A group of young men from Mt. Eruni walk between a pair of boulders that was the village’s war-time Adventist church. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety.

By Rowan Moore Gerety

At the time of my visit, the village of Mulide had been without a store for more than 28 years. But a row of abandoned storefronts still stood on a ridge below the Adventist church, and these shops were the first thing López Ngoba mentioned when I asked him about the caves. In Mocuba, the nearest town with paved roads and any commerce to speak of—a good 40 miles off—I’d heard there were caves in the surrounding countryside where people had taken refuge during Mozambique’s long civil war. I’d come to Mulide to find them.

“It was April 15, 1983,” Ngoba said, sitting on a low stool as he tended a fire outside his house. “Before that day, we didn’t know war. We didn’t know guns. It was just silence throughout the area. And then, on April 15th—did you see the stores over there?—well, on April 15th, those stores were set on fire and there was a lot of shooting and people ran and told us about it, and we thought, ‘That must be war.’” Sitting by the fire in a dark blue blazer and polka dot tie, a look of genuine bafflement came over Ngoba’s face, almost as though he was listening to his story rather than telling it.

By 1983, the conflict between Mozambique’s Marxist government, known as Frelimo, and the rebel group Renamo, which received backing from the Apartheid government in South Africa, had actually been going on for close to seven years. Frelimo denounced Renamo as “armed bandits,” bent only on destruction, while Renamo vowed to bring an end to the government’s record of religious repression and failed state-run farms. And yet, living out of reach of the propaganda from both sides, Ngoba’s description is a good measure of how abstract the war seemed until the violence finally intruded on Mulide. As we spoke, he offered up a plate of pigeon peas steamed in their shells, pausing periodically to tear open a pod with his teeth.

I was in Mulide as the guest of Ngoba’s youngest son, Moisés, an unfailingly cheerful schoolteacher I’d met along the road the day before a few miles outside Mocuba. Moisés had gone to town on church business and was biking back home. I didn’t have a clue where I was going, but when a friend who had agreed to take me sightseeing didn’t show, I began biking anyhow. I soon found myself keeping pace with Moisés for mile after mile. The road climbed gradually through a landscape of dry, golden meadows that yielded to mountains and vast tracts of hardwood forest in the distance. I don’t remember how we began talking; before long, though, it seemed as though we’d set out together. We passed other bikes hauling livestock, children, cases of beer, and in the other direction, bundles of thatch and sacks of produce and charcoal. Moisés had used the occasion to sell part of his maize crop in town. On the return, he carried a backpack full of sandals, new uniforms, salt, and urban necessities for his family.

For three years after the shops were destroyed, Ngoba explained, Mulide was caught between the dueling suspicions of two rival armies. Renamo had been responsible for the raid on the village stores, and though they forced people from Mulide to carry their loot most of the way back to their base, deep in the bush, the rebels spent the next several months trying to ingratiate themselves with the local population. “After that, they came and mixed with the population, just as you are now,” Ngoba said earnestly. “They sat with us, they ate with us.” That fall, Ngoba said, government operatives killed several people from Mulide while they were on trips into Mocuba, accusing the locals of being rebels themselves. In November, wary of Renamo’s creeping acceptance in the area, a Frelimo battalion came as far as Mulide and forced the village to re-locate wholesale, to an area that was secured by the army. They stayed there for two years as Frelimo gradually pushed Renamo’s militias out of the area. Then the army left, almost as suddenly as it had come. “We chased Renamo away,” he recalled Frelimo soldiers telling the community, “you can return to your homes.” Before the last soldiers retreated from the area, a popular militia was trained, and Ngoba appointed to lead it. Thirty men with guns were to protect the village.

But when they returned to Mulide, everything was gone. Their homes had been set on fire and emptied of any remaining possessions, their church reduced to a pile of clay ruins. “We suffered a lot,” Ngoba kept saying. It soon got worse, since Renamo was no longer deterred by the presence of a professional army, and now saw people in Mulide as ardent Frelimo loyalists. Ngoba saw neighbors kidnapped and mutilated, their hands, lips, ears, and breasts cut off with machetes.  “When you went to work for them, you worked as a slave. I said to myself, ‘We can’t live like this.’ And I took the population up to live in the caves.”

Seated by the fire, López Ngoba recounts his experiences living in the Mt Eruni caves during the Mozambican civil war. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety.

Seated by the fire, López Ngoba recounts his experiences living in the Mt Eruni caves during the Mozambican civil war. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety.

Now nearing 70, Ngoba was no longer able to make the bike ride to Mt. Eruni. So the next morning, after a leisurely breakfast of cornmeal mash and curried cabbage, Moisés and I took off down an eroded, dry creek bed with loose rocks and soft sand walls; I constantly feared I would tumble over my handlebars.

It took two hours to reach the mountain, biking a route that included stretches of long, sandy flats, creek crossings, and giant slabs of granite. Moisés sent word of our destination with a motorcycle that overtook us along the way, and by the time we reached the village at the foot of Mt. Eruni, a large, all-male welcoming party had assembled alongside the path. Among them was the local Secretary—the village-level representative of the Mozambican government—who led us down a sandy trail into a snake’s tongue of a valley squeezed between steep walls of granite. Everywhere, the Secretary pointed out boulders that he said people had used as houses during the war. When one wall gave way, we climbed a short rise to the left, and stumbled through a field of tall grasses growing in clumps. The Secretary paused next to a slight depression in the ground in the shadow of a large boulder and said, “This was the exit.” Whatever cavity there once was, it had long since been covered over with sand. We scrambled down a granite face, clinging to tufts of grass along the way, until we made our way to the ‘entrance,’ about 100 yards away, now clogged with tree roots. It seemed impossibly far for a cave to extend underground. For a minute, I thought I’d been swept up in a day-long misunderstanding. Perhaps ‘the caves’ was a metaphor of sorts for hiding in plain view, living among the boulders. But several of the young men who had come along with the Secretary had spent a year or more of their childhoods in the caves, and they assured me that I had the right idea. “You can stand up inside,” one said. “There’s water inside, and small rooms so that you could go visit your friends.” In a few places, there was even natural light. But nobody had been inside in years. Why would they?

During the war, people worked in their machambas while children stood sentry atop termite mounds in the fields. They wore loin clothes, Ngoba told me, made cooking pots out of clay, and ate their food with no salt. When Renamo was spotted, everyone moved into the caves and stayed put for several days. When the rebels receded from view, the lookouts blew “all-clear” with a buffalo horn, and people emerged one by one to find their fields burnt and their cassava uprooted. But Renamo never found the caves.

We re-traced our steps and began clambering up a second, higher mountain —Mt. Eruni proper—by way of a steep rock face already warm from the heat of the sun at 11 a.m. The Secretary pointed out another pair of lapsed cave entrances, further apart than the first, then turned to face the rolling woodlands that spread out before us to the east. Before the war, the area was less forested, he told me.  “Only crops,” he said, sweeping one hand across the panorama; most people who had gone to the city to flee the violence simply never came back.

On a flat stretch of ground at the very top of Mt. Eruni, two monumental sheets of granite came together to form a long triangular passage, higher at one end than at the other. Sunlight illuminated red stains of iron running through the rock. This was the first of two pairs of leaning boulders Ngoba had described the day before as wartime churches: one for the Adventists, and one for the Catholics, both situated as far as possible from the constant threat of a raid.

The local government representative at Mt. Eruni lowers himself into a crevice that once served as the entrance to a network of caves where he and several dozen families lived for a year in 1987. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety.

The local government representative at Mt. Eruni lowers himself into a crevice that once served as the entrance to a network of caves where he and several dozen families lived for a year in 1987. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety.

Of the two chambers, the Adventist church was by far the grander, solemn and high ceilinged enough that it didn’t take much imagination to think of it as a church. At the mouth of the church, what I imagined as the altar, a sparse, dappled canopy of trees framed a vista of the rolling forest below, and a river, Moisés said, that meandered all the way to Mocuba. As he’d described it the night before, Ngoba appeared to see the place before him, mapping out the stone roof line with his hands. It had been the only place, during the year they spent in the caves, where people from Mulide had been able to enjoy something like leisure, and the place where they’d gone to indulge their hopes of peace and prosperity.

The Secretary himself was a Catholic, and when we reached the Catholic church, a low shaded space where a recent visitor had set a snare for passing rodents, he crossed himself and sat quietly on a stone in the middle. “This is where we used to have mass,” he said. There was no pastor living in Eruni during the war, so locals had taken up the task instead, preaching as best they knew how.

Before independence, the Catholic Church had been the handmaiden of Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique, administering primary education in the colony and providing moral cover for the Portuguese government’s brutality. Accordingly, Frelimo—first as a guerrilla force and later as a Marxist government—was explicitly anti-religious; after Independence, many Catholic priests were forced to leave the country, and the Church’s property was nationalized. Even groups who’d had no formal relationship with the colonial government were subjected to Frelimo’s anti-religious policies: Jehovah’s Witnesses bore the brunt of it, interned by the hundreds in re-education camps in remote areas of Northern Mozambique. During the war and since, Renamo has used this history to cast itself as the defender of religious freedom in Mozambique. Visiting these cave churches, though, I felt like I had a glimpse of the cruel paradox people in Mulide had to live through during the war. At a certain point, the religious politics and positioning of either party was irrelevant: these two stone churches, stripped of any institutional affiliation or connection to the outside world, became the place where people fled Frelimo’s religious persecution and Renamo’s alleged defense of religious freedom. For a year, the boulders became all that a church is meant to be—a refuge and a sanctuary.

Rowan Moore Gerety is a freelance print and radio reporter based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the CSMonitor, Killing the Buddha, the Huffington Post, Marketplace, and PRI’s Living on Earth. This story was made possible by a 2011 Fulbright scholarship to Mozambique. Read more of his work at www.rowanmg.com.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.