Cabo Delgado (Mozambique), 18 September 2023 - Terrorism inflicts lasting damage – on societies, communities, and individuals. The lives of victims of terrorism are transformed forever, while the challenges they face are often hidden or dismissed.
Nowhere are the difficulties confronted by victims of terrorism more evident than in Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province of Mozambique. Islamic extremists and affiliates have carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks since 2017 in the province, displacing nearly 800,000 people and killing 4,000. Alongside the toll on civilians, the region has witnessed the distressing deployment of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as a tool to instill fear among the local inhabitants.
An unspecified number of women have been abducted and coerced into making the painful decision of aligning with the insurgency or witnessing the execution of their families.
One survivor, Ana*, agreed to speak to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) anonymously. Specific details of her captivity, identity, occupation, and location have been omitted for her safety.
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“When the terrorists came to our district, they killed my uncle and took my aunts, leaving six children behind. My cousins were raped.
For the sake of my family, I joined the Islamic extremist group.
It was difficult to make this decision – but at the time, I was thinking that it was the best choice I could make. At some point, they [the extremists] had said “let’s kill the children and then she’ll come with us anyway.”
As a wife and a mother, I was weak in this situation – weak because I have children and would do anything to protect them.
Other women joined voluntarily out of desperation after seeing their relatives and husbands beheaded. They followed the group because they still had to feed their children.
Sometimes I had a chance to escape – but what would happen to my children then? Who would take care of them in captivity? Would they be beheaded, or would they be released?
In the end, remaining was worth it.
For two years, I stayed as a ‘spouse’ [to a member of the group] in captivity.
But then, back in my community, I am seen as a traitor, an extremist! And why? Because I made the only decision that was right at that moment?
Without thinking about what you went through and lived, without even putting themselves in your place, they judge you and even discriminate against you in the community.
The discrimination affects me deeply when the community calls my children extremists.
They did not choose this, and I feel guilty for having made the decision I had no choice but to make.
Sometimes I think it would have been better if they killed me, rather than to hear and live, and carry the blame for everything that happened.
This situation affects a person negatively. If you do not have support, or better yet, psychological help, you may even die. You start to relive what had forced you to make that decision, and together with all the suffering you saw and lived through in captivity, it hurts until you start thinking about taking your own life.”
In the face of the growing terrorism threat in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, UNODC has been supporting the country in reinforcing its criminal justice responses to terrorism, terrorist financing and violent extremism through tailored coordination, collaboration, training and policy development at the response, investigation, prosecution, and trial of terrorism-related offences.
Legislators, policymakers and national authorities must be aware of the circumstances and challenges which survivors and victims of terrorism might confront. Counter-terrorism efforts must also be sensitive to complex scenarios where there is an absence of clear definitional lines between who might constitute a ‘victim of terrorism’ versus a ‘terrorist’.
UNODC works with civil society and communities to provide psychological support to victims of terrorism, as well as to safeguard victims’ rights during criminal proceedings.
UNODC also collaborates with countries across the globe to strengthen their capacity to understand and respond to the rights and needs of women and girls who are victims of abduction and exploitation by terrorist groups, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and has published a Handbook on Gender Dimensions of Criminal Justice Responses to Terrorism. The Model Legislative Provisions, developed by UNODC together with the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), serve as a model for the review of existing laws and procedures related to victims of terrorism, including victims of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), and to develop legislation and support the needs and protect the rights of victims of terrorism.