DECOMPOSING corpses in the bush, destroyed villages, abductions—in the central Mozambican district of Gorongosa clashes between the army and rebels have revived the spectre of a civil war that ended 20 years ago.
“It has been two months since I have found these bodies and no one has come to remove them,” Donca Sabir, a local farmer, told AFP as he contemplated remains barely hidden among shrubs on his land.
Wearing scraps of civilian clothes, their trousers often pulled down, and their jaws open in macabre expressions of pain, the skeletal corpses lie just 100 metres (yards) from Mozambique’s main north-south road.
From the roadside, the smell is strong from the bodies of at least nine men and women.
A little further down the road, under a small bridge, local authorities said they recently buried 11 other corpses.
But no proper autopsy was conducted, and four skulls and some bones are still visible in the sand.
The discovery of bodies in the area last month shocked many in Mozambique and alerted international human rights groups.
Local villagers had also earlier reported an unconfirmed mass grave that could contain more than 100 corpses.
But in Zone 76, the alleged location of the mass grave, everyone is too scared to speak about it, and the government has dismissed the reports.
“The Mozambican government must tell us who are these people, how they died and who left their bodies there,” Zenaida Machado, Mozambique researcher for Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
“I find it difficult to understand how any investigation can be made without performing an autopsy on the bodies.
“It is extremely worrying that instead of taking these reports (of graves) seriously, the first action of the authorities is to deny them.”
Ivone Soares, head of the Renamo party in parliament, alleges that Frelimo, the ruling party in power since 1975, has implemented a campaign to eliminate all opposition.
“Death squads terrorise those who criticise the regime… People are abducted and murdered in their homes,” she told AFP.
The “death squads” are said to patrol in white trucks and target supporters of Renamo—a movement that operates as both an armed insurgent group and an elected opposition party.
Frelimo and Renamo fought a bloody civil war between 1976 and 1992 that claimed one million lives.
Since 2013, tensions have risen and Renamo fighters have again taken up arms in a battle that it says is against a Frelimo elite that has enriched itself at the expense of the country.
Starting with a low-intensity insurgency, attacks intensified from late last year, forcing thousands of refugees to flee to neighbouring Malawi.
In Gorongosa, a local government official insisted that the situation was calm across the region, but declined to go into further details.
About 30 kilometres (20 miles) east of Gorongosa, on the small dirt track, 10 armoured army trucks patrol outside the deserted village of Vunduzi, a Renamo stronghold surrounded by corn fields.
In the distance stand the lush mountains where Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama is hiding after escaping several assassination attempts.
On the side of the road, Joaquim Assais is visibly upset as he contemplates the fate of his village.
“My father was sitting there when the army arrived. They tied him, beat him up and burned down the houses,” said Assais, who now sleeps with 12 other members of his family under a tree in the bush.
At the end of the dirt track, Vunduzi is a ghost town.
A few military men patrol the small main square, their Kalashnikov rifles by their sides.
Everything is closed, and there is little activity except for one or two banana sellers.
In the abandoned village school, a blackboard suggests that the last maths lesson was given on March 16.
‘Both sides kill innocent people’
“It’s war here,” Siwageros Campira said, pointing to his general store which is riddled with bullets.
“When it gets dark, we pack our belongings up and hide in the bush. In recent months, there has been a lot of shooting and many people were captured and killed by soldiers.”
Villagers say that just to have relatives who are accused of links to Renamo can mean kidnapping and death.
In retaliation, Renamo has conducted 18 attacks in the past two weeks on the main road of the country, killing seven people and leaving more than 30 wounded, according to police.
“Both sides are killing innocent people, both violate human rights,” said Daviz Simango, the mayor of Beira, the main city in the central region.
“Like any guerrillas, Renamo know how to blend in with the population and lead a normal life, while armed forces are trying to prevent them from getting supplies to their leader.”
In the capital Maputo, cautious negotiations resumed last week in a first step to restarting the peace process.
In Gorongosa, the locals can only hope for some respite.