Michael Chandada (a Zimbabwean whose real name is not revealed in this article to protect his family and those still in Mozambique) was so excited when he got a job in Mozambique.
His company is involved in extracting oil and gas and runs marines in the area.
Michael was posted to work at a plant in Palma, a town on the north-east coast of Mozambique’ s Cabo Delgado Province.
Less than 35 kilometres away is the border with Tanzania to the north and north-west.
There is only one road which leads to Palma and out of Palma. The other side of Palma is surrounded by the sea.
On this day, Mike, as Michael is passionately known, was at work in a compound which was only 10 kilometres from the house he was staying.
In this company, there are over 20 Zimbabweans. They all lived in the same compound away from the work station.
A message came to the effect that the ISIS al-Shabab were coming to attack the town of Palma, so the work station was to be shut-down for the security of the workers.
Soon after the message, Mike and his manager, whom he was staying with, jumped into their car and sped off to their house.
Mike shared this house with his manager.
“Just 15 minutes after we got in the house, we heard gunshots,” he said. “We could hear the shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’. We peeped through the window, then I saw a lot of cars driving in the town. There were men armed with all sorts of arms.
“At that moment, I started to sweat. My manager was visibly shaken and he was sweating too. We saw some of our workmates driving out in a bid to escape. I counted four trucks with Zimbabweans driving towards the hotel. They said a hotel was a safe place to go in such times.
“My manager and I made a decision not to go anywhere. We locked the gate and locked the house doors. We closed the windows and all the curtains were pulled down.
Mike said the sound of guns was increasing and getting closer to the house.
“There was silence in the house, we could hear our hearts pounding. Yet there was great noise coming from outside. A few meters from our house was the army camp. We heard the sounds of the guns and groans of pain. There were screams we had never heard before.
“There was anguish and despair. All of a sudden, the lights went off, but the guns kept rumbling. There was nothing we could do. We could not leave the house at this stage. Outside was a war zone. We were sure that we were going to die.
“We had already been warned that the first enemy of al Shabaab was a foreigner. So our deaths were already guaranteed. There was groaning, crying, screaming and all unpleasant noises.”
Mike said in the midst of the fighting, they heard the rebels coming to their compound.
“We could here doors being broken. They never asked questions. They shot first and then shoot again. When we heard the doors being brought down, we realised that the army had been overran by the rebels.
“In all this confusion I was praying not for survival, but for a peaceful death. I could not believe that a miracle could happen.”
Then the inevitable happened, the rebels started shaking the gate to the house where Mike and his manager were hiding.
“We did not know what to do, but we could smell death from outside,” said Mike. “My manager whispered to me. It was a good idea or actually the only option. We climbed into the ceiling. Thank God the ceiling was strong.
“We closed the antique door of the ceiling after us. Within few seconds of jumping into the ceiling, we heard our door crushing down. I was so scared and I could not breath. I heard the rebels calling out for anyone who might be in the house to surrender. We remained silent.
“We could hear the rebels ransacking the house, looting anything and everything. These were not soldiers, they were barbaric and lunatics with guns. They showed no discipline, but a thirst for spilling blood.
“They took out everything from the house. They even took food, including tomatoes. They behaved like very hungry lions looking for a kill. They tore the house apart. After a long time, they walked out. I heard them breaking into the next house.”
The attackers began causing mayhem at that house.
“You will never believe the actions of these so-called religious fighters,” said Mike. “I heard them telling the occupants of the house that they had to lose their hands. The screams of pain which followed were sickening. I felt my stomach turning. I felt sick, but I was afraid to vomit.
“We spent the whole night hiding the ceiling. We had gone into the ceiling with some food, but none of us became hungry. We spent two weeks in the ceiling. In all these days, the rebels kept coming and collecting more things from the house.”
Mike said the fighting went on for five straight days, and they could hear the noise from the discomfort of the ceiling.
“After two weeks we heard more guns and more guns, but something told us that Frelimo (the Mozambican army) had retaken the town,” he said.
“We jumped out of the ceiling tired and hungry. I could not open my eyes. The light was blinding.
“After some little time, I gathered my courage and moved outside. The door was already broken. From the doorway looking outside I could tell that dozens of civilians had been killed and bodies were littering the streets of Palma.
“The fate of scores of some Zimbabwean workers began to unfold. I saw a couple of my countrymen lying on the streets with no hands, some with no legs. Bodies were already rotting.
“Some of the dead had been beheaded, dresses of some dead women lying in the streets suggested that they were rap_ed. It became clear that an attempt by expatriate workers to flee to safety came under heavy fire, causing many deaths.”
The battle for Palma was similar to how the rebels seized the port Mocimboa da Praia in August.
They infiltrated men into the town to live among residents and then launched a three-pronged attack. Fighting continued for more than a week until the rebels controlled the town centre and then its port.
This is exactly what they did with Palma.
The battle for Palma highlights the military and humanitarian crisis in this Southern African nation on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
The three-year insurgency of the rebels, who are primarily disaffected young Muslim men in the northern Cabo Delgado province, has claimed more than 2 600 lives and displaced an estimated 670 000, according to the UN.
During the latest attack, a number of foreign workers from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Britain and France clustered at hotels that quickly became targets for the rebel attacks.
Lameck Mano (another Zimbabwean whose real name is also protected) is one of the foreigners who survived the onslaught.
“The beach remained under insurgent fire, preventing rescue efforts by air or sea,” he said.
“The Hotel Amarula remained under attack and I saw people being killed. I saw another Zimbabwean man who was by my side dying.
“I survived by covering myself in blood. I took blood from those who were shot and covered myself with it. I lay with the dead for seven days. I could smell death, but it was feigning death which removed death from me. I survived by the blood of others.”
Another Zimbabwean, Morgan Murambwi (whose real name is also protected) described what he witnessed.
“A group of foreigners hiding at the Hotel Amarula made a decision to escape the attack,” he said. “We had seen soldiers running away from the rebels, so we figured out that escaping was the best way.
“I was driving our company car, a Ford Ranger twin cab. A number of people jumped in. As I drove out of Palma we were met by heavy gun fire. I saw two cars in front turning into a ball of fire. I heard screams and cries for help.
“I stopped my car and ran into the forest. As I took cover few yards from the road, I saw a group of rebels surrounding the car that I had been driving.”
Morgan said the rebels were acting as if they were possessed.
“They took two toddlers from the c arms of their parents,” he said.
“I saw one tossing the child in the air. There was no sound from the child. I could not continue looking, I looked down and closed my eyes.
“Two man who were in my car were shot point blank. I remained hidden for some time. Then I heard one shouting that Mozambican soldiers had reinforced, it was at that time I saw the rebels running into the bush opposite from where I was.
“Within minutes, two trucks with Mozambican soldiers screeched to a halt. The soldiers took positions and fired in the direction of the rebels. Some soldiers pursued the rebels. When I was fully satisfied that they were Mozambican soldiers, I called out for help.
“They ordered me to come in the open. Two soldiers freak searched me and saw my passport and my work identity card. It was then that I realised that I had been shot on the shoulder. I was bundled into a car.
“For some reason, the soldiers did not proceed to Palma. They drove back to a nearest town where they took me to hospital. I later learnt that it was a tactical retreat.”
The assault on Palma started after many rebels infiltrated the town, according to Mozambique news reports.
The coordinated attacks hit Palma “in three directions,” including the airport, Mozambique’s Defence Ministry said.
Mozambique’s military says it has regained full control of the coastal town of Palma, more than a week after it was raided by militant Islamists.
A significant number of militants were killed in the counter-offensive, an army spokesman said.
State radio reported that residents who had fled were starting to return – some to homes that were looted. Thousands were estimated to be missing from the town, which held about 70 000 people before the attack began.