(Photo by ALFREDO ZUNIGA/AFP via Getty Images)
White South African mercenaries hired by the Mozambican government have carried out indiscriminate helicopter attacks and killed civilians as part of an escalating war in neighboring Mozambique, according to a new report published today by Amnesty International.
Fifty-three witnesses interviewed by Amnesty International claim that forces from a South African private military company, known as the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), fired machine guns from helicopters and dropped hand grenades indiscriminately into crowds of people, failing to differentiate between civilians and military targets in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province.
“Two helicopters came, one shooting and dropping bombs. One group [of civilians] that was running raised their hands and they were not shot. But another group that was with the bandits did not raise their hands and they were shot,” one eyewitness to an attack in Mocímboa da Praia in late June 2020 told Amnesty International. “We saw this. Many people died there.”
Since October 2017, more than 1,300 civilians have been killed in a conflict involving DAG, the armed forces of Mozambique, and Islamist militants internationally known as Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah or ISIS-Mozambique, but locally as al-Shabaab (although unrelated to the group in Somalia). Amnesty’s report, based on remote interviews with survivors of the attacks, documents serious violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict that have left hundreds dead and driven more than half a million from their homes.
Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah’s insurgency in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province has been marked by widespread suffering as the group has deliberately targeted civilians, frequently carrying out brutal machete attacks, beheadings, abductions of young women, and children including girls as young as seven, and village burnings. Their activity has only increased; the number of reported violent incidents linked to militant Islamist groups in Cabo Delgado jumped 129% in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Africa Center. The number of fatalities associated with those attacks spiked even higher from 2019 to 2020, rising 169% to 1,600 deaths.
In response to the escalating violence, Mozambique’s troops have compounded the problem, carrying out a counterinsurgency campaign marked by a series of atrocities including extrajudicial executions, torture, and other abuses of civilians accused of supporting the insurgents. But after suffering a number of defeats in battle with the Islamist forces—where troops often stripped off their uniforms and fled from attack—the government of Mozambique hired DAG to fight Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah using armed helicopters.
“There is a problematic history of white South Africans fighting as mercenaries across the continent. Lionel Dyck, the founder of Dyck Advisory Group, is himself a former commander in the Rhodesian army. DAG is possibly violating South African law by fighting in Cabo Delgado, and both DAG and Mozambican government are responsible for any violations of the laws of war that occur during their operations,” Brian Castner, the Senior Crisis Advisor for arms and military operations at Amnesty International, told VICE World News. “If DAG can't fulfill its contract obligations without killing civilians and targeting hospitals, then it has a duty to stop operating in Mozambique.”
Before Amnesty’s report, coverage of DAG had been mainly positive: A June 2020 article from The Telegraph said the group, made up of sharpshooters, many of them Angolan war veterans, were “hailed for ‘saving the day’” after a lengthy description of the group killing attackers in Cabo Delgado. Unidentified “insiders” were quoted as saying DAG “shot the shit” out of the militants; Dyck told the paper that “someone had to do it.”
Recently, a video titled “Mercenaries operating in Mozambique,” set to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” was posted to YouTube by The Team House, a podcast hosted by two former U.S. Army Rangers. The footage, a slideshow of still photographs and video clips of geriatric mercenaries, weapons, and an array of aircraft, casts the conflict as a splendid little war for those flying above the treetops. But on the ground, survivors said DAG treated civilians like the same people the mercenaries were hired to kill. “The helicopter was shooting at some people who were at the cemetery, and the helicopter shot against them but they were civilians,” said one survivor of a DAG attack on militants in the town of Macomia. “No one died but several were wounded, and they ran away to [the] forest. They were only civilians, mainly people living in that neighborhood.”
Neither the government of Mozambique nor the Dyck Advisory Group replied to requests for comment from Amnesty International and VICE World News, but the human rights group has called on all parties to the conflict to immediately stop targeting civilians and for the government of Mozambique to investigate these crimes.