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When vast gas reserves were discovered off the idyllic coast of northern Mozambique, a crew of roughnecks flew in from around the world to make their fortunes. But in March 2021, Islamist rebels attacked, and the foreigners and thousands of Mozambicans were abandoned. Two hundred holed up at the Amarula Lodge, where the expats faced a choice: save themselves, or risk it all to save everyone. As oil and gas fuel a new war in Europe, Alex Perry pieces together, shot by shot, a stunning morality tale for the global economy.
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On March 25, 2021, a week before his 41st birthday, Adrian Nel woke at dawn on the floor of his hotel room in Palma, northern Mozambique, and, seized by a sudden premonition, texted his wife, Janik Armstrong, at their home in Durban, South Africa.
Janik im still alive here but shit is going wild. We have been under attack since yesterday. We are stuck for the moment at the amarula. We have a small amount of wifi that connects sometimes. I will update you if anything changes and we have a plan for evac. My babes i love love love you and the kids forever. Please let them know that everyday if i dont make it out here. 05:32
When Janik checked her phone an hour later, she lost it.
Adi, don’t say that!!! 06:47 You scaring me to death 06:47 Please don’t talk like that 06:48 Love you so so much ❤ 06:51
But Adi couldn’t stop. “I love you to death,” he replied. Then, later: “I love you guys so much. Tell the kids I love them every day.”
Janik wanted more information. She also wanted Adi to be there to love her in life, and to be able to tell the kids himself that he loved them every day. Calmly, evenly, she told her husband to “stop fucking talking like that” or she would “freak the fuck out.” One of the things Janik loved about Adi was that he could always make a plan. He needed to figure this one out, too. “You have to promise me that you’ll come home safely,” she wrote.
Adi’s next messages indicated that he was trying to do as he was asked. At 8 A.M., he wrote that a few small helicopters were flying around the Amarula Lodge, where he was holed up with around 180 others, and “clearing some militants away.” At 11 A.M., he reported talk of a rescue in armored troop carriers belonging to an army battalion stationed 30 minutes away. Around 1 P.M., Adi said that there was a new plan: “We might receive some private security at some point today.” Just after 2 P.M., he hinted that he might have good news soon. “The choppers came and blew some shit up at 13:00. To clear a route for us to escape.”
When Adi stopped texting shortly afterward, Janik wasn’t unduly worried. She knew that the insurgents had knocked out Palma’s single cell tower, Wi-Fi was patchy, and Adi’s phone battery was low. Plus, she was being forwarded messages from other contractors at the Amarula who had satellite phones, and they were saying that everyone was fine and busy working on a way out.
So Janik resigned herself to waiting. She kept her phone close that afternoon and into the evening, and by her bed that night. She checked it when she woke up, and at breakfast, and on the school run, and all day at work at a travel agency. Finally, on the way home, when she hadn’t heard from Adi in 27 hours, Janik found herself stuck in traffic, staring at a long line of cars trying to get home, and without really thinking, she pulled onto the shoulder and texted. “I love you, I love you, I love you with all my heart ❤ ❤ ❤ ,” she wrote. “You can do this.”
It was 5:08 P.M. on March 26. The sun would set in Palma in another 17 minutes. When Janik checked her phone later, a double tick indicated that her message had been received.
Blond and slim, with a smile like summer, Adi was a 19-year-old bartender from Durban and Janik an 18-year-old waitress from Halifax, Nova Scotia, when the pair met in London in 2000. As a backpacker and Mandela-era South African, Adi saw race not as a barrier but an opportunity for discovery, and the couple’s 21 years together had been a whirlwind of different places: England, Scotland, Canada, Mozambique, South Africa. If Adi always had a plan, it was also mostly wild. He’d waited on Mick Jagger in London, juggled flaming bottles in Montreal, and did a stint as a bare-chested, roller-skating distributor of sex-worker flyers in Brighton, on Britain’s south coast. When he and Janik eventually settled in Durban, Adi’s idea of a steady career was to become a commercial diver, one of the world’s most dangerous professions. The mad magic of it all only deepened with marriage in 2010, and the arrival of three riotously named children: a ten-year-old boy, Céu Rockefeller (the magnate’s surname was a favorite of Adi’s); a seven-year-old girl, Télès Cassis (after Adi’s favorite cocktail ingredient); and their three-year-old sister, Léore Le Morne (after a favorite mountain of Adi’s, in Mauritius).
The one dark cloud on the Armstrong-Nel horizon was Adi’s unshakable belief that he was going to die young. In his twenties, he used to laugh and tell Janik he was never going to hit 50. In time, he made a plan for his own death, walking Janik through the design of a Viking funeral pyre, which he wanted constructed to carry his ashes into the ocean, to be set alight by a flaming arrow fired from shore.
Cabo Delgado hadn’t changed much since Adi and Janik had lived in Mozambique in the late 2000s: hundreds of miles of forest, beaches, and mud-hut villages, barely connected to the world or even the capital, Maputo.
Adi had long ago convinced his mother, Meryl Knox, that he wouldn’t come home one day. Adi just burned too fast, too bright, she said. She and her husband, Greg, Adi’s stepfather, would tell a story about a spear-fishing trip a few years back when Adi reappeared with a barracuda’s severed head on his spear tip, and a tale about a tug-of-war with a 300-pound tiger shark. Another time, after Adi went out in a five-foot swell miles from any road, and he emerged a full half-hour after his friends, Meryl remembered catching him and saying something like: Be careful, son. “He just turned and smiled,” she said. Like he was fine with it. Like there was nothing she or anyone else could do about it.
When Adi decided to go to Mozambique, it was, on its face, one of his more sensible plans. COVID had wiped out his dive work, so Adi signed up for a few months with Projectos Dinamicos, a construction company run by his brother, Wesley, 38, and his stepfather, Greg, 55. What is often forgotten in accounts of global business is that the capacity of, say, an oil and gas giant to operate anywhere on earth depends, among other things, on the capacity of its riggers to enjoy three hot meals a day and a cabin with power, light, Wi-Fi, television, air-conditioning, and hot water. As the search for the world’s resources has extended into ever more remote and hazardous places, it has created a need for wildcat construction companies willing to go in first, without support, and literally pave the way. The thousands of prefabricated, self-contained moon bases that now dot the far reaches of the planet testify to the impact of these specialists. Think of them as adventure capitalists.
For the remote construction business in Africa, Palma was the big one. A decade ago, the town was a lost Indian Ocean paradise of grass-roofed huts, coconut palms, and white-sand beaches in the far north of Mozambique. But in 2010, a group of Texas prospectors announced that they had found one of the world’s largest natural-gas fields just offshore, and in 2019, TotalEnergies, the French oil and gas giant, and Exxon-Mobil unveiled plans to spend a respective $20 billion and $30 billion developing it, making Palma the location of the single biggest foreign investment in Africa. The project would happen in two phases. First, 16,370 acres on the Afungi peninsula, south of Palma, were to be cleared of farms and villages, then enclosed in two parallel 12-foot-tall fences, inside of which contractors built a port, an airport, a street grid, a power station, and a water plant, along with an ER, a cafeteria, a bar, a gym, and hundreds of en suite cabins for Total’s managers, arranged in rows, connected by covered walkways, and strung with streetlights. Next, huge tracts outside Afungi would be transformed into half a dozen giant workers’ camps—thousands of four-bed cabins, plus communal washrooms and mess halls—to sleep a labor force of 15,000.
In a place with one paved road, one cell tower, a market, a few basic clinics, almost no electricity, and a handful of backpacker hostels, that meant building a whole new town from scratch—and, for the contractors, $37.4 billion in business. Gordon Rhattigan, a manager at Dubai-based RA International, which had a deal with Total’s principal contractor, CCSJV, to erect a vast camp that would hold 2,500 beds, said that most roughnecks in Palma saw it as a golden goose. “If I got seven to ten years out of it, I’d be retiring at 55,” he said. Projectos Dinamicos’ $13 million subcontract to refurbish and extend Camp Wentworth into a 668-bed site on the north end of town was small beer by comparison. But “for a little company from South Africa,” Wes said, it was “massive, massive.”
Moving to Palma was still a little crazy, however. The surrounding province, Cabo Delgado, hadn’t changed much since Adi and Janik had lived in Mozambique in the late 2000s: hundreds of miles of forest, beaches, and mud-hut villages, barely connected to the world or even the capital, Maputo, 1,700 miles to the south. The province had a long history of rebellion against distant rulers. The Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), which won the nation’s independence from Portugal in 1975, began its revolution there. The area was also a haven for smugglers, who used its ungoverned coasts as a through route for South American cocaine and South Asian heroin headed to Europe, and animal skins, tusks, and bones bound for Asia.
In 2017, Cabo Delgado’s marginalization and lawlessness combined in Al Shabab (“the youth”), the latest ISIS affiliate to emerge from Africa, which took its name from a bigger, better-known group up the coast in Somalia. Al Shabab was led by a former navy sailor, Bonomade Machude Omar, who, according to a high school teacher of his, was devoured by disaffection. “He was the kind of person, it seemed to me, that was disgusted with himself and the world,” Fernando Adinane said. “This happens with people society doesn’t offer many opportunities.”
Omar’s response to a world that had shut him out was to reject it right back. He was against the government, but also anti-West, anti-science, anti-education, and anti just about anyone over 30, Adinane said. Omar found an ideological match in the absolutist Islam of visiting Arab preachers, who proposed medievalism as a cure for all the world’s corruption. Using ancient AK-47’s and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), his few hundred fighters robbed passing traffic and attacked villages, taking food and teenagers as recruits and sex slaves.
But despite capturing much of Cabo Delgado, Omar’s revolution never caught on. And as his anger at his people’s plight became fury at their acquiescence, he killed them in ever greater numbers. Thirty-three people died in Al Shabab’s war in 2017, then 209 in 2018, 689 in 2019, and 1,510 in 2020, a toll that persuaded another 744,949 people to abandon their homes by January 2022. Omar had an appetite for ceremonial execution that seemed limitless. In November 2020, his men marched 50 people onto a soccer pitch outside Muatide, a small town two hours south of Palma, and decapitated them with machetes.
Omar was candid about how personal his fight was. When Al Shabab had captured Mocimboa eight months earlier, before later moving en masse into rows of leafy bungalows in the best part of town, he delivered a public address, giving his people one last chance to abandon the state. “We live with you,” he said. “This face is not new to you. Today we have left you [alone] because we are giving you the opportunity to come and join us. If you keep working with them—attending their meetings, [being] part of their missions, assisting them with intelligence—we will burn everything and sweep you all away, even your children.”
You might think the discovery of gas just off Palma would have heralded good times ahead for Cabo Delgado and cooled Omar’s ire. Just the opposite. Economists call the paradox of how a country’s natural wealth can sometimes be the ruin of its people the “resource curse.” If you consider that the curse is invoked by greed, and habitually manifests as violent, acquisitive racism, then you can spot its dark presence through history, from Alexander the Great’s habit of taking gold and silver prospectors with him on his expeditions, to Europe’s conquest of Asia and the Americas, to the West’s long history of interference in oil-rich countries. The past 600 years of African history, during which Europeans conquered and slaughtered Africans while taking their ivory, gold, and diamonds, along with some 12.5 million of their sons and daughters, describe the cursing of an entire continent. Among its legacies: America’s long struggle with race; five million white Africans who, in the eyes of many black Africans, can never atone, nor ever really belong; and Africa’s present-day conundrum, as a land that is simultaneously the world’s richest in natural resources and financially its poorest.
With fossil fuels, of course, we all share in another inheritance. Sequestering all the carbon emitted by burning Mozambique’s 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas will require a forest of 6.5 billion acres, or about a sixth of the planet’s entire landmass. But the resource curse also lives on today in deals between extractive industries and many of the world’s most repressive and corrupt regimes, under which corporations pay billions to governments, or individual ministers, to tap a land’s natural wealth but reward the people who live above it with $200-a-month laborer and security jobs, if anything at all. Total does business in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Myanmar and, until recently, Iran. That record, plus the contractors’ pale skin, and Mozambique’s rank on the global corruption index (147 out of 180), was all the proof people in Palma needed that they portended more of the same. For anyone in the region who happened to be embarking on, say, an Islamist revolution, Palma became a prime target. Omar even came from a village just outside town. When his forces cut Palma off from the rest of Mozambique by taking Mocimboa, it became only a matter of time before the town felt the full force of the curse.
To imagine that this would deter the contractors, however, would be to misunderstand the kind of person who makes a life on the outer edges of the global economy. With billions on offer, plus a paradisial beach, and beer at 54 cents a bottle, the chance of a story or two about bad men with guns was for many part of the appeal. The center of contractor life in Palma was the Amarula Lodge, opposite Camp Wentworth, on the north end of town. From the street, the hotel sat behind eight-foot-high walls topped with razor wire, punctuated by several solid-metal gates manned by security guards. Inside was a large parking lot, Palma’s biggest swimming pool, and 60 en suite bedrooms in six rows of cabins, along with a garden of palms, banana trees, and two giant baobabs, and, at the back, a helipad and hangar. The lodge’s main building housed a reception area, an office, a dining hall, and, on the first floor, with a view of the pool, a grass-roofed bar that hosted a pizza night every Friday.
Talk in the bar rarely strayed to the big picture. In the contractors’ view, politicians were rotten the world over, climate change was not their problem to fix, and the color of their skin was an issue only if someone else made it one. Notwithstanding Big Energy’s record of stirring conflict in Africa, the consensus at the Amarula was that any money coming into a place like Palma had to be a good thing. “When we first drove up there,” Wes said, “you’re going through these places where the kids are either naked or running around in rags.”
Mainly the contractors liked to swap war stories. RA International manager Gordon Rhattigan, Adi’s drinking buddy, known to everyone as “the mad Irishman,” would describe years building military bases in Afghanistan and Somalia. So, on occasion, did Phil Mawer, Gordon’s British boss, who had done decades around the world and whose presence on the road at 59 was probably explained by his authorship of a self-help guide for gambling addicts. Greg would drop hints about his time as a soldier in Angola. Nick Alexander, 51, was a British South African whose business, Fly Camp, assembled prefab buildings at a warehouse in Palma, then trucked them to nearby sites. During the waning days of South African apartheid in the early 1990s, Nick completed his two years of national service as a township cop outside Johannesburg, an experience that taught him two things: racism was not only obnoxious but self-defeating, and he was a crack shot on a gun range. Perhaps the best backstory in the Amarula, however, belonged to its manager, Timothy “Robbie” Roberts, from Cape Town, who had worked around the world as a deminer. In Goma, eastern Congo, while employed by the UN in 2013, Robbie had been caught up in an attack on a restaurant and was shot twice in the arm, once in the shoulder, and once in the head, leaving him deaf in one ear. “According to the doctors, I should have died,” he would say. “I’m just that bull skin—thick, steel-capped head, bloody stupid. You can’t die, you know?”
The center of contractor life in Palma was the Amarula Lodge. From the street, the hotel sat behind eight-foot-high walls topped with razor wire, punctuated by several solid-metal gates manned by security guards.
Most nights, the bar was busy. Most weekends, a group from the Amarula would pack a cooler or two with beer and head to Lynn’s Beach, a four-mile stretch of white sand and turquoise water 40 minutes up the coast, named after the Amarula’s Kenyan-British owner, Lynn Lury, who had erected a small shack there. The contractors would swim, bodysurf, drink, and catch parrotfish, sweetlips, and tuna to braai on the beach. “I love it, I love it,” Gordon said of contractor life. “There’s no way I can go back to the nine-to-five.”
Adi was always a little apart. He had his own stories, about salvaging wrecks in zero visibility in the Congo River, or nearly being sucked into the propellers of passing supertankers in the Durban harbor. He was also close with Wes and Greg: what in other families might have been a recipe for dysfunction—two brothers with different fathers, neither of whom was Greg—made for a Nel-Knox clan bound not by blood but by choice. Adi was a team player, though, not a boss. And every day at Wentworth was a day he wasn’t diving. Adi had taken his wetsuit, tanks, and spear gun to Palma, and on his days off he would head out to Lynn’s Beach on his own, paying a few dollars to two young fishermen, Saulo Ali and Ali Rachide, to take him to deep water in their dugout. The bay was often full of calving whales, Saulo said, up to 15 at a time, and underwater you could hear the mothers singing to their babies. Adi never seemed too concerned about catching anything. “He was just playing,” Ali said. The three men’s connection to the ocean transcended the accident of their births. “We were friends,” Ali said. “He would drive out from Palma and ask for us. We always went out on the sea together.”
On December 29, 2020, 17 days before Adi arrived in Palma, Al Shabab attacked two villages south of town and ambushed a Mozambican army patrol, killing two men and losing one of their own. The jihadis left word that they would return in a few days. Total evacuated all but a skeleton staff. The contractors soon followed suit, flying their workers out and heading back to South Africa or Europe.
But the offensive never materialized, and within a week or two the contractors were trickling back. What reassured them was a new agreement between Total and the Mozambican government that the army would defend a 15-mile radius around Afungi, including all of Palma, garrisoning a battalion of some 700 men inside Total’s complex—for which Total would pay a few dollars per soldier per day. And although Total policy included a reluctance to hire mercenaries, the Mozambicans arrived with their own: a dozen Ukrainians in three Mozambican-owned, Russian-made Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopter gunships. This small force—potentially the most lethal in northern Mozambique—also based itself inside the Afungi complex.
Through February and March, information on the insurgency was patchy. “We would just get bits,” Nick said. “That they were going into villages, rampaging and leaving, beheading people.” The contractors also quickly realized that many of the soldiers sent to protect them were worthless. “We’d come across them midweek on the road,” Nick said, “AK in one hand, bottle of beer in the other, motherless drunk.” Nick also remembers being disquieted by the way that managers from CCSJV, Total’s main contractor, were progressively moving from Palma to behind the wire in Afungi—and how, when questioned, they never gave a straight answer as to why.
But the way December’s alarm was raised in good time convinced the contractors that if they kept their cars fueled and their go bags packed, they would be out to sea or over the border into Tanzania before a shot was even fired in Palma. The fact that all the worker camps were being built outside Afungi’s security fences also “gave us some comfort,” Nick said. After all, why would Total spend all that money if it thought the camps were at risk? Plus, one look at the security inside Afungi—the soldiers and their armored carriers, the Ukrainians and their helicopters, plus two separate ops rooms (Total’s and CCSJV’s), in which ex-military types received, assessed, and plotted intelligence and satellite images in real time, all of it just three minutes’ flight from downtown Palma—was enough to convince them that the pieces for a rescue were in place and the rebels would likely be cut to pieces if they attacked.
It made sense, then, that there was no sign of an imminent offensive. February actually saw a lull in violence. As a result, on March 24, Total passed word that its staff would resume operations at Afungi. “Hey, Ma,” Adi chuckled on a voice message he left for Meryl on March 1, after she asked about reports of another village attack. “It’s actually just like a normal day in paradise here.” Sounding like he already had a beer and cigarette in hand, Adi laughed throatily. “Don’t stress,” he said. “I promise you, I will survive.”
22 Mar 2021 Hi. Al Shabab have been seen crossing in a big group on their bikes this afternoon, 5km away behind our camp. They also attacked 2 people who managed to escape with broken arms and bullets in their bodies. The militaries this evening were telling all people to stay indoors. 6pm no one should be seen loitering around. 19:39
[Name redacted], CCSJV I got you…any specific little town? 19:40
More or less 5km behind our camp. 19:47
[Name redacted], CCSJV It’s a stone’s throw from Palma. 19:47
[Name redacted], CCSJV Total say their patrols were still out at 1700 and reported nothing. Doesn’t mean your source is wrong. On the contrary. 20:06
[The patrol] saw them next to the road once, everyone asleep after lunch, doors open. Looked like they’d got wasted. 😂🤪 20:12
[Name redacted], CCSJV I agree with you 100%… if something happens then they are going to get their butts kicked. 20:15
When Al Shabab’s attack on Palma finally came, it was spotted two days in advance. But the alarm was not raised, not by the Mozambican soldiers who saw it, nor by the Total security team with whom they liaised, nor by the CCSJV security officer (see the exchange above) to whom a subcontractor reported it. The next day, when the same contractor told the same CCSJV officer that Al Shabab had abducted a village elder an hour’s walk from his camp, the CCSJV man once again failed to issue an alert. The forward notice of an attack on which the contractors were relying failed to materialize.
Flying into Palma from a trip south to renew his visa, RA’s Gordon Rhattigan landed at 10:30 A.M. on Wednesday, March 24, at a civilian dirt strip a few hundred yards north of the Amarula. Phil Mawer picked him up and took him to the Amarula, where Gordon dropped his bags, and the two men had coffee together. Then Phil drove Gordon to RA International’s camp south of Palma before heading back to his office in town. “It was just a normal day,” Gordon said. “Then, at two minutes past three, I’m sitting in the office with a couple of the engineers, and this girl runs in screaming and shouting, a look of sheer terror on her face. She just kept saying, ‘ISIS! ISIS! ISIS!’ So I ran out. We had 192 people, and I’m just looking at people running.”
RA’s southern camp was one of the first in Al Shabab’s path. Construction workers had completed its perimeter fences, but it was surrounded by open bush and protected by just a handful of security guards armed with wooden batons. Gordon scrambled back to his office. An email from Phil said there was an attack and instructed Gordon to drive to the Amarula, which, with its high walls and helipad, was where the contractors had agreed to hole up if escape by road or sea proved impossible. “Everybody get the fuck out!” Gordon shouted. “We’re going!”
But as he ran to his pickup, Gordon received a message from RA’s Swedish owner. “Stay where you are,” he wrote. “Lock up the site. Don’t move.”
“So we got everyone back out of the vehicles,” Gordon said, “locked the front gate, and put vehicles in front of the gate, just in case anyone wanted to ram it. Then the gunfire started.”
Thousands of refugees from Al Shabab’s war in the interior were living rough in and around Palma, under tarpaulins and in makeshift huts. As word of the attack spread, they picked up what they could and fled. Edging through the crowds in an SUV crammed with his workers was Nick Alexander and, beside him, his assistant manager, Niraj Ramlagan, from Durban—in Palma all of five days—along with his accountant Anel Alfredo, from Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado, who was limping from a foot injury. “Just droves of people in panic, running,” Nick said of the throng, “whatever belongings they could put on their heads, heading into town and towards the beach.” Caught in the same crowd was Tobias Jansen van Rensburg, a stocky South African married to a Mozambican, who worked for Reef, a company that operated most of the heavy loaders in Palma. At the sound of RPGs, Tobias jumped into his truck with one other worker and floored it into town, stopping to pick up a few more Reef guys on the way. Tobias was on the main street when, he said, “my guys on the back started screaming, ‘They are here! They are here!’ ” As the crowds scattered, Tobias gunned it north.
Adi was at a meeting at Camp Wentworth with Wes, Greg, and their Mozambican managers Gustavo Trindade and Hernani Mota. At one point, Hernani stepped out to take a call. He reappeared looking ashen. His uncle, a Mozambican officer, was saying Palma was under attack.
Omar had an appetite for ceremonial execution that seemed limitless. In November 2020, his men marched 50 people onto a soccer pitch outside Muatide, a small town south of Palma, and decapitated them with machetes.
Adi and Gustavo called their 50 workers together. Something—at that stage, they weren’t sure what—was happening in town, and they would be closing the site as a precaution. The 20 men who lived in Palma left immediately. Adi then took a call from a South African contractor friend who had a boat in the bay. “Guys, we need to get out!” the man yelled. “We need to get to the beach!” But there was a problem. The 30 workers still at Wentworth were all from southern Mozambique, with no homes to go to in Palma, and there was only one pickup between them all. Just then they heard gunshots. Wes remembered the camp safe house, made of reinforced concrete, with locks on the doors, steel shutters on the windows, and food and water in bulk. “You guys get into the safe house!” he shouted at his foreman, John (whose name we have changed at his request). “We’re going to try to get to the beach.”
John ushered the men into the shelter and locked the door. Adi jumped behind the wheel of the pickup as Wes, Greg, Gustavo, and Hernani scrambled in beside him. Leaving Wentworth and reaching a junction, the men looked left down the dirt road to Palma. It was “chaos,” Wes said. “Hundreds of people running from town. And now gunshots. And Adi’s friend is phoning us frantically saying, ‘Guys, you’ve got to get down to the beach! I’m waiting here for you!’”
Adi turned right. He was looking for a small track that led to the sea. “But we missed it,” Wes said.
“We weren’t even 500 meters down the road…,” Greg added.
“… and all of a sudden,” Wes continued, “Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa! Yay-sus! Probably 30 shots at us!”
Adi had driven into an ambush. As bullets whipped overhead and his passengers screamed at him, he pulled the hand brake, whipped the car around, and, wheels spinning, took off south again. “Go to the Amarula!” shouted Greg. “Go to the Amarula! We’ve got nowhere to run!”
Seconds later, Adi skidded to a halt at the hotel’s metal gates. He hooted. The others shouted. But the gates stayed shut. Cursing, Adi parked, and the five men tumbled out, ran to the hotel’s pedestrian gate, and hammered on it until the guards let them in.
Over the next three hours, dozens more people arrived at the Amarula. According to the lists kept throughout the attack, by sunset there were around 180: about 150 men, 24 women (including one who was heavily pregnant), and 7 children.
The biggest group, 42 in all, was the Amarula’s staff: Robbie, his Tanzanian receptionist, Peter Ntego, 37 employees, plus three of their children, as well as two German shepherd dogs belonging to Lynn Lury, the owner. Next was Fly Camp: Nick, Niraj, Anel, and 23 workers. Moz Environmental, which handled sewage and garbage disposal, had been hosting a group of executives from South Africa and numbered around 26, including operations manager Roland Davies and Jason McNeil, CEO of Moz Environmental’s parent, Interwaste. Jato Security, which ran camp protection, arrived with 21 people, including a child. The remaining people were other contractor bosses and their workers, plus several dozen civilians from town. Among them: Adi, Wes, Greg, Gustavo, and Hernani; Tobias and five workers from Reef; Phil Mawer; Martin Hart, South African boss of quarry operator Afrimat; Pedro Velez, a Portuguese catering manager; the boss of the VIP supermarket; and Palma’s mayor, Agostinho Ntawali.
As night fell, the new arrivals arranged themselves where they could. Adi and Wes rented two rooms and camped in a windowless corridor between them, hoping it offered protection against stray rounds. Greg lay on the floor of the bar. “I’ve got the boys with me,” he told Meryl on a borrowed satellite phone. “We’re all OK.” Dozens more spread out under bougainvillea and frangipani bushes in the garden. Few slept. The sound of battle from beyond the walls was constant. “Fucking armageddon, 500 meters down the road,” Niraj later recounted. “Insanely loud.” Greg’s soldier’s ear detected “a lot of explosives, a lot of mortars, a lot of bombs, a lot of RPGs, light machine guns, AK-47’s, thousands of rounds. It looked like Guy Fawkes.”
The fire also sounded coordinated. Palma’s cell tower had been knocked out in the initial attack, after which the fighters progressed steadily to its three banks, the town hall, and the police and army barracks, suggesting that any resistance was quickly overcome. Listening to the assault, Adi and Wes noticed how, every two hours, Al Shabab would signal to each other. “It would start from this side,” Wes said. “Gunshots, like a magazine each, talking to each other, letting them know their positions. You would hear it move all the way down until it got to us, and then it would carry on farther down the road.”
The killing, too, seemed systematic. Ines, a mother of four who worked as a parking attendant next door to the Amarula (whose name we’ve also changed for her own protection), ran into the scrub behind her house when the attack started, then crept back in the evening. She found a horror show: a total of five beheaded bodies, three women and two men, among whom she recognized several neighbors.
Sporadic gun bursts from the beach suggested that as well as massacring people in town, Al Shabab was picking off those who fled there in the hope of finding a canoe or a dhow. Among them was Mussa Salimo Muarabo, manager for a Mozambican volunteer group, Vamoz. “So many people in the water,” he said. “People died. I witnessed a child die, about ten years old.” Mussa found a canoe, climbed in, then immediately came under fire. To protect himself, he rolled the dugout, turning it into a shell, then, swimming underneath, pushed it out to sea. Eventually, he reached deep water, righted the canoe, and paddled north, pulling up around midnight at Kiwia, a village near Lynn’s Beach. There had been thousands on Palma’s shore, he said. All the canoes and boats in the bay had been enough to transport just a few hundred of them.
As dawn broke the next morning, Thursday, March 25, Max Dyck was watching the battle of Palma unfold on a row of screens in Langebaan, a tourist town known for oysters, whale-watching, and kitesurfing, 2,000 miles away on South Africa’s Atlantic coast. There was no nameplate on the Dyck Advisory Group’s office door, a few blocks back from the beach, and the company’s website listed its address as a P.O. box in a town 25 miles away. DAG’s services, the website added, included anti-poaching, demining, dog squads, and “bespoke… security-based operations,” drawing on “a large pool of ex-military personnel” for a variety of high-profile clients “in several conflict and post conflict environments.” For the past five months, DAG had been training a small Mozambican police-combat unit to do the army’s job and pursue Al Shabab. Now it had a new mission: saving the thousands trapped in Palma.
If civilian rescue was an unusual mission for a private military contractor, that suited Max Dyck fine. Old-school mercenaries in Africa tend to be former soldiers from white-supremacist regimes in South Africa and what once was Rhodesia, or communist veterans from Russia and Eastern Europe, who “just kill everybody in sight, work out who’s who afterward, and go back to the bar and tell war stories,” as one South African military contractor put it. DAG was set up by Max’s father, Colonel Lionel Dyck, who had served both white-ruled Rhodesia and Black-ruled Zimbabwe, to be explicitly new-school, avoiding political baggage and being picky about clients, employees, ethics, and methods. Max, who took over in 2017, had had a previous career not as a soldier but as a UN security officer, dropping into conflict zones like Libya and making contacts in advance of aid workers’ arrival. That background accounted for DAG’s code of conduct, which prohibited its men from abusing human rights, engaging in sexual harassment, and accepting gifts or entertainment. Also forbidden were traditional dog-of-war pursuits like “drinking, gambling, fighting [and] swearing”—though, in truth, that last was probably more of a restriction on Max than any of his men.
In Mozambique, Max wanted to put as much distance as possible between DAG and the “fucking Russians”—about 160 mercenaries from a Kremlin-connected group, Wagner, who had deployed to Cabo Delgado in September 2019, only to withdraw a few months later after losing at least seven men and achieving little. DAG’s approach stressed African agency, a light footprint, and precision. It deployed just 14 counterinsurgency specialists, who accompanied their students into battle as air support, flying the police’s lead officer in a command chopper. DAG’s restraint was evident in its insistence on taking its orders from local police and in its choice of aircraft: five-seater helicopters and two-seater microlights, mounted with machine guns, picked for their ability to fly low and slow, allowing for accurate ground targeting through the jungle canopy. Its efficacy was apparent from a year of skirmishes during which DAG and the police beat Al Shabab back from within 15 miles of Pemba to bases deep in the hinterland. When word of the attack on Palma reached DAG in Pemba, 150 miles to the south, late Wednesday, Dyck said, “There wasn’t even a discussion. It was just, The shit has hit the fan—let’s get in there and do what we can. You don’t even think about it, because it’s the right thing to do.”
At first light on Thursday, six small DAG helicopters and a spotter plane took off from Pemba and headed north. Following his aircraft in real time using GPS trackers, and collating reports and snapshots from his pilots and gunners once they were over Palma, Dyck soon assembled a picture of a well-organized attack. Incoming fire as DAG’s men flew over the three highways into town, from the south, north, and west, indicated that the insurgents had roadblocks on every route in and out. Some of these bore Omar’s signature. Five miles north of Palma, the pilots found three quarry trucks stopped in the road, the drivers’ bodies in front of their vehicles, their heads in pools of blood several yards away. Five miles farther along, on a track leading to Lynn’s Beach, were five more trucks, some of whose drivers had also been beheaded.
Once the jihadis isolated Palma, they tore through it like a cyclone. DAG’s pilots saw a dozen more headless corpses on the main east-west drag through town. Much of the place was either on fire or blown apart, with roofs ripped off and walls turned to blackened rubble. The police and army barracks were lifeless, indicating that Palma’s few dozen policemen and soldiers were either dead or had stripped off their uniforms and fled. DAG’s gunners opened up whenever they caught the insurgents out of cover, but pockets of civilians often made that risky. “Lots of occasions when we were taking fire, we’d say, ‘We’re peeling out of this part of town and going somewhere else,’ because due to the civilian presence, we couldn’t do anything,” Dyck recalled. The accuracy of the insurgents’ fire was another problem. When DAG’s choppers touched down to refuel and reload, several were found to have bullet holes in their rotors. One large-caliber round had crashed through the windshield of the command helicopter, somehow missed the three men inside, and exited through the roof.
In Langebaan, Dyck soon deduced that DAG’s big-picture mission was unachievable. There was no way for seven pilots and six gunners in six small helicopters and a spotter plane to kill what seemed like hundreds of insurgents while also rescuing tens of thousands of civilians. A lot more might be possible with the assistance of the 700 soldiers at Afungi or the three large gunships stationed there. The Russian choppers, especially, could be a game changer. Equipped with rockets and heavy machine guns, they could also carry 30 people at a time.
But when DAG set down at Afungi, they found themselves in the middle of a turf war between the Mozambican army and its police. Afungi’s resident general wanted no interference in his plan to conduct a land rescue from the Amarula. For their part, the Ukrainians seemed happy to have a reason not to fly. They had made a single sortie over Palma, Dyck said, but after taking a round through the side of one helicopter, they “put themselves on the ground and said, ‘We’re not going. Too dangerous.’ Fucking useless.”
The police commander instructed Dyck’s men to keep flying, but it was clear they would be doing so alone. Dyck says his request to commandeer a fourth large army helicopter went nowhere. An appeal to the Ukrainians to share facilities at Afungi was also rejected. Dyck says a message was sent to Total’s managers overseas to the effect of, “We will fly from first light to last light. Guys will fucking sleep in the helicopters. But give us your fuel, we need food, and if one of our birds goes down, or somebody is shot and injured, can we use the clinic?” According to Dyck, their response was, essentially: “You can fuck off. Sort your own shit out.”
The refusal to give fuel to rescuers trying to save civilians was stunning, and crippling. Afungi was a three-minute flight from Palma. Based there, each DAG helicopter could have made dozens of sorties per day, potentially picking up hundreds. Instead, they would now be forced to fly an hour to Pemba or Mueda, deep in the interior, to refuel, then fly an hour back again. Limited as they were, the DAG crews would be lucky to rescue a few dozen people per day. By early afternoon on March 25, 24 hours after the attack began, Dyck had reached several unsettling conclusions. “We are the only people in the area that are willing to help,” he said. “We are never going to get them all out. We have to make decisions, and the effect of our decisions is that somebody is going to live and somebody is going to die.”
Outside the Amarula that morning, the insurgents let loose a deafening round of mortars that sent shock waves through the ground. Yay-sus! Wes thought. It felt like there were hundreds and hundreds of fighters just behind the walls.
Adi sent his text to Janik. Wes and Adi then promised they would take care of each other’s kids if the other didn’t survive. The brothers’ spirits lifted at 8 A.M. when they saw DAG’s small spotter begin to circle. But they sunk again when the plane drew a hail of fire from around the Amarula. “Fuck, we’re surrounded!” Wes shouted.
And confused. There were at least five sat phones at the hotel and scores of cell phones. The contractors were calling whoever they could think of: bosses, other contractors, embassies, military contacts.
Total’s and CCSJV’s disinterest seemed clear. Robbie, the Amarula’s manager, summarized their response as, “They are in a secure environment, and our problems are our problems.” Nick called a CCSJV executive in Houston. “Listen, we think an attack is imminent!” he shouted. The man yelled back: “I’m in America! What the hell do you want me to do?”
With the head of Palma’s hierarchy vacated, an ad hoc daisy chain of communication sprang up in which the contractors at the Amarula spoke to other contractors in Pemba, who relayed what they said to DAG and Total’s security room at Afungi, and vice versa. With competing poles of authority, and contact patchy and indirect, what should have been a chain of command for drawing up a rescue became a forum for dispute and misunderstanding. The army’s idea for an armored convoy from Afungi was passed around. So was a proposal that the Ukrainians deploy their larger helicopters. Then the contractors came up with their own plan to use two armored cars to run a group to the beach and return with soldiers. Nobody could decide what to do. No one could even decide who should be deciding.
Inside the hotel, Robbie was creating other problems. In the initial minutes of the attack, his first instinct had been to shut everyone out. “I’ve got so much people coming in,” he said, “and I don’t know who these people are. Close one gate, they open the other gate. Close that, the other gate opens again.”
Robbie’s concerns about security were legitimate. But the Mozambicans among his guests also felt more than a hint of discrimination. The Amarula already had a reputation as a hotel for white visitors. Now, after reluctantly accepting 100 extra locals seeking refuge, Robbie made a division between his (mostly white) paying guests and the Amarula’s (mostly Black) visitors, giving Wi-Fi and power and rooms to the former but refusing to open a number of empty rooms at the back of the property to the latter (because, he later said, he felt their location was not secure). The result was scores of Black men and women forced to sleep in the open.
Robbie’s other preoccupation was the Amarula’s nearly 1,000-yard perimeter. The hotel’s northern, eastern, and southern boundaries, which could be seen from the road, were protected by walls. But its western and southwestern sides, including the helipad, were open to the jungle. Robbie was sure the insurgents were surveying his defenses for weakness. Using an old Vietnam pejorative, Robbie said he saw “gooks” climbing several large mango trees across the road, trying to see inside. On Thursday morning, he said he encountered “20 of them at the front gate, trying to enter.” The jihadis wore Mozambican army uniforms, with a red cloth tied at the wrist or the forehead to identify themselves to one another. After failing to persuade the guards to open the gates, they shot out the locks, puncturing the tire of a car in the parking lot. To Robbie, the Amarula was seconds from being overrun. “If they had walked up to the gate and touched the door, it would have opened,” he said. Fortunately, DAG’s spotter plane returned, and the rebels ran. But in Robbie’s mind, the walls were crumbling. “I felt that we were breached and they know what our situation is inside, because no one returned fire,” he said.
Nick thought that Robbie was losing it. When he approached him to ask if his workers could use the Wi-Fi to contact their families, another bout of shooting erupted, and Robbie “barricaded us into his office,” Nick said. “He was terrified, couldn’t stand it.” Nick thought Robbie was reliving the day he nearly died in the Congo. He was sympathetic—“we were good friends”—but alarmed. With Robbie in charge, “there was no direction” inside the Amarula.
As the day wore on without the arrival of a large helicopter or armored carriers, the Amarula’s occupants began to focus on an evacuation in DAG’s small choppers, which could take six at a time. “Do the math, guys,” Greg said. “There’s 200 people here. Six people a trip, it’s going to take them three weeks to get us out of here.” Dyck was having similar thoughts. Without the bigger helicopters, he knew “that there were more people in there than we could take out.” Dyck says DAG’s orders were to pick up the mayor of Palma, Agostinho Ntawali, whose departure might have the additional benefit of removing a reason for Al Shabab to storm the place. After that, DAG was willing to take out more but, mindful of the life-and-death choice confronting those trapped inside the hotel, would “not get involved in deciding who flew.”
The question of who was to be saved fell to Robbie. Soon afterward, according to Nick, Robbie told the contractors: “OK, we’re going to fly out. I can get you guys out. But it’s only the expats.” Wes heard him say something similar. “Robbie says he wants all the office residents—the senior managers, the business owners, whatever the case is—to get on the chopper first.” Nelson Matola, 27, one of Nick’s Fly Camp workers, said Robbie presented it like the issue had been decided elsewhere: “He said he received the news that he had to evacuate all the white people in the Amarula.” (Robbie repeatedly denied giving any preference to expats.)
Several contractors objected. “Greg says no, he’s not going, he’s not leaving his staff,” Wes said. “So did Phil Mawer and a lot of the others. We were all pretty clear that we said no.” Nick remembered the moment similarly. “One or two guys would have grabbed it,” he said, “but the rest of us said, ‘No, forget it. We’ve got staff here. You evacuate all of us or not at all.’ My guys were terrified. This rumor started going around: ‘The expats are all leaving and the locals are staying.’”
“This girl runs in screaming and shouting,” Gordon Rhattigan recalled. “She just kept saying, ‘ISIS! ISIS! ISIS!’ So I ran out. We had 192 people, and I’m just looking at people running.”
Around 3 P.M., four DAG helicopters started circling overhead. They took turns laying down suppressing fire outside the walls. Suddenly one chopper swooped in, touched down on the helipad, bundled in mayor Ntawali, four of his family and staff, then took off again. For the next flight, the contractors agreed priority should be given to women, children, and people with medical conditions. Nick wanted that to include his manager, Niraj Ramlagan, who had high blood pressure and who Adi, a qualified dive medic, had diagnosed as suffering a panic attack earlier in the day. But when the chopper touched down a second time, there was a scramble. “It was all disorganized,” Nick said. “Next you look, there’s a chopper taking off, but you don’t know who’s on it.” Greg saw. “Women and children, and the guy from the VIP,” he said. When the chopper landed a third time, a group of South Africans also muscled their way on board. “These execs from Moz Environmental ducked around the back and hopped on,” Nick said. “I saw them going the back way through the accommodation units. I was really pissed off because of Niraj. And there were still kids.” Some order was restored when the fourth flight landed. “All women and children from the local village,” Greg said.
After that, DAG told Robbie the pilots were out of fuel. They were heading back to Pemba for the night and would return the next day. Wes remembered feeling reassured. “At this stage, we were still thinking that this has all been organized by Total and the military, and that they are working hard to try and evacuate us.”
By now, however, Greg’s math was beginning to weigh on people. If DAG continued to be the only rescuer, the numbers were impossible. Robbie put the total of those airlifted on Thursday at 23—16 Mozambicans (including “some vulnerable ladies”), six South Africans, and one Lebanese contractor. That left around 160 people at the hotel. If all of them were to be rescued in the next day, or even the next several days, the Mozambican army and the Ukrainians would have to be involved.
Yet as the day ended, there was a reminder of how dangerously unreliable these forces were. After refusing to fly all day, the Ukrainians announced that they were withdrawing to a safer location. But as they flew out, according to several witnesses, they engaged the insurgents. “They got brave and rocketed some people,” one source briefed on the matter said. “But it was the FADM”—the Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique. “They fucking killed their own soldiers.” (The Mozambican defense ministry issued no statement on the incident.)
That night, Gustavo Trindade, Greg’s manager, circulated among the Mozambicans, reassuring his countrymen that he would not allow them to be abandoned. Observing Gustavo’s authority, Robbie asked him to make a list of everyone—name, employer—which Gustavo did, taking care to include the 28 workers across the road at Wentworth. Gustavo “never stopped counting us,” said Nelito Alide, from Fly Camp. “He said, ‘I can’t leave these people. They die, I die.’”
The Mozambicans were grateful for the support. The prospect of being left behind was becoming more real, and more terrifying. Nelson Matola almost passed out when he heard chants of “Allahu akbar” outside the gates. Many of his friends spent their time quietly praying. At one point, 38-year-old Jorge Wate, another Fly Camp worker, overheard the militants talking. “We realized they didn’t want to kill us with their guns,” he said. “They wanted to capture us and behead us.”
The perimeter was continuing to give Robbie nightmares, too. That evening he directed his staff to take a pile of cinder blocks in the garden and stack them inside the front gates and across the path from the helipad. Soon afterward, he announced he had good news. A large Russian gunship from Afungi would fetch everyone in the morning. “I said I need six flights to get everybody out,” he recounted. (Robbie didn’t specify who had passed him the information. Queried on this point, Dyck said his requests to use the helicopter were still being ignored and he’d heard nothing about any alternative evacuation.) Robbie said he told Gustavo to divide his list into six groups of 25 to 30, in anticipation of the aircraft’s arrival. Gustavo made a list, marking himself and Greg as last to fly from the Amarula. Robbie and Gustavo then used stakes and tape to lay out lanes on the ground next to the helipad. “Now people will read their names, come stand in line, and get ready to get evacuated by helicopter,” Robbie said. “So we had everything in place, hopefully that by Friday morning everybody would be evacuated.”
Despite his apparent conviction that everyone would be gone in hours, Robbie kept the Amarula’s kitchen locked that night. It was hot, Nick said, so “we slept out under a tree and shared whatever food we could. Nuts, tuna, protein powder.” The gunfire remained constant. Nick remembered “patches when all hell broke loose in town.” Greg, who couldn’t sleep, sensed the fire concentrating around the Amarula. (The U.S. State Department later reported that Omar had taken personal command of the siege.) “Things started getting exceptionally hectic,” Greg said. “They surrounded the whole of the Amarula, and they were coming and coming. Bam bam bam bam! Absolute pandemonium the whole night.”
On the third day, Friday, March 26, Adi awoke convinced, like Robbie, that the Amarula’s defenses could not hold. Every few minutes, he and Wes could hear the militants’ shouts outside the gates. Gunshots were slapping into the baobabs overhead, showering the pool with spinning fronds. Adi told Wes that when the jihadis realized that no one inside the hotel had a gun—probably in the next few hours—they would break through the gates, or come over the wall, or just stroll in the back. At that point, Adi said, “sitting here like we are, they’ll just walk in and start shooting us all, and we’re all dead.”
Rather than pinning his hopes on a rescue, Adi was thinking how people might save themselves. When the jihadis came, he said, they should rush them. “If there’s maybe 20 of them, and there’s 200 of us, we just charge back at them, and we fucking rugby-tackle them, and we take their weapons if we have to,” he said.
It was a desperate plan, and the brothers knew it. Still, Wes took comfort in watching Adi trying to figure it out. That morning he shot a short video of Adi sitting cross-legged on the Amarula’s lawn. The footage shows Adi attempting to send another text as gunshots are heard outside. “Love you, bro,” Wes says from behind the camera. Adi looks up from his phone and grins. “Love you, my man,” he replies. Wes chuckles. “We’re all right, eh?” he says.
Robbie shared none of the brothers’ easy optimism. He could see more jihadis in the trees. He also caught his guards speaking to them through the gates. When a burst of gunfire from Bonatti camp, the Amarula’s well-fortified northern neighbor, cut across the hotel, Robbie called Lury in near panic. “Lynn,” he said, “I think we’re in big shit! These people know exactly what’s going on here!” He also messaged DAG. “Please,” he wrote, “we need support now! I don’t know what to do! We don’t know where to go! They’re all around us! We need to get out of the Amarula as soon as possible!” Around 7 A.M., Robbie ordered everyone to an inner courtyard with partial cover, and told them to sit down and be silent. He posted lookouts around the hotel. “It was fucking intense,” Wes said. “We’re all sitting there with our little jump bags, waiting for news on what’s going to happen with the evacuation. You’ve got 200 people that you’re trying to keep quiet. And when these insurgents walked around, we could hear them.”
Soon after 8:30 A.M., DAG’s spotter plane began circling once more. But there was no sign of any helicopters, let alone a large Russian gunship. Dyck acknowledged the delay. Still hostage to the army-police feud at Afungi, and hamstrung by a lack of fuel, DAG was being grounded for up to three hours at a time. DAG’s client, the police, was also reminding its hired guns of their primary mission: “Trying to fight these fuckers,” Dyck said. The tension was debilitating. “My guys were calling me. They were caught up in an emotional moment. Because they knew people were going to—” Dyck broke off to collect his thoughts. “The fact that we couldn’t help people was putting quite a big toll on people,” he said.
Inside the Amarula, time was slipping away. “We had calculated that for them to get all of us out, they would have had to start evacuating us at, like, 7 A.M.,” Wes said. “So now it’s 9 A.M. Then 9:30 A.M., and nothing’s fucking happening.” At the sound of a gunshot, people would jump up and start running, only for the contractors to urge them back. Minute by minute, Nick said, “the panic set in. We realized there’s another evening coming and we’ve only got a handful of people out.” Tension rose further with reports that the spotter had seen a large group of fighters heading for the Amarula. Al Shabab’s men in the street started shouting that they were coming over the walls any minute. “They’re all around,” Nick said. “They’re down in the valley where the helipad is. They could come straight up there. That was the fear.”
The jihadis wore Mozambican army uniforms. After failing to persuade the guards to open the gates, they shot out the locks, puncturing the tire of a car in the parking lot. To Robbie, the Amarula was seconds from being overrun.
A little before midday, a single DAG helicopter appeared. “It was flying around the Amarula, shooting down, trying to clear out the insurgents,” Wes said. “That always made us feel good.” It was also surreal. Hovering 300 feet over their heads, the chopper was spitting out hot casings as it shot and killed fighters 50 yards away.
With the sun beating down, the courtyard group dispersed to find cover and shade. In Wes’s 17-minute video of what happened next, it is clear that the contractors are considering all their options. They and their Mozambican managers have separated from the others and are gathered with their go bags under some banana trees. As a helicopter passes overhead, taking fire and shooting at the ground, Wes asks Greg: “We’re getting on these choppers, first one, eh?”
“If it’s a small one, only six people can get in,” Greg replies.
Lowering his voice, Wes explains that according to “all the messages” he’s overheard on sat-phone calls that morning, “they’re focusing a lot on the expats.”
A few minutes later, the group starts picking up their bags, seemingly ready to depart. Nick, however, has misgivings. “I think Robbie and his team need to explain to the locals that all the expats are ducking first,” he says. Nick repeats the point a few minutes later. “Someone needs to explain to the guys what’s happening.” By now, 30 yards away, there are 100 or so Mozambicans in the background of Wes’s shot. They are silently watching the contractors. Nick, unwilling to continue the subterfuge, walks over, followed by Tobias.
“Fuck!” an unidentified expat exclaims.
There was an argument to be made for the contractors flying out first. A white man with resources and contacts would be better placed to pressure the army and the Ukrainians to rescue everyone. But the Mozambicans weren’t buying it. “That’s when the shitstorm happened,” Wes said. The Mozambicans began shouting. If the white people left, the Black people would be left to die! Nelson Matola and several others then walked over to the contractors and pointedly mixed in with them. “We basically got told: No, all the white people will leave last,” Wes said. “They are going first. They are going to do their own list now. And they started organizing their own line and basically excluded us.”
Outnumbered and embarrassed, the contractors demurred. Not least because, by then, the order of evacuation was possibly a moot point. “The chopper had left,” Wes said.
Adi stayed in the background for much of this. In Wes’s videos, you see him sitting on the ground, chatting to Hernani, or slipping a laptop into his waistband, trying it out for ease of movement. Evacuation was the best way out. But as time passed without one, Adi was making other plans. He helped stack the cinder blocks inside the gates and across the path to the helipad. He agreed with Wes’s idea that anyone with a sat phone should request that weapons be dropped off so the contractors could defend themselves. When the brothers were discussing the idea, a man replied that there was an AK-47 in his car, a gray Mahindra pickup, parked outside in the street.
“That’s it!” Adi said. “We need that gun.”
Strapping on a light-blue flak jacket and helmet found in one of the rooms, Adi took the Mahindra’s keys, walked to the front gates, and began dismantling the wall of blocks. Wes brought up a barstool and filmed over the wall into the street. There were no jihadis in sight, and Palma was quiet. “So I said to Adi, ‘It seems clear,’” Wes said. “And he ran for it.”
Adi jogged silently across the dirt road to the pickup, 20 yards away. He tried one door, then another, then a third. The car alarm went off. Adi killed it, opened a rear door, pulled out a black canvas bag, and ran back to the Amarula. Inside the gates, however, the bag was found to contain nothing but clothes and books. Adi immediately ran back across the road. “What are you doing?” Wes hissed. “Adrian, come!” Adi opened another door on the pickup and pulled out a second bag. “Adrian!” Wes shouted. “Come, man!” Adi ran back to the Amarula with the second bag. But there was nothing in it, either. So Adi ran back a third time, this time accompanied by a Mozambican wearing a flak vest. The second man soon found the gun tucked into the back pocket of the passenger seat. He and Adi then ducked back to the Amarula.
Adi had been in the open for two minutes. When he stripped off his vest, his long-sleeved T-shirt was soaked in sweat. “Fucking hell, bruh,” Wes exclaimed. “That’s got to earn you a medal of honor.” The gun was handed to Nick, the marksman. “This thing looked like it had been pulled up from the Titanic,” Nick said later. “The butt was broken off. Not lubricated. It was in bad shape.” But in the moment, he nodded at Adi. “Balls of steel,” he said.
Adi grinned and lit a cigarette. He was jazzed. “Let’s go check they put those blocks back,” he said, walking briskly to the front gates to rebuild the wall of bricks.
During Adi’s run, DAG’s spotter reappeared. Watching it flying alone above them, it dawned on the contractors that no evacuation would be happening that day. It was midafternoon. Even if a bigger helicopter arrived, there wasn’t time to make six runs before sunset at 5:25. A third night at the Amarula was also out of the question. Al Shabab had overrun the town. The hotel was one of the last holdouts, and it had no defenses. Their only prospect was to drive out.
With their other chances erased, the contractors suddenly had a plan. They would drive a convoy. Their safest route would be north on the dirt road toward Tanzania. After eight miles, they would turn right, at which point they would have options. They could drive for three miles to Afrimat’s quarry, where Martin Hart said there were bulletproof safe houses. They could keep going for another five miles to a Mozambican army base on the coast. Or they could turn north at the quarry and head to Lynn’s Beach, which was likely deserted enough to be safely picked up by boat.
Whatever their final destination, it would be at least 13 miles. Even flat out, the ruts, potholes, gravel surface, and dust would mean a 30-minute run. The contractors agreed that anyone who got into trouble would be left behind. To maximize their chances, they would want cars in good shape and, crucially, DAG providing cover overhead.
The group set about checking the fuel gauges, tires, and batteries of the 19 cars in the parking lot. Jason McNeil of Interwaste called a contractor friend and asked him to request that DAG “give us air support to the Afrimat quarry near the military base. We need confirmation asap.”
Robbie was absent. The prospect of another night at the Amarula was too much to bear. “I was totally…,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.” His only thought was, If we stay here, we’re going to be killed. Robbie was especially freaked out when two women found their way in, then a man in black with a gunshot wound. “Who is this guy?” Robbie yelled. When Lury called, Robbie cut in. “You will get me a flight out of here!” he shouted. “You will charter a flight, a helicopter, and you will get us out of here!”
The sound of battle from beyond the walls was constant. Greg’s soldier’s ear detected “a lot of explosives, a lot of mortars, a lot of bombs, a lot of RPGs, light machine guns, AK-47’s, thousands of rounds.”
Shortly after 3 P.M., a helicopter from a private charter company, Everett, touched down. Later, Robbie would insist that he wasn’t running. “I was prepared to go with the convoy,” he said. But the contractors told him that he wasn’t needed, he said. And “because I called for the evacuation,” Robbie said he was told he had to leave as a matter of contractual obligation. In his version of events, Robbie reluctantly assented to be airlifted, but only after he saw the convoy off first. “At 3:15 P.M., the convoy left,” he said. “Everybody. There was no one left at the Amarula except me and the five people flying with me.”
Even on the kindest reading, which would take into account the confusion of the moment and his state of mind, Robbie was lying. He did take five staff with him. But he also took Lury’s two German shepherds (in a luggage space, not a seat, Robbie says). Nor was he the last to leave. He was one of the first, leaving behind more than 150 people, including Amarula staff. (Queried later on his account, Robbie changed it to say the convoy was about to depart. That wasn’t quite right, either. The convoy would take another 25 minutes to leave.)
Wes, as ever, was filming, recording the contractors in the car lot trying to arrange helicopter cover. Initially, the air is filled with the noise of choppers. After seven minutes, the rotors fade. Wes, still thinking that Robbie is inside the Amarula trying to arrange a rescue, says to Tobias, “We need to go speak to Robbie to tell the pilot to cover us on his way out.”
“Where’s Robbie?” asks Tobias, sensing something amiss. “What did Robbie organize?”
“He organized a chopper,” Wes says.
“He’s gone in that fucking helicopter that landed?” Tobias asks.
“Did it land already?” asks Wes.
“So Robbie’s gone,” Wes says.
Communication between the Amarula Lodge and the outside world remained a critical problem. On Friday, word went around that some contractors had left a couple of handheld shortwave radios in their room. Wes broke in through a window and took the devices. Now the Amarula group had a way to talk directly to Total’s security at Afungi.
Taking the radios, Tobias made a connection in Total’s control room with an Afrikaans-speaking South African named Chris, who reassured him that DAG would shadow the convoy. “DAG’s choppers are just coming to give you cover so you can go,” Chris said. “All four choppers will come. One to clean the road first. Two will escort you. The fourth will come behind to make sure you’re not being followed.”
When the Everett chopper landed, with DAG overhead, Tobias assumed the maneuver was part of the plan. “But the next thing, Robbie is getting into Everett’s chopper, and they go, and the DAG choppers also, and there goes our cover.”
In a later interview, Dyck said DAG had agreed to cover the Everett chopper. That was a separate sortie from the one DAG was planning for the convoy. The timing of the latter depended on the contractors, Dyck said. During the few seconds on Thursday that his crew had been on the ground at the Amarula, his pilots had been trying to tell whoever met the chopper that, if they were going to try to break out, they should do it before its pilots had to head out to refuel. “We had said to them, ‘If you want to go, go now, while we’re here and we can fly,’” Dyck said. “‘If you decide to go when we’re not here, we can’t help you.’” But Dyck said, “I don’t know if that message ever got to them or not.”
Wes’s footage makes plain that it did not. In several clips, DAG can be seen circling the Amarula, strafing outside the walls, clearing the way for the convoy. But inside, the contractors are split between those, like Tobias and Jason, who are trying to confirm air cover and those, like Adi, who are arguing for leaving right away, and compelling the pilots to defend them. Listening to the noise of the Everett and DAG helicopters departing, Wes and Adi sense that their window is closing.
“If that helicopter is going, then we must go,” Wes declares.
“That’s it!” Adi says. “They don’t have much fuel time, bruh.”
Tobias, however, is unsure. “We can’t go without them signaling us,” he says.
“If we start, they’ll be forced,” Adi says.
The others were also unconvinced. Assuming the group was spending another night at the Amarula, Adi set about organizing 20 men and women to reinforce the concrete brick walls. Tobias went back to the radios. “Listen, we are in the shit here,” he told Chris. “No help is coming. And these guys are starting to shoot at us from the back.”
Chris told Tobias to stand by and switch channels. Tobias did, but left the second radio on the original channel. On that device, Tobias heard Chris complain to a colleague: “I’m getting 80-plus phone calls a day from these guys’ families. It’s time they accepted it. It is what it is. There’s nothing we can do for them.”
Tobias swore. Realizing he had been overheard, Chris went silent. When Tobias relayed Chris’s words to the others, they finally understood. No one was coming. They never had been. The contractors had their answer for why the army hadn’t sent its armored carriers, why the Ukrainians had never come, and why the army’s helicopter had never deployed. This was why there had been two days of talking about a rescue but no actual rescue attempt. “Total had left us there to die,” Tobias said.
The choice now was between dying where they were, or driving, unarmed and without air cover, into a raging battlefield. There was no debate: with any prospect of a rescue gone, they were leaving immediately. Nelson Matola said one contractor told him: “It’s better to die trying to escape.”
Gustavo divided 150 people among the 17 vehicles deemed roadworthy. Roland walked around asking for drivers and handing out keys for three spare Moz Environmental vehicles. With so many people, most trucks would have five or six passengers lying in the cargo bed. But there was no other way. Jaime Jaisse, 26, told his two brothers, Fernando and Gaucho, all of them Fly Camp workers, that they should split up to avoid a family disaster. Gaucho agreed, then embraced his friend Nelson. “Goodbye,” Gaucho said. “It was a pleasure to have met you.”
Adi and Wes walked to the SUV they had chosen. Adi asked Wes to fish out the car’s medical pack and keep its blood coagulants handy. Wes was more optimistic. “This is going to be the drive of your life, bruh,” he said.
It was now 3:30 P.M. Close to two hours of daylight remained. Seventeen vehicles were started up, and everyone jumped in. This was doable, the contractors were saying. There had been no gunfire for a while. “I think they might have just gone,” Wes said. Niraj remembered thinking the drive would be “smooth sailing. Yes, we might encounter one or two guys. [But] this was a plan that was going to work.”
As ever, Adi took the wheel. Hernani rode shotgun. In the SUV’s back seat were Greg, Martin Hart, and Wes, then three Mozambican men in the way back. As the Amarula’s guards opened the gates, Adi confessed to misgivings. “Fuck, this is a bad idea, guys,” he said. “We need the choppers.” But the decision was made. “We can’t stay here alone,” Wes replied.
First out of the gates, at 3:41 P.M., was a Jato-owned armored car driven by Jonathan, one of the company’s guards, with Gustavo alongside to give directions and man one of the radios, plus women and children in the back. The second vehicle, a Nissan double cab driven by Pedro Velez, was also carrying women and children. After that came a Moz Environmental pickup, with Roland in the driver’s seat, then Jason in the middle, and Tobias with the second radio.
Right outside the gates, the cars had to edge around a corpse. Jonathan then turned left onto the road to Tanzania and floored it. Pedro tucked in behind, then Roland. Thirty seconds later, as the three cars barreled past the airstrip on their left, they came under fire. “Contact! Contact! Contact!” Gustavo screamed into his radio. Several rounds plinked the vehicle’s armor. Before Tobias could answer, “it was just raining bullets.”
The two vehicles plowed on. Roland swerved into a ditch. The windshield shattered like pond ice, the hood buckled, but somehow the truck kept moving. This is it, thought Tobias, whispering a hurried goodbye to his family. Those guys are going to walk over to the car now and kill all of us. A bullet shot Roland’s sunglasses off the top of his head and he slumped forward. Thinking he was injured, Tobias reached over the seat and tried to pull him back up. “Then we hit a small tree,” Tobias said, “and that tree pushed us back onto the road.” Tobias shouted at Roland: “Go! Go! Go! Just go! Just go!” Roland, apparently uninjured, sat up, fishtailed the pickup out of the ditch, and roared off.
Adi’s car was fourth. “We turned and fucking hightailed it, as fast as we could go,” Wes said. “And we got hit with the first ambush.” Wes felt a round hit his door and pass under his feet. “Fuck! Yay-sus!” he yelled. “We must have taken three or four shots, but no one was hit.”
Just past the airstrip, the road dipped into a small valley, then rose again. At the top of the far incline, Roland’s car slowed to walking pace. The vehicle had survived the crash, but now its engine was shot. After it halted and started to roll back, Roland pulled the hand brake and he, Jason, and Tobias jumped out. Adi pulled up alongside. “We wound down our windows,” Wes said, “and they say their car’s damaged, they need to jump in. We open the doors. But fuck, there’s literally no space.” From the back seat, Greg told Adi to drive on. “We were all running for our lives,” he said, “and our one agreement was that we would not stop—we could not stop—to pick anybody else up,” he said. Tobias agreed. “Just go! Just go!” he shouted at Adi. “There’s no space for us!”
Then, a miracle. Parked outside the Amarula had been a minibus taxi driven by a man everyone knew as Rasta, because of his dreads. Seeing the convoy leave, Rasta had slipped in behind Adi. Somehow he came through the ambush unscathed. Now, as Adi sped off, Rasta pulled up and, as casually as a weekend driver picking up fares to the beach, opened his door. Roland, Jason, and Tobias piled in, trying not to think about what they had just abandoned—“both sat phones, water, and food,” Tobias said. “Everything we took with us.”
Down the order, the remaining cars left in a rush. The dust made it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. Fifth out of the gates was a car of 15 people, driven by a priest. The sixth, carrying nine, was a white pickup whose doors bore the logo of an American sexual-health group, Pathfinder International. At the wheel was Peter Ntego, the Amarula’s receptionist. Four more men filled the cab, while in the cargo bed were Gaucho Jaisse and Mauro Euriano, a Moz Environmental foreman, and two others. Both cars passed through the ambush unscathed.
The seventh vehicle had a bulletproof windshield and was painted in the red and white of Vodacom, a cell-phone company. Lying in the cargo bed were four Fly Camp workers—Nelson Matola, Fernando Jaisse, Nelito Alide, and Arsenio Banze—and two others. Before they set off, Nelson had reinforced the sides with wooden planks. As they reached the airstrip, the shooting started up again, and a round smashed into the driver’s side window. The glass held.
The eighth car was in new-looking gray paint, with a reef visor in the windshield. The men in the back included Manuel Carimo, an Amarula staff member, and Victorino Gomes, a 46-year-old Fly Camp air-conditioning technician. Perhaps because the insurgents were reloading or the dust had made spotting it difficult, the Reef car, too, made it through the ambush. So did the next seven cars—all white pickups, all packed with Mozambicans. A thousand yards later, however, one of the pickups lost control and crashed into a ditch. Later examination of the wreckage revealed no bullet holes, only a slightly dented cabin, and no blood in the car, suggesting that everyone inside had survived.
Two cars were out of the convoy, but so far no one was badly hurt.
Second to last to go was Phil Mawer, possibly alone in a Toyota pickup. As he passed the airstrip, the gunmen finally found their mark. Two rounds hit the driver’s side door, above and below the handle, and smashed into Phil’s right side. It appears he tried to drive on. After 60 seconds, 100 yards before the crashed pickup, he careered into the same right-hand ditch. From the wreckage, the impact seems to have ripped off the car’s right front wheel, causing it to rear up the bank and start tumbling. After a few revolutions, the slope halted the car’s roll and pushed it back the other way, dumping it into the road on its side. Both sides were crushed inward. The engine had been shoved back. When the dust cleared, Phil was trapped in his seat, probably unconscious, possibly dead.
Nick, Niraj, and Anel saw none of this. Niraj was driving Fly Camp’s Toyota FJ Cruiser, with Nick in the passenger seat, Anel and two other Mozambicans in the back seat, and Jaime Jaisse lying in the very back. At the gates, Niraj took a picture of Nick, tensed in his seat, holding the old AK with both hands between his legs, a round chambered, the safety on. It wasn’t two minutes since the first car had left, but Nick wanted to get moving. Shit, he was thinking. We’re at the back.
“We agree that we’ve got to drive flat out,” Nick said. “Don’t stop for anyone. But as we drive out, my guy says, ‘Stop! The security guards!’” In the rush to leave, the gate men had been forgotten. Niraj braked, the three men climbed into the back, making nine in the vehicle, and Niraj took off again, with the FJ’s rear door flapping.
Seconds outside the gates, the car was “falling further and further behind,” Nick said. “Phil’s disappearing in the distance, a good 400 meters ahead. I said to Niraj, ‘Put foot! We need to catch up!’ ”
Once the jihadis isolated Palma, they tore through it like a cyclone. Pilots saw a dozen more headless corpses on the main east-west drag through town. Much of the place was either on fire or blown apart.
In the moment, Nick had forgotten how the Toyota’s engine struggled with the low-quality fuel available in Palma. The fuel line was clogged. Too much gas and the engine would stall. Niraj hit 50, then 60 miles per hour. Suddenly, Nick felt the car slowing. Niraj jammed his foot to the floor, but the car just groaned. “And the next thing,” Nick said, “two guys just step out in front of us, to the right, about 100 meters away.” The insurgents had broken cover to shoot at Phil’s passing car. Seeing Nick and Niraj approaching, they turned and fired. The bullets cracked all around. “Go back!” Nick shouted. But the Cruiser was done. Every time Niraj pressed the accelerator, the engine made a noise like a flooded boat propeller: BRRrrr… BRRrrr… They coasted to a halt about 50 yards from the two gunmen. “Try and knock them over!” Nick shouted.
Niraj put the car in gear again. Nothing.
“So I take the safety off the AK to have a shot,” Nick said. Raising the barrel and aiming through the windshield, Nick sighted up one of the men and squeezed the trigger.
“So I chambered another round,” Nick said.
“We need to get out of the car!” Nick shouted.
Nick bailed left. Ducking around the back, Niraj followed him. A security guard, Farouq, came too. Anel, Jaime, and the four others scattered in other directions.
Nick, Niraj, and Farouq clambered up the roadside embankment, bullets kicking up dirt around them. In the scramble, Niraj tripped, fell, yelped, then got up again, clutching a dislocated elbow. Nick lost his glasses. He still had the AK, however. Finding his way to a tree, he leaned into it and raised the gun again. “I had a perfect shot at these two guys,” he said. “They were only about 30 meters away, walking toward us. I could have popped both of them.” Looking down the barrel at one of the insurgents, Nick fired.
Nick cursed, yelled at Niraj and Farouq, and the three of them sprinted away onto the airfield. The two militants ran after them, firing. Nick tore off his white T-shirt, thinking, It’s a target. There were 100 yards without a blade of grass until they reached jungle on the far side of the runway. “It was just blam! blam! blam!” Nick said. “Shots toward us. Shots toward the other guys.” Niraj lost a shoe. Surging with adrenaline, he said, “I couldn’t feel much. And we ran. You can hear the bullets buzzing past you.” Reaching the undergrowth, Nick said, “we just dove in and tried to crawl in as deep as we could.”
The two jihadis didn’t miss everyone, however. Limping from his foot injury, Anel—“a gentle sort of soul,” Nick said—couldn’t keep pace. Nick assumes the two gunmen caught up to him quickly. But he doesn’t know. Anel’s body was never found.
It was around five minutes into the convoy. Two men were down. Four cars were out. Since much of the drama was in the rear, those in front had no idea. Not that they had time to wonder. The airfield ambush had made everybody fixate on the road ahead. In 13 separate accounts of the next few miles, only Gaucho Jaisse recalled seeing the three quarry trucks and the headless corpses of their drivers.
Jonathan, Gustavo, and their pickup full of women and children were still in front. Six minutes in, they hit a second ambush.
The pickup slowed and shook with a deafening, whirring vibration. What felt to Gustavo like an RPG had hit the front of the vehicle. Somehow Jonathan kept the truck on the road.
Next was Pedro Velez and his car of women and children.
Several rounds slammed into the body. One tore through a left panel, missed Pedro’s passengers, and smashed into his right knee. Blood splashed across the pedals. Pedro screamed at his front-seat passenger to hold the wheel, took his knee in both hands, and, fingers digging into his bloody flesh, pressed his foot to the accelerator. “We couldn’t have stopped,” he later explained.
Third in the convoy was Adi.
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!
“I’m hit! I’m hit! I’m hit!” Adi screamed.
“And I looked at him,” Wes said, “and I saw his shoulder is just sort of popped and his shirt is completely blown away.”
“I’m hit! I’m hit, guys!” Adi shouted again.
Wes pulled an anti-coagulant pack from the medic bag, tore the wrapper, pulled out the applicator—a large syringe filled with granules—and reached around the seat.
“I hold his shoulder and I push it in, and half my hand goes into his shoulder,” Wes said.
Adi had also been shot in the right hip. No longer able to use his right foot on the accelerator, he had switched to his left but was having trouble holding it in place.
“Guys, I can’t drive!” Adi shouted. “I’m hit badly.”
“Keep going! Keep going!” yelled the others.
“I can’t!” Adi shouted. “My leg is off. I’m driving with my left foot.”
Adi drove on another 100 yards. “How he did it, I’ve got no idea,” Greg said later. “He was—” Greg broke off, then resumed after a long pause. “He was pretty much… driving and dying at the same time,” he said.
In the car, Adi cried out: “Dad, I can’t see.”
Then, more faintly, “Guys, I’m done. I’m going.”
As Hernani reached across to steady the wheel, Adi slumped to one side, his left foot came off the accelerator, and the car slowed to a halt.
Wes jumped out and opened Adi’s door. “I’m sorry, Adi,” Wes kept saying. “I’m sorry, Adi.”
Greg undid Adi’s seat belt, and Wes picked his brother up by his pants, put another hand under his head, and lifted him between the seats into his father’s arms. Wes then climbed into the bloody driver’s seat, squeezed in beside his brother’s feet, reached around them to work the stick, and took off.
The Pathfinder pickup, with Peter Ntego driving, was now behind Adi.
From the back of the car, Gaucho heard a bullet shatter the windshield. The vehicle swerved. Peter tried to drive on, passing Adi’s car and negotiating a narrow bridge over a swamp. A few yards after that, however, he suddenly veered left into a deep ditch. Gaucho only has snapshots of what happened next. “It went around,” he said. “It threw us out. The wheels were upside down. Then I saw it coming and I said to myself, Ah! I am dead!” The Pathfinder pickup had buried itself in the ditch, rolled several times, tossed its rear passengers forward over the cab, then landed on them. Peter Ntego was dead. His four inside passengers were also gone. A sixth man, possibly Mauro Euriano, was trapped, dying as Gaucho watched. Gaucho and the two others crawled out, pulled themselves to their feet, and tried to flag down another pickup.
Next was the Vodacom car.
Despite Nelito Alide’s wooden reinforcements, with so many people in the back, any accurate shot was going to hit flesh. “One old man was shot in the leg,” Nelito said. Arsenio, lying with his hands clasped in front of him, cried out. “The bullet entered his left hand and came out of his right,” Nelito said.
The Reef car was right behind.
The passengers caught a glimpse of a gunman on a motorbike. In the back, Manuel Carimo was hit. The driver accelerated away, steered around Adi’s car, negotiated the narrow bridge, passed the Pathfinder, made a sharp jink around a landslide, and took the right turn to Lynn’s Beach. But on the next corner, a 90-degree left, he overshot, rammed a thorn tree, and the SUV stopped dead.
Negotiating the same road was Wes. He remembers the Pathfinder wreck. “A bakkie had rolled,” he said, using a South African term for a pickup, “and there were people lying in the middle of the road and on the side of the road, people walking around groggily with blood all over them.”
Wes also managed the turn to Lynn’s Beach and missed the tree that had halted the Reef car. After three more miles, however, he was confronted with a final horror: five more quarry trucks. Their drivers’ bodies—some of them headless—had been dragged across the road, so there was no getting around them. One by one, the surviving vehicles drove over them. At the time, Wes barely registered what he was doing. “I mean, I saw that hole in Adi,” he said, “and I’m just thinking, He’s fucking dying! He’s dying! I’m screaming back at them. ‘Put another applicator in! Stop the blood! Please save him!’”
“Wesley, face the front and drive, for fuck’s sake!” Greg shouted. “Just drive, my boy!”
“Martin and I were scrambling,” Greg said later. “I was trying to pack bandages wherever I could see blood.”
But Adi was dying, and Greg knew it. “I’ve seen people die from gunshot wounds,” he said. “There was nothing—nothing—I could do to save him. Adrian was dying in my arms.”
Wes knew it, too. “Adi, I love you so much,” he said from the front. “And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry this has happened. I love you, Adi. And I promise I’ll look after the kids.”
At one point, Adi whispered something to Greg.
“I think he said he loved me,” Greg said. “I just kept on telling him that I love him. And that I’ve got him. And he went into his death throes. In my arms. Like he was a little boy again.”
A month after Adi’s death, Janik and their family built his Viking raft and, at sunset, sent it into the sea, off the coast of Durban, carrying his ashes, as Céu and Adi’s friends fired flaming arrows from the shore. In those first few days, Janik drank through her grief. After falling and dislocating her jaw on her doorstep, she started running and hiking four or five hours a day. After eight months, sitting on the veranda of the whitewashed 1930s bungalow she’d shared with Adi, she said that on good days she was almost able to see this sudden turn in their lives, in which her husband was dead and she was a widow with three kids at 39, as another crazy Adi adventure. Janik had also come to a new understanding about her husband and destiny. Adi was a “unicorn,” she said, that rarest and most beautiful of things: a human being who was completely and utterly himself. Marriage and family with him had been magical. But maybe Adi’s last gift to her was a lesson about life’s transience and the importance of the moment. “Adrian always went with the gut and the heart,” she said. That’s why he ran to fetch the gun. That’s why he always drove. That’s why, in the end, he died.
Janik had sent her final message to Adi around an hour after he was fatally wounded. His phone had no battery left, and it remains a mystery how her text was marked as read. But not an unpleasant one, Janik said. In the weeks after Adi died, whenever she missed talking to him, she texted him. For six weeks afterward, her messages were double ticked. By then, Janik was feeling Adi’s presence in other places: in songs on the radio, or the shape of Télès’s legs, or the feeling she got as she passed the spot where she pulled over to tell him she loved him. Most mornings, Janik kept a date with Adi on Durban’s oceanfront, where she could be sure of seeing the two elements that most defined him: the sun and the sea. If it was a beautiful day, she took a picture and sent it to him. This wasn’t some bogus, screwy spirituality, Janik said. She and Adi were never “romantic or sentimental. We never celebrated our anniversaries or Valentine’s Day. We never had a song.” She felt he was telling her to be happy, and wasn’t judging her for moving on.
But if Janik was adjusting to the unknowable of Adi’s afterlife, she wanted every detail of his last hours among the living. She shared her obsession with others caught up in the attack. Their thirst for information was partly a result of an enduring incredulity about what had happened to them. Many survivors reported struggling to accept events even as they lived through them. But their quest for understanding also reflected how slow the facts were to emerge, and how partial the account they offered. To this day, the Mozambican government hasn’t tallied the number of people who died in Palma that week—though, a year later, it may be safe to assume that most of the 837 still on the list of missing put together by Mussa’s voluntary group, Vamoz, are gone. I spent a year reporting events in Palma, conducting around 100 interviews, including 24 with people either in the convoy or eyewitnesses to it. I retraced the route four times with an escort of Rwandan soldiers who, invited into Cabo Delgado by the Mozambican government, finally did in July and August 2021 what the army had failed to do, killing hundreds of Al Shabab fighters and routing the rest. Not every detail and piece of evidence matched, but much did. Some deaths were witnessed at the time; the full circumstances of others took longer to emerge. Phil’s killing was unconfirmed until a DAG crew landed next to his pickup and cut his body from the wreck with an angle grinder. The fate of several others was resolved only in August when a vehicle-recovery team from Reef found the bodies of two quarry drivers still in the road, Peter Ntego’s desiccated skeleton strapped into the Pathfinder’s driver’s seat, the body of Mauro Euriano lying in the dirt alongside, and Manuel Carimo’s decomposing corpse in the back of the Reef pickup. Zvika Karadi, Reef’s owner, instructed his men to bag up what they could and ship the remains to Pemba.
“We are never going to get them all out,” concluded Max Dyck of the security firm DAG. “We have to make decisions, and the effect of our decisions is that somebody is going to live and somebody is going to die.”
The way the convoy had scattered also meant that many survivor stories arrived piecemeal. Of the 17 cars that left the Amarula, six didn’t make it; four plus Rasta’s minibus stopped at the quarry, from where most of their passengers walked to Lynn’s Beach; and seven drove to the water’s edge. Out of the 150 people who had set off, Gustavo counted 124 on the sand. Ten others were dead. Roughly half the contractors were present: Gustavo, Tobias, Roland, Jason, and Pedro. Gaucho and his two Pathfinder friends arrived after catching a ride with one of the last vehicles in the convoy. Victorino Gomes also made it. Knocked out in the Reef crash, he woke up next to Manuel’s body, crawled out, and walked three miles to the coast.
Though most of the survivors were unhurt, a handful had gunshot wounds, and Pedro was in an especially bad way. His screams drew Saulo Ali, Adi’s fisherman friend, who lifted him into a dugout, then, as others tourniqueted his leg, paddled with the group as they walked a few miles north up the beach to the large fishing village of Quirinde. A bank worker produced a sat phone, which Jason and Roland used to call friends in Pemba, requesting pickup by boat. The group hid in the mangroves until the rescue arrived. Pedro begged Saulo to come with him. “Stay here and you’ll die,” he said. Saulo declined. After seeing Pedro off, he paddled back to his village, where I found him six months later.
With only a handful of boats running to and from Afungi, the evacuation took all night. When Tobias arrived at Afungi’s eastern entrance a little before 5 A.M. with a group of women and children, they were stopped by Total’s security guards. “The population has nothing to do with us,” the guards said. “Why are you bringing them here?” The group was eventually shown to a safe house, where they were given water, food, and a place to sleep on the floor.
At Afungi’s western gate, Gordon Rhattigan had experienced a similar problem. Following his boss’s advice, Gordon had spent 25 hours in camp listening to the gunfire consume Palma. Then, thinking the jihadis were circling back, he scrambled his 192 people into their cars and took off on a back road to Afungi. Arriving at 5 P.M. on Thursday, he was allowed through one set of gates but blocked at a second. Gordon and his staff slept in cars, sneaking food and water from a catering contractor before he was quietly let through the next day. Asked how Total had treated people, Gordon sighed, like he’d given the question much thought. “I really don’t think they gave a flying fuck,” he said.
Wes was one of the drivers who stopped at the quarry. Though Adi had been lying dead in Greg’s arms for several minutes, postmortem reflexes were jerking his body, moving his head, and making his lungs gasp. Noticing the movement, Wes exclaimed that Adi was still breathing. “Wes, he’s dead, my boy,” Greg replied. “I know he’s dead.” When the Vodacom car pulled up alongside, Nelito implored the two men to leave Adi and follow him to the beach. “They could not move at all,” he said. “We left them there.”
As the setting sun bathed the quarry in golden light, Greg finally lifted himself out from under Adi, closed his eyes, and put his baseball cap over his face. Wes took his brother’s phone, wallet, and rings. Leaving Adi in the back seat, Greg, Wes, Martin, and Hernani then hiked a mile east into the bush, until they reached a giant baobab. As night fell, Martin used his sat phone to send their coordinates to DAG. Then the men lay down. No one really slept. Wes was going into shock. Overnight, he was also stung by a scorpion.
At dawn the next day, Saturday, March 27, the four men crawled out of the bush to find two hippos blocking their path, and froze for several minutes until the animals moved off. Finally, DAG’s spotter appeared at 9 A.M., then three helicopters at eleven. The flight to Afungi took four minutes. As DAG took off to fetch Adi’s body, Wes, Greg, Martin, and Hernani walked over to the airport building, covered in dirt and Adi’s blood. Before they could enter, a group of Total staffers stopped them, instructing them to sanitize their hands and mask up.
By midday saturday, three days after the attack began, most of the contractors and their workers were accounted for. Nick and Niraj, however, were still in the bush. After lying next to the airstrip until dark on Friday, they trekked several miles west, stopped to eat some wild watermelons, then camped out. On Saturday, they walked to a camp belonging to a contractor called WBHO, where they found food, water, a handful of soldiers, and an empty cabin to sleep in. On Sunday, March 28, they set off with the soldiers, aiming to walk across Palma to Afungi. The route was marked by several bodies. After 1,000 yards, close to the main drag through town, they came under fire. The soldiers scattered. Nick and Niraj hurried back to WBHO. At 10:50 A.M., they heard a low-flying DAG helicopter overhead, ran out of their cabin to wave, then were astonished to see the crew turn and land. Nick and Niraj jumped in and were in Afungi in three minutes.
Others were less lucky. John, the 37-year-old foreman at Wentworth, said that after the convoy left the Amarula, Al Shabab focused its fury across the road. After heavy fire subsided Saturday, at 6 A.M. on Sunday, March 28, the jihadis stormed in and, as John hid, broke down the doors of Wentworth’s safe house. They killed nine men. Then they ordered 12 more to march to a spot under a giant mango tree in the road outside the Amarula. When one man screamed, they shot him. When a second yelled “Allahu akbar,” they let him live. They made the remaining ten kneel. Then, one by one, they beheaded them.
Thirty seconds later, as the three cars barreled past the airstrip, they came under fire. “Contact! Contact! Contact!” Gustavo screamed into his radio. Several rounds plinked the vehicle’s armor.
Most of the men were from John’s extended family or were neighbors from his hometown, Xai-Xai, in southern Mozambique. He had recruited them all. When Al Shabab finally pulled out of Palma a week later, John’s friends and cousins were buried in a mass grave under the mango tree. Then over the next few weeks, he made the long journey south to Xai-Xai, where he went door-to-door, relaying the story of what happened to their families. I asked John to spell out their names, which took some time. He carried each man with him, he said. “Ah!” John exclaimed. “Every day.”
Some survivors were missing for so long, that their wives and children were in mourning by the time they resurfaced. Jaime Jaisse, last seen running from Nick’s stalled Cruiser, reappeared after 13 days. Mussa stayed for several days at Kiwia, caught a canoe to Afungi, stayed for several more, then found a boat to Pemba. The first his boss at Vamoz knew that he was still alive was on April 6, when, as though nothing had happened, he sent her an email about some missing expense receipts.
One of the last to make it out was Ines. After finding five decapitated neighbors outside her door, she hid for three days, then hitched a ride south, moving from canoe to canoe, trying to reach Pemba. Pulling ashore one day, her boat was surrounded by Al Shabab. Ines and several other women were abducted. She endured five months of being made to cook, clean, and fetch water. Every few days, she was raped by an Al Shabab commander. “They fucked us like we were goats,” Ines said.
When an army helicopter attacked Al Shabab’s bush camp, Ines and a few other women escaped and found their way to Pemba, where the authorities, unsure what to do with them, moved them into an empty warehouse with a police guard, which was where I found her. When we spoke, Ines had no idea whether her fisherman husband or four children were alive. Another mystery, she said, was the insurgents’ inability to explain why they were at war. One day she had asked her Al Shabab commander why, if he was fighting for a better life, was he living a worse one, camping in the jungle, eating terrible food, rarely washing, and not even following the Koran that closely? In Palma, she had a house and steady work. Life was far from perfect, she said, but it wasn’t bad. The man regarded her. “If you try to go home,” he said, “I’ll kill you.”
As the survivors slowly assembled the facts of the attack, its lessons also became clearer. The massacre at the Wentworth safe house suggested that the Amarula’s occupants were right to think they would have been butchered if they stayed. Several all-Mozambican cars made it out of the convoy unscathed, but no car carrying white occupants had, which seemed to indicate that white people were Al Shabab’s primary targets. In one sense, Phil’s death, like Adi’s, felt foretold: a man who spent his life on the road had finally died on it. Still, the message of the two killings was troubling. Those who cut and ran survived. Those who stuck together paid dearly for it, some of them with their lives.
Robbie caught much of the initial anger—for panicking and for flying out before the others. “I think he failed miserably,” Nick said. Then, in May, Amnesty International accused DAG of racism. Its research, based on 11 anonymous interviews with people who had been at the Amarula, alleged that “white contractors were prioritized for evacuation ahead of black locals.” That much was true, if poorly nuanced. But while Amnesty’s statement mentions Robbie (though not by name) and the mayor’s early exit, the focus of Amnesty’s ire was DAG, who the organization accused of directing a racist rescue. The report also claimed that the convoy was the desperate last resort of “black nationals … left behind to fend for themselves.”
Somehow, Amnesty managed to traduce the only people who saved anyone in Palma while downplaying the inaction of the Mozambican army and ignoring the actual white mercenaries—the Ukrainians—who had in fact left Black Africans to die. In response, Dyck commissioned an independent report on DAG’s actions, which listed Amnesty’s errors and cleared his men. The numbers were indisputable. In 13 days, according to Dyck, DAG rescued around 240 civilians, only 13 of whom were foreigners, as well as retrieving the bodies of Adi and Phil.
Dyck quickly moved on. But the outrage persisted among the Amarula survivors. In the eye of the storm, some men—mainly white, but some Black—had buckled and revealed themselves as liars and cowards. Many more had wavered. But in the end most stood firm—and in some cases, their courage had cost them their lives. Color had mattered at the Amarula, but ultimately character had mattered more. Nor was the convoy a last chance for a group of Black Africans abandoned by privileged white people, but a color-blind, collective attempt at survival. It was imperative that that truth be preserved, Nick said. “We tried to make it out together, Black and white.” (Queried about its errors, Amnesty stated that its intention had been to give “voice to other victims and survivors whose testimonies had not been heard” and to correct “extremely one-sided” news reports focusing on white people. But it restated both its allegation of racism against DAG and the flawed presumption on which it was based: that because DAG had flown people out, it had therefore selected who was rescued.)
The biggest problem with the Amnesty report, however, was that it distracted attention from the true culprits in Palma.
Total knew to expect an attack in Mozambique. It knew that from its long experience with oil and gas as a flash point for conflict, especially in Africa, and in particular when a company employed the incendiary approach it adopted in Mozambique: cut a deal with a government known for corruption, keep the profits, and share as little as possible with the population. In Palma’s case, there was already a bloody Islamist insurgency down the road. Additionally, Total showed that it knew Al Shabab was likely to attack by the way it prepared for it: building itself a fort at Afungi and hiring a small army of security experts and soldiers to protect it. Perhaps most damning, Total knew an attack was likely coming, and that any bloodshed would affect all of Palma, because three months before it happened, the company’s own advisers warned that it could. A December 2020 report by Montreal-based LKL International Consulting, a group of human-rights lawyers and conflict analysts hired by Total, identified security as the number one problem at Afungi. “The highest risks are related to community security from insurgency attacks,” the advisers wrote. “Quite understandably, community security is a top-of-mind issue for most stakeholders given the intensification of insurgency attacks and conflict in the area.”
What Total also did, in employing drunk soldiers and security advisers who failed to sound a timely alarm, closing its gates to fleeing civilians, and locating its worker camps outside Afungi while its principal contractor relocated inside, was to show that, as long as it was protected, it didn’t feel responsible for anyone else. Total employed the very people it would later exclude to build the very structures that would later exclude them. Outside its fences and beyond the few hundred people who worked for Total or CCSJV, Total’s lack of interest seemed to extend to everyone: the thousands of people in Palma who worked for it and the tens of thousands of people whom its presence put at risk. “We worked for Total,” Nick said. “Our reason for being up in Palma was we were supplying offices and accommodation for Total.” Wes echoed the point. “Surely, in that situation, especially since we’re all working under the project, someone should be obliged,” he said.
Again, Total’s human-rights consultants agreed. The company had a moral and legal duty to protect others, LKL had said. The decision to operate in a war zone came with “heightened expectations for HRDD [human rights due diligence].” The 2020 report highlighted, several times, how Total had a responsibility in Palma to protect “right to life, liberty and security of the person” and how that obligation was written into international law. Lest there be any doubt, it specified that Total’s duty of care covered contractors and subcontractors and extended to “Project-affected communities.” It also made clear that the buck stopped with Total. While contractors and subcontractors had obligations of their own related to the workforce, “the Project ultimately has the lead role,” the advisers wrote.
Adi was dying, and Greg knew it. Wes knew it, too. “Adi, I love you so much,” he said from the front. “And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry this has happened. I love you, Adi. And I promise I’ll look after the kids.”
The moment the first shot was fired, Total dispensed with obligations and leadership. By refusing a part in any rescue, it also closed its eyes to how, as a $129 billion company worth roughly ten times Mozambique’s GDP, with all the men and equipment for an evacuation just minutes away, it was in a unique position to conduct one. “Personnel-carrier-type choppers, all those troops, an airport, and aviation fuel less than a five-minute flight to where we were,” Nick said. “I’m sure if Total had picked up the phone to the government there and said, ‘Listen, you guys need to get some people over there ASAP…’” The unavoidable conclusion, Tobias said, was that Total had the ability and resources to save people but didn’t. “Every single person that died that day,” he said, “every drop of blood that was spilled, is on Total’s hands.”
Asked to respond, Total declined to address any specific allegation. Instead, it issued a written blanket denial, calling the accusations against it “unfounded,” with “no basis in fact.” Arguing that security was the job of the Mozambican defense and interior ministries, it defined Total’s role as one of “logistic support.” That assertion not only flew in the face of the advice it had received from LKL but paid no heed to the Mozambican army’s obvious ineffectiveness; Total’s assertion that it provided logistical support to the interior ministry was at odds with its refusal to supply fuel to DAG, an interior-ministry hire. Dyck said he was told the decision came directly from Total. “Word came down from the mountain, and that was the way it was going to be,” he said. (In a comment a few months after the attack, Total declared: “There is no relationship between [Total’s Mozambique project] and private military companies such as DAG.”)
In its statement, Total went on to claim that it provided “food and water to refugees arriving in Afungi,” which was true as far it went but ignored that Total’s security guards stopped thousands of refugees from entering Afungi. Finally, Total wrote that it had “made available its facilities (port, airport, clinic) to assist the refugees, to provide urgent medical aid to the wounded and to evacuate by air and sea the most vulnerable ones, mainly women and children.” In truth, Total’s guards shut down its facilities and kept crowds of refugees outside its gates.
If it were possible at the time to imagine that Total’s behavior was an aberration, the result of decisions made in the heat of the moment or in light of imperfect information, its conduct in the weeks afterward scotched any such notion. Total announced no compensation and sent no public message of condolence. By its own count, it helped evacuate just 2,100 people, a mere 4 percent of those who had fled Palma. A month after Adi died, Total also declared force majeure, legally insulating itself from all contractual duties in Palma, including the one to pay its contractors the millions of dollars they were owed at the time. Nick’s Fly Camp was left teetering, as was Wes and Greg’s company. Total, by contrast, expects to resume operations in Palma this year. Its stock, which barely wavered after the attack, is close to its pre-pandemic high.
The puzzle was that such conduct wasn’t just unthinking or selfish but, in all probability, self-harming. By abandoning the people on whom its business relied and missing the chance to prove to Palma that Africa’s experience of oil and gas would be different this time, Total earned universal contempt. Around the world, a chorus of press stories relayed how thousands were “Left to Die,” as one headline put it. Even on a superficial level, Dyck said, “if they gave us 5,000 liters of fuel, or put four medics outside the gates and got some pictures of them handing out water and biscuits to women and children, the PR coup for them would have been massive. It’s just mind-boggling.”
So why? Why did Total behave so badly and so shamelessly? The excruciating answer seems to be: because it could count on you and me. The final, hideous truth to emerge from Palma is that when any of us fill our cars or heat our homes or switch on a light, we are sustaining a trade that sees the killing of Adi, Phil, Anel, Manuel, Peter, and Mauro, or the enslavement and rape of Ines, or a civil war that has killed 3,818 and made three-quarters of a million homeless, not as dangers to prevent or mitigate but as inevitabilities to navigate. We know all about the price the planet pays for our use of fossil fuels. A new war in Europe, funded by oil and gas, is a reminder of its other, bloodier cost, generally paid over more distant horizons. For even after 600 years, it is still that distance, Africa’s otherness, which makes all the difference.
Some contractors moved quickly to the next job after Palma. Gordon took a new gig with RA International in South Sudan. Tobias found other work in Mozambique, away from the far north. In early 2022, Robbie returned to the Amarula, oversaw a cleanup, then reopened, filling his rooms with aid workers and other contractors.
Others did not recover as quickly. Nick has been fighting for a year for an insurance payout that might save Fly Camp. Zvika Karadi put Reef up for sale after 15 years in Mozambique, saying he could no longer work in an industry where “people have no value.” Wes, too, declared he was done with Africa. “I don’t see why I should continue to contribute to this place if it’s going to treat me like this,” he said. Greg seemed shattered. After a lifetime getting the job done in Africa, he had finally met a problem he couldn’t fix, and the knowledge seemed to undo him. He and Meryl spent evenings on the veranda of their beach house outside Durban, chain-smoking and watching the sunset, telling visitors that they, too, would be leaving Africa, if they weren’t too old to start over. Late into the evening, Greg would obsess about the moment when, after Wes pulled up at the quarry, the three men in the car’s trunk scrambled out over him and Adi. “Straight over Adrian’s body,” he would spit. “After he fucking saved their lives.”
Janik and Céu reached an extraordinary, opposing conclusion. Rather than hate Adi’s murderers, or the ingratitude of those he saved, or even Africa, for them his death underlined how many “victims” there were on the continent, brutalized by centuries of oppression and exclusion. The family intended to stay in Durban for now, Janik said. From the moment she moved to Africa, she understood she was committing to sharing in a great, continental injury. Astonishingly, Céu agreed. Always wise beyond his ten years, now impossibly so with the telling and retelling of his father’s story, one afternoon he arrived home with his schoolbooks, took a seat next to me on the terrace where his father used to read him stories, and said, “The thing is, I understand. I feel some sympathy. If I were in their place, and I couldn’t even afford to feed my children, I might actually do the same.”
The tragedy, Céu said, was that even if Al Shabab had its reasons, its methods only added to Africa’s wounds. “They think that if they shoot and force people, that’s going to work,” he said. The problem with that sort of narrow, unfeeling thinking, Céu said, so on display in Palma, was how its essential inhumanity all but guaranteed an endless cycle of suffering. That, ultimately, was “the thing that hurts me the most,” he said. “In the end, we all get hurt.”
Adi’s family have set up a foundation in his name to raise money for Janik and the children. You can donate here.
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