There was still a crowd at the ferry landing outside this port center late on the day that Manuel Antonio crossed over with his retinue.
Those with him were part of his “spirit army,” mostly teen-age boys he had mysteriously “immunized” against bullets, the better to cleanse the countryside of the rebel guerrillas who have waged a 15-year war of devastation in Mozambique.
Many carried their characteristic short spears, and each had pinned somewhere on his clothing the only uniform piece of this mystical fighting force known as Naparama, a tatty shred of red ribbon.
Manuel Antonio looked younger than his 28 years. He wore blue jeans and a pair of Nike sneakers.
The disembarkation from the ferry arriving from the opposite town of Macuze, witnesses said, bore an unmistakable sign of the importance with which government authorities here treat Naparama: Antonio was met by a military escort that accompanied him into Quelimane, the provincial capital.
But that is not surprising. Despite its aura of ceremony and arcane spiritualism, Naparama is more than a cultural curiosity. Since first appearing out of nowhere in rich but devastated Zambezia province in March, the group has been astonishingly effective against the rebels of the Mozambique National Resistance, or Renamo.
In that time it appears to have overrun at least 24 Renamo strongholds in the province, bringing as many as 200,000 civilians from behind what had been Renamo lines and allowing thousands of others to return safely to their former farmlands for the first time in years.
That makes Naparama one of the few bright spots in a war of attrition that has ravaged Mozambique since its independence from Portugal in 1975, making it impossible to cultivate as much as 80% of this country or to provide it with regular land transport. In that time, Renamo has made refugees of 1 million Mozambicans and condemned 3 million more to lives of terror and misery.
Only in the last few months have aid and emergency workers been able to reach hundreds of thousands of starving war victims in Zambezia, and that is mostly Naparama’s work. Its success may even have been instrumental in leading Renamo to agree Dec. 1 to a partial cease-fire with the government. (The agreement covers two important rail corridors, neither of which traverses Zambezia province.)
In achieving all this, the youthful and largely unarmed warriors have succeeded where the government has failed. Diplomatic and local sources in Zambezia say several Renamo bases that were attacked repeatedly and fruitlessly by the government have been taken by Naparama in less than a day.
One base resisted three separate government onslaughts, only to fall to Naparama in two hours, according to sources in Zambezia.
Naparama’s reputation is now so widespread that often capitulation happens without a shot being fired.
“They just ran away,” said a 15-year-old Naparama warrior named Agustinho about an attack on Makiwe, a Renamo stronghold.
The barefooted Agustinho is dressed in a soiled and tattered checked shirt and a pair of cutoff jeans. He wears a patched nylon beret trimmed in red and holds a short wooden spear with a point of beaten iron, adorned with the tails of two small animals and the obligatory red ribbon.
Numerous purplish scars from razor-blade cuts ring his throat like a necklace: These are the marks left by Antonio’s rite of “vaccination” against Renamo weaponry.
As Agustinho described it, the assault on Makiwe had all the hallmarks of a Naparama offensive. He and his fellows approached brandishing their spears, yelling war cries and blowing whistles, after having been “prepared” for battle in a ceremony that he declines to describe. Most of the “bandits"--the common term here for Renamo--simply turned tail and fled. But Naparama captured some and killed them.
“In a little more time,” he concluded, “the war will be over, and the cars (food-aid trucks) will be able to come through again.”
Agustinho spoke from the side of a path in Morrua, a former mining community now filled with 21,000 malnourished Mozambicans whom Naparama escorted to safety after taking the district.
One is Pedro Carta, 32, who was caught when Morrua was attacked by Renamo bandits in September, 1984. Carta was tied up in the district’s Baptist church and forced to watch the rebels murder two of his children, aged 2 and 3. He spent the next several years hiding in the bush with his wife and a surviving child, tending by night a tiny field of cassava for food.
After liberating Morrua in July, Naparama sent detachments into the bush to bring those who had hidden, like Carta, back into the daylight.
Gratifyingly, from the government’s standpoint, Antonio abjures firepower. The guns and ammunition captured from Renamo are routinely turned over to the nearest military command, which moves into the liberated area and establishes regular control, albeit often with a sizable Naparama group in residence.
There are some indications--Antonio’s meetings with local military commanders, for instance--that the government and Naparama may now be coordinating their operations against Renamo in Zambezia. The government is known as Frelimo, a contraction of the Mozambique Liberation Front.
Much about Naparama is shrouded in mystery. The name itself, for example. Some say it refers to the secret herb essential to Antonio’s rituals, others say it is a tribal word meaning “irresistible force” and still others say it is Antonio’s actual surname.
The mystic’s own origins are unclear. By some accounts he is a Makonde tribesman from the far north of Mozambique. This would identify him with an ethnic group whose reputation is so fearsome that Renamo has never penetrated far into its homeland. Others say he is Ndau, which would make him a member of an important tribe of Zambezia.
Some analysts in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, believe Antonio may once have been associated with Renamo, for his operations appear to suggest a knowledge of Renamo bases and tactics.
By his own account, he became a military leader after having died of measles. As he told the British newspaper the Independent in July, he rose from the dead after six days in the grave to receive a message from God instructing him to liberate people behind Renamo lines.
The core ritual of Naparama is the “vaccination” of its warriors against the bullets of Renamo. The magical assumption of immunity to firearms is not an unfamiliar rite in Africa.
Just three years ago, a spirit leader named Alice Lakwena ranged throughout northeastern Uganda attracting followers for a march on the capital, Kampala. Preaching that bullets would bounce off their skin and the stones they heaved would turn into grenades in midair, she brought her army to within 30 miles of Kampala before government troops routed her offensive and forced her to flee into neighboring Kenya, where she disappeared.
Such leaders as the late president of Guinea, Sekou Toure, also claimed to be immune to bullets, which served to enhance his stature in the country while presumably discouraging attempts on his life.
Zambezia provides ripe territory for spiritual leaders like Antonio, for it is located on the very edge of Islam’s reach into Mozambique from the north and Christianity’s from the south. An estimated 50% of Mozambicans profess to practice animism, a belief in deceased ancestors and other spiritual intermediaries.
Those who have witnessed Antonio’s “vaccination” rite say it involves pricking scores of cuts on the young initiates’ chests and necks with razor blades, then rubbing the wounds with the ashes of an unidentified herb.
At the conclusion, each warrior is struck by the honed blade of a machete to prove his invulnerability. If the initiate flinches, the procedure is repeated. In any event, the blade leaves nary a scratch. This is another act from a repertoire of animist practice including glass eating, coal walking and so on.
One foreign aid official in Zambezia, who watched a ceremony at which more than 20 youths were “immunized,” said the machete blows by a Naparama senior were strong enough to raise the heavy thump of a sword striking flesh.
“I turned away,” he said. “I thought he was going to cut the boy’s head off.”
The magic works, Antonio reportedly tells his followers, as long as they believe it and don’t give in to fear.
In a countryside where even the military has trouble communicating with itself, the size of Naparama confounds all reliable estimation. Aid workers and others working in Zambezia province say they have heard stories of mass “vaccinations” of up to 3,000 participants at once, but others say the best figure on Antonio’s strength is probably closer to 3,000 young men overall, not counting camp followers and aspiring warriors.
As for the root of his success, some people believe Antonio may be taking advantage of the exhaustion afflicting not only Frelimo and Renamo but the population at large.
Renamo was created in the 1970s by that era’s white minority government in Rhodesia, before it became Zimbabwe, in retaliation for Mozambique’s support of Zimbabwe’s rebels. Lately, Renamo has lost the official support of its later patron, South Africa. Sources inside South Africa may be continuing to supply Renamo, but with Pretoria officially renouncing all support, there is little doubt that the guerrillas’ access to money and arms is dwindling.
The government’s army is in scarcely better shape, afflicted with a chronic logistics problem, a growing fuel crisis and inept field management.
“Both sides resemble punch-drunk heavyweights in the 15th round,” said one Western political observer in Maputo.
Most such analysts believe the war cannot be won militarily by either side. So one reason for Renamo’s hasty flight at the very sight of a ragamuffin force of Naparama warriors may be sheer fatigue and demoralization.
The mystical element of Naparama’s appeal may be effective against Renamo because in the past, Renamo’s own claims to inscrutable powers often served to subdue locals.
“Naparama is hitting them in their most vulnerable spot,” said one Western worker who has lived in Zambezia for years.
For all that, some military observers in Mozambique say there are reasons to find the Naparama phenomenon a disquieting one. Chief among them is Naparama’s role as yet a third force entering the civil war, under circumstances in which it cannot be easily controlled by any duly constituted authority.
This could be particularly dangerous in a region as remote and isolated as Zambezia, where communications lines are nearly nonexistent and logistics are nightmarishly inefficient. Western sources say Mozambican military commanders currently appreciative of Antonio’s efforts are watching closely lest he begin to try expanding his range beyond Zambezia. If that happens, he may be difficult, if not impossible, to control.
“There’s a lot of tension between him and Frelimo,” said one military observer, “because he’s another center of authority--but he is effective.”
The uncertainty of supervising any such informal force has already become spottily evident, say some Zambezia aid workers. In some places, Naparama detachments have moved on from search-and-rescue operations to organized raids on food stores.
Unanswered questions have emerged about Antonio’s goals, especially if they extend beyond his stated aim of doing God’s will in liberating the captured.
“What will happen if peace comes to Mozambique?” a local diplomat asked. “Will he form a political party? Or will he come out in support of Frelimo?”