In the latter half of the twentieth century, the people of Mozambique have known very little peace.  After a ten-year war for independence from Portugal, Mozambique enjoyed just two short years of recovery before civil war broke out in 1977.  The two factions found themselves fighting their fellow countrymen in a proxy war funded and instigated by surrounding nations, with the Front for Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) defending their new-found claim to rule against the Mozambique Resistance Movement (RENAMO), which opposed the Marxist ideals established by the ruling party, but received funding and support from white-ruled Rhodesia and (later) apartheid South Africa.

In the years to come, over a million people would die in Mozambique as a direct result of the fighting and five million more would lose their homes.  Both parties were accused of committing horrific war crimes, including mass executions and rape.   Finally, in 1992, the fighting ended and the roadwork was laid for the nations’ first multi-party election, which took place in 1994.  RENAMO accepted the role of the minority party, leaving the FRELIMO party in power as they had been since winning independence for the nation.

In 2010, I arrived in Mozambique’s capital city of Maputo as a part of a small group of Marines tasked with establishing a bivouac area for a main body of Marines, Soldiers and Airmen that were to arrive the following week.  We purchased a few Volkswagen busses in cash, and drove four hours north, where we were met by three of Mozambique’s personnel carriers – each full of FADM infantrymen that, it turned out, were rather surprised to find twenty or so American Marines trucking around in their backyard.  There, somewhere in the African savannah and in the middle of the night, our miniature convoy made up of two vans and a Humvee gun truck sat surrounded in an almost-polite standoff with the very military our operation had intended to support.

Things grew tense, before intervention from either the U.S. Ambassador we reached on our satellite phone or the local military general they contacted via radio (it was hard to tell, as only our CO spoke Portuguese) prompted them to permit us to set up camp nearby in an area they had cleared to play soccer.  A good portion of our small group were Marine Reservists and “red tabbers” (Marines that specialize in landing support) who hadn’t been authorized to carry any ammunition.  As a result, the four of us with rifles that could serve as more than just a fashion statement settled in to stand post while our logistics brothers and sisters got some rest.

Throughout the evening, we used our night vision goggles to watch the FADM patrols circle the field we camped in, and by morning, hundreds more had arrived.  As the sun came up, we received word that the larger convoy that was to arrive in the morning with additional Marines and supplies had been in an accident inside the city and wouldn’t be arriving as scheduled.  As our PFCs and Lance Corporals set about the arduous task of clearing land for the main body’s arrival, the four of us that had been standing post finally decided to split shifts sleeping.

By the time the convoy with our first resupply and the remainder of the advance party arrived, we had been without a source of water or food for more than two days, and the four of us on rotating security were on the verge of exhaustion.  I’ll never forget laughing as I watched a lance corporal fall out of the door of the seven-ton truck he arrived in, thinking to myself, “these are the guys we’ve been waiting for to come save us.”

Watch: US Marines in Africa celebrate with students after helping to repair school

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Over the coming weeks, we would reconnect with the local military in a decidedly friendlier fashion, though the differences in our cultures sometimes brought tensions back to the surface.  When our makeshift chow hall told the locals we couldn’t provide them with any more food that day, they returned with AK-47s and had to be escorted away by a number of us that had learned a few phrases in their local dialect.  When Public Affairs Marine arrived, the local general took her and I aside, inside our COC (Combat Operations Center), and explained that she was not to travel anywhere unaccompanied because, he “knew what he would do to her if he caught her, and his men would likely do the same.”  Tensions dissipated entirely, however, once the remaining nine hundred or so American personnel arrived in our small, but growing, camp.

A veritable city sprung up over night once the main body arrived.

I had the opportunity to work with a FADM Lieutenant and translator as we prepared for the arrival of the American Ambassador to Mozambique and the brief assembly the locals had put together as a show of good will.  The following is an excerpt from a piece I wrote that day:

                Africa gets awfully cold at night.  Considering my concerns about sweat-induced dehydration earlier in the day, I feel pretty ridiculous layering my Gortex over a sweatshirt and my blouse, but being close to the equator doesn’t seem to help when the sun’s down.  The temperature is just another misconception I had about this region of the world, like that there were lions, or jungles, or plants that weren’t covered in spines.  It seems not all of Africa looks like The Lion King.  In fact, this part bears a striking resemblance to the dead fields of grass behind the trailer parks in Vermont.  I’d be reluctant to call it a desert, seeing as there are plants everywhere; of course, they’re all dead.

                I met a local man at the beginning of my post that laughed when I told him his country was beautiful.  Honestly, it was a hallow comment meant to express my gratitude for his people’s hospitality, not an observation about the knee-high dead grass and spine-tree laden scenery.  He asked if I liked spending time in his country, and I sincerely responded that I did; then he shook his head and explained that he can’t wait to leave Mozambique.  It would be easy to understand why; the country was wrought with civil war for a good portion of his lifetime, education is as rare as disease and poverty are common and to my semi-conscious observation, every plant I see has some kind of barb sticking out of it… but that wasn’t what he meant.  As I conversed with a guy who joined his nation’s military for much the same reason I joined mine, I didn’t see a man who was tired of running field operations in the third world, I saw a man with the same fever to get out of his hometown that almost every young American has at one point or another.  He doesn’t want to escape his home, he wants to get out there and see what the rest of the world has to offer.  Sure, I grew up with video games and laptops, he grew up cutting his lawn by hand, but ultimately, we both want the same thing: to see how different the world looks just beyond the horizon. 

                Sixteen countries in, I’ve learned that things stay pretty much the same regardless of which end of the horizon you end up on: deserts are deserts, forests are forests and people are people.  The rest is just grid coordinates.

Mozambique offered me my first real glimpse of poverty – not American poverty, mind you, but the kind of poverty that leaves your children starving, willing to fist fight other kids over the Gatorade powder packet out of my MRE.  Our operations included educational outreach, wherein we taught classes to the local military on hand-to-hand combat and patrol techniques.  We also took turns on a working party that rebuilt a largely damaged school in the nearby village of Moamba.  Once done, a few members of the Marine Corps Band that had come for the ambassador’s ceremony arrived and played an impromptu concert with the kids of the school.  Those few moments of celebration and singing remain as one of the brightest shining moments of my Marine Corps career.  While I’d questioned just what the hell it was we were doing there a number of times, that moment survives in my mind as the instant I realized we were the good guys I hoped we would be.

A joint celebration between Marines and locals after we completed repairs on a nearby school.

I learned from the men that served in Mozambique’s FADM that the nation’s desperate economy was even harder to survive because of economic regulations passed by the FRELIMO party.  Although they leaned toward communism, there was no actual intent to disseminate power or resources to the impoverished people of the nation.  You weren’t even legally permitted to apply for a home or auto loan unless you were a member of the military or government, leaving many to create housing out of trash.  When I asked whom they were preparing to fight, as the nation’s civil war was over and they weren’t currently at risk of a new war with nearby nations, the Lieutenant shrugged and responded, “ourselves.  We always fight ourselves.”

And since August of last year, that’s exactly what the people of Mozambique are doing once again.  Afonso Dhlakam, the leader of the RENAMO opposition party, ran against sitting FRELIMO president, Filipe Nyusi, in October of 2014.  He claimed thirty-one percent of the vote, not enough to garner victory, but enough to embolden him to claim the right to rule over the six provinces in Northern and Central Mozambique that he claims to have secured a popular majority in.  Small spats between his forces and FRELIMO police have claimed the lives of dozens on both sides in the months since, with an attempt at peace talks dissolving once again earlier this year.

This week, Dhlakama announced a seven-day cease-fire between the two factions, meant to permit Mozambique’s residents a safe New Years Celebration, but with large offshore gas reserves being developed in Mozambique, the coming influx of cash will likely only embolden both parties’ claims over the land, resources and people of the south African nation.  I can’t help but think about that lieutenant that once told me he wished he “didn’t have to serve in this bullshit army,” and the young kids we laughed and sang with in Moamba.  The people of Mozambique likely won’t see peace for years to come, if ever at all, and despite my time amidst the people, I’m no closer to having a real understanding of what it would take for those people, who were so like me in so many ways, to ever end the cycle of violence.

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Jack Murphy recently wrote about Aleppo, in which he explained the reasons the mainstream media provides a narrative to stories even when it isn’t factually based – people crave narrative story telling – and I’m no different.  I want to predict how this story will end, I want to assign one side the “good guy” title and root for their victory, I want to offer you, the reader, a logical and foreseeable conclusion to Mozambique’s woes, but in reality, the only thing I know for sure is that the people will likely continue to hurt as individuals scramble for power, that both sides will utilize methodologies we find repugnant from time to time, in pursuit of that power, and that those children I met in Moamba will not be the last generation to suffer the consequences.

Having been to twenty-some-odd nations ranging from horrible impoverished to incredibly wealthy, I know things don’t change much on the other size of the horizon.  Sometimes, I just wish they would.