the drive of your life.
I remember that from the moment we pulled out there, it was just terrifying. Adrian put his foot down and we were going as fast as we could without crashing. You know, it’s a dirt road, and we are going a hundred k’s an hour down this road, and there was just a lot of dust in front of us from the cars ahead of us.
Basia, narrating: Wes and Adrian’s car had made it through the first ambush. They were heading to a quarry nearby where they thought that 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: They fired into the car and the side window smashed and I just remember Adrian screaming, “I’m hit, I’m hit.” And he’s saying “guys, I can’t, 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.”
Basia, narrating: Wesley jumped out and pulled his brother from the front seat. He started driving himself with Adrian now sitting behind him.
Wes: When we came to a stop at the quarry, I just looked back at my brother and he was already dead at that time. There was so much blood everywhere at that stage. Martin had a satellite phone and he went into a little opening and he phoned his company up and told them what had happened and they said to him, just stay there. They’re gonna try to get hold of DAG to come and rescue us in the morning.
Basia, narrating: They spent the night sleeping, exhausted, traumatised, in the Bush. And on Saturday morning, Wes woke up at 5:00 AM 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 going, I’m not getting on the chopper without them coming back to fetch my brother – which the guy did.
Basia, narrating: Back in the UK, Tori Hickson – Nick’s partner – was in the dark about what was happening. All she could do was wait. Nick was in the last car of the convoy to leave the Amarula.
Nick: My colleague was driving. I was in the passenger seat and it all just happened so quickly. You know, suddenly everyone was driving off….they separated from the main convoy.
Basia, narrating: Nick’s vehicle was hit by an ambush almost immediately.
Nick: And then the bullets were cracking past us. We decided to get out of the car. So we were in this gully next to the runway. But we had to make it across this runway – 120 meters of open ground. And that’s where we stood the best chance of getting hit. The bullets were flying so close to us.
Basia, narrating: Nick, his colleague Niraj GaN, and a Mozambique security guard managed to make it to the other side. They crawled into the undergrowth, surrounded by insurgents who had just fired.
Nick: We waited till it was dark. The best route seemed to be heading west, where there was this long hill.
Basia, narrating: By now, Nick was half naked. They hadn’t eaten anything since Wednesday afternoon, two days before. Some of this information was now starting to filter out into the world. And to Tori.
Tori: We heard quite quickly that not all the cars had made it. We didn’t know which cars had. We didn’t know who was in which car. I can’t explain to you what that feels like. Not to know.
Basia, narrating: But Nick and Niraj, they couldn’t just sit and wait. 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 spot.
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 he was…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 a fungi where the compound was. But to do this, they’d need to walk straight through Palma – or what was left of it.
Nick: I heard the spotter and just ran outside. As I ran out, one of the DAG choppers flew past me. They saw me and two or three minutes later, they were on the ground picking us up. Can’t tell you the relief. It was just incredible.
Basia, narrating: At the end of the series, we heard about how Wes and Nick escaped the horror in Palma. Wes had made it to safety but had experienced the terrible death of his brother. And Nick had been rescued by helicopter and reunited with his family.
I’ve stayed in touch with them both… we text each other, and send each other updates.
After nearly a year of messages, and missed meetings due to Covid and sick dogs, Nick and I finally managed to meet in person a few weeks ago. For me, it was incredibly emotional – I gave him a huge hug which I’m not sure he was quite expecting. And we caught up…
Basia: You’re finally here. So tell me what’s the last year been like for you since we…
Nick: Very difficult. Trying after the attack to come to terms with what had happened, I think psychologically, it took a lot of time with close friends and family and with a therapist to deal with the mental trauma and the fear that came out of the attack. As a man and as a guy, you’re trying to be the strong one and brush it off and sort of carry on with your life. But it really isn’t that straightforward. It wasn’t for me. So fortunately with some good relationships and the trauma counselor, we came out the other side and from that side of things feel very strong, but the knock-on effects and the financial losses for the business and the mess that was created have been some big issues to deal with.
Basia: So tell me about that, because during and after the attack, you just had everything that you were doing there that was just left and you haven’t been able to go back because the situation in that part of Mozambique is still really volatile.
Nick: Yeah. On the day of the attack, we left the gates open and drove out and for months, and that’s how the property stayed. After the attack there was a lot of ransacking and theft that took place throughout Palma. It wasn’t as bad as we had expected. They shot holes through a lot of things, including our water supply, and they stole all of the generators and the tools. And then of course the weather: the coast is quite a hostile environment for anything metal. It’s very humid. So all of our materials were either baking in a container or sitting out in the sun for the last 18 months.
Basia: So what kind of a financial hit are you taking if you just have to abandon all of that?
Nick: So there was a total loss of about a million pounds worth of stock. The order book that we had for the project building various camps and site offices for the project was just eliminated immediately. And with the project not starting again anytime soon, all of that income and business momentum was switched off.
Basia: Have you had any clear message from Total that they’re going to restart, or that business is coming back to the peninsula?
Nick: No. We’re in fairly regular contact with people, and it just seems that the security situation doesn’t allow for that. I can understand the reluctance to go back if there’s any risk to people.
Basia: In that part of Northern Mozambique, there are still attacks. It’s still dangerous
Nick: My understanding is that it’s still under the control of the Rwandan military. And it is a lot safer than it was, so people have returned to the village. And I think some of the hotels have reopened, but it’s very quiet. Talking to security experts, they’ll say, yeah, it’s a lot safer than it was – but it’s not at the point where they would recommend going and working there. And there’s no work to do, but further south from Palma … and in the graphite region, there have been attacks very recently.
Basia: And do you know if the Amarula has reopened?
Nick: Yeah, we heard that. They have reopened and Robbie returned. I heard they had some NGOs staying there and they kind of patched up the hotel.
Basia: So Robbie, the hotel manager who helped evacuate the dogs, is back.
Nick: Yes. He has subsequently said that he only decided to leave when he heard that the rest of us were gonna hear. That’s why he formed a convoy…
Basia: That’s what he told me. Yeah.
Nick: But it was kind of from our side, the opposite, his departure is sort of what was the final decision for us to form a convoy and leave.
Basia: But now that you are over a year after the attack, has your thinking about what happened in that time changed? Or have you got a different lens on it now than you did when we last spoke?
Nick: Definitely changed what you think is important. Family, friends, you know, time to do what you want to do and really enjoying things in the moment. Because you do realize just how short life can be. I’m very grateful in a way for the event. The thing is, life still goes on, and you gotta make sure that you don’t lose the value of something like that. You wish you could just make a whole new beginning after an event like this, but you do still have the practicalities of life for making a living and fighting with insurance companies and trying to salvage a business, which are things that have to be done.
Basia: Who are you most angry at?
Nick: When I think back, I’m still very angry at Total in particular and the Amarula as well, but my feeling is that Total had the ability to do something about our situation. I understand the challenge of being a corporate and having to operate in a difficult environment like Mozambique. But I would’ve thought that under the circumstances of March last year, that people’s lives, contractors, and the civilians in Palma would’ve come before reputational issues.
And it’s clear that they didn’t know this had happened, even in North Africa, Eastern Europe, it wouldn’t have faded away the head the way it has now, but because it’s in a dark corner of Africa. These things fade away, and one wonders if they’ll ever be justice for the people who lost their lives.
Basia, narrating: For Wes, the last year has been really up and down. After he escaped the terror attack, he returned home to South Africa. In the weeks and months afterward, he really struggled with trauma and anger at what had happened. His company, Cube Modular, was struggling financially – all of their kit, camps for thousands of workers, a huge investment for them – was left rusting on the edge of the Total gas compound. Wes has been trying his best to hold everything together. He moved to be closer to Adrian’s wife and children. But things went sour with his company, and he’s no longer in charge.
To my surprise, he messaged me a few weeks ago on WhatsApp to say that he was back in Mozambique, which is the first time that he’s returned there since the attack.
Wes: Rav is back in Pemba today, and we managed to get some of our stuff: what’s left of our assets out of Palma, which cost us a lot of money. The whole place just feels like there’s a cloud over it. Honestly, it’s heartbreaking. A lot of the stuff is completely destroyed and stolen and damaged, but it’s at least something. The idea is we at least use what’s left over to start again somewhere else. He told me that it was a really heavy trip for him, bringing back a lot of really traumatic memories of what happened in March last year – he was back at the airport where he saw his brother’s body being loaded into the airplane after they were rescued.
Wes: I was extremely emotional. It felt like I had taken a tranquilizer. It just didn’t feel real. It was surreal. When I arrived at the airport, that’s where the first flashbacks brought back all those bad memories.
Basia, narrating: While he was there, there were continued attacks. He was still getting advice on where he could safely go and where he couldn’t. So the region is still incredibly volatile.
Wes: The insurgents actually attacked a few villages, between 40 and 20 kilometers outside of Pemba. Pemba was always considered the safe area after their attack on cars and people on the road, then they just disappeared into the Bush, like ghosts. Kind of reminds me of what is happening up in Palma. So I don’t know what the future of the people will be like. But one thing I do know for sure is that people are suffering. It was not easy, but maybe it’s just one of those things that I need to face and can make me stronger at the end of the day.
Basia, narrating: Neither Nick, Wes, or any of the other victims of the siege of the Amarillo hotel have really recovered from what happened there. But I think where the physical scars have now healed the financial and the psychological toll is really only just setting in. One thing that really surprised me is that the Amarillo hotel is now open again. The general manager – who came in for a lot of criticism at the time of the attack for escaping with the dogs and leaving many people stuck there – he’s back working there. So in some ways there’s this continuity, which feels really surreal. Although Total have not given a clear answer on whether they’re going to resume work on the gas project.
Basia, narrating: So one of the things that Nick said to me while we. were speaking, which has really piqued my interest and which feels like the natural place to go next with this story. He said that there is a graphite mine further inland in Northern Mozambique, where Tesla has recently announced that it will be purchasing 80 per cent of the graphite that comes out of this mine.
Though they’ve said they won’t be purchasing it directly from Mozambique. They’re going to go through a third party. The reason that they want this graphite is because it’s used in the electric vehicle batteries that they use for their Tesla cars. I think so many of the questions that we asked Total were about responsibility, about what you owe to local people when things go right. But also when they go wrong – about what the Mozambique government is able to promise to people and to companies, when they have these incredibly lucrative resources, all of that will come back into play when Tesla starts buying the proceeds of that mine in 2025. So that’s where I’m gonna go next.
Basia, narrating: Thanks so much for listening. I hope you’ve enjoyed going back to revisit one of the stories that we really care about. This episode of the Slow newscast was produced by Imy Harper. The sound design was by Phil Sansom. The editor was David Taylor, and it was presented by me, Basia Cummings. See you next week.