MUXUNGWE, Mozambique (AFP) – While much of Mozambique enjoys the fruits of peace, in one central town recent violence has left unsettling echoes of a civil war that ended more than two decades ago.
The streets of Muxungwe are largely empty, except, that is, for the presence of heavily armed and camouflaged commandos on patrol.
They are on the look out for further attacks by ex-guerrillas from Renamo, who earlier this month stormed a local police station killing four officers.
Renamo’s leader Afonso Dhlakama says the assault was in response to a teargas and rubber bullet-filled police raid, in which 15 of his supporters were arrested.
But it was also the result of years of seething tensions between Dhlakama and the Frelimo-led government.
The two groups are old adversaries. From 1977 to 1992 they fought a civil war that killed around one million Mozambicans.
Since then Dhlakama has become more and more marginalised, more and more disgruntled and more and more willing to pick a fight with his old Frelimo enemy.
Civilians in Muxungwe are the collateral damage of the latest front in that rivalry.
As the soldiers poured in, most of Muxungwe’s residents fled.
Classrooms are deserted, everyone, including teachers fled the fighting.
“There was a war here. We suffered here. I fled to the bush because of what happened here,” says Jose Joao.
While many residents are still camped out in the open, too afraid to return, Joao is one of those who are being forced by hunger to make their way home.
A woman who makes a living selling cashew nuts to passing motorists and buses has also made her way back.
“We came out of the bush because there is nothing to eat there. We have to sell in order to eat. The children were crying because of hunger.”
She is too afraid to give her name.
“The guys with guns are here to keep us safe,” she whispers as another soldier passes.
Thirteen year old Mathias has spent his time collecting plastic bottles by the side of the road while he waits for school to reopen.
“It was a war here,” he said.
Metres away the police station where Renamo launched its fierce attack in the early hours of April 4th, is now heavily fortified.
A brand new armoured anti-riot vehicle mounted with a high-calibre machine gun faces on to the main road.
The attack lasted 45 minutes, witnesses said, but sporadic shooting carried on for at least two days and the reverberations continue to be felt.
Everyone here knows their history. Renamo’s leader, Afonso Dhlakama grew up in the district. The shots that started the civil war were fired just one hundred kilometres away.
And the community believes some 200 Renamo members are still hiding in the thick landmine-laden bush close to the town.
“People were afraid and confused, worried they would start war,” says resident, Mathias Javier who says local authorities used the pretext Renamo members were cutting sticks in the bush to use as weapons to launch the raid.
“They are afraid and ashamed. They know they will be killed by police if they come back,” says Javier.
For the first time since the civil war, civilians have again become a target in the simmering hostilities between Renamo and the government.
Several attacks on civilian vehicles in the area have been blamed on Renamo – after armed men in Renamo uniforms shot and killed three people in a truck and injured two passengers in an overland bus on April 6th.
Renamo denies these claims saying the assailants donned their uniforms in an effort to discredit them, a tactic they say dates back to the civil war.
Vehicles are now returning to the area, but police and the army maintain a heavy presence, searching buses entering and leaving the zone.
Meanwhile Dhlakama has indicated he is open to a cease-fire as long as the government pulls back troops from around his camp in the nearby Gorongosa mountains and detained Renamo members are released.
While Renamo and the President Armando Guebuza’s government have begun talking to each other in the capital, Maputo, the residents of Muxungwe say they can’t be sure of anything.
“Yes they are talking at the moment – Guebuza and Dhlakama. The problem for us is we don’t know if it is over or not,” says Jose Joao.