Security Madness in Mozambique

April 7, 2012

in Airport Stories

The first time I went to Mozambique I was en route from Swaziland to Zimbabwe and had a whole day’s layover in Maputo Airport. I was restricted to the un-airconditioned departure lounge for eight hot humid hours; I didn’t even have a book to read. At 4:00pm I wandered through the airport terminal when something caught my eye. For no apparent reason I took a picture of it – snap/flash. Oh Lord, WHO told me to do that? Within seconds I was surrounded by a clutch of security personnel all shouting simultaneously:

“Prohibidoj! Prohibidoj!”

Which didn’t take too much to figure out meant: prohibited!

What the hell was I thinking? This was Mozambique, a country that just 5 years ago had emerged from a decades-long civil war, where the airport was still considered a strategic military area. Half a dozen security goons crowded around me, none in uniform, all of them vying to claim the scalp. When they started tugging at my camera – that was going too far. This was before digital cameras and I had just taken some great pictures of Victoria Falls and there was no way in hell I was going to thrust my precious Nikon into their grasping hands. I hauled out my Laisser-Passer and shouted above the din in my bastard Portuguese:

“Naciones Unidas! UN! Obrigado, but Diplomatic immunity, comprendo?”

All to no avail; none of them had heard of the UN! One of them took me aside and nominated himself as my translator – my “friend.” He explained: I was under arrest! This was ridiculous; there wasn’t any sign saying do not take photographs, and if there was it was in Portuguese! The Mozambican police force deservedly had a reputation for inflicting all sorts of scams on unsuspecting foreigners to extract cash “fines,” and this had all the hallmarks of such a sting. It didn’t take long for the over-zealous officers to show their hand; my new-found “friend” took me aside and whispered:

“Er, senhor, perhaps the government of Mozambique could be persuaded to take a lenient view of your crime, if you perhaps…. pay the penalty?”

I whispered back: “With the greatest respect, you can all fuck right off; sorry about taking a picture in your wonderful airport, but I am not paying a cent!” Or words to that effect. They conferred; clearly this wasn’t going according to plan, I wasn’t playing ball by insisting on being arrested instead of coughing up. This at the end of a three week road trip and I was running short of hard cash; and in any case there was no way on God’s earth I was going to hand over a cent to these thieving bastards. Go ahead; arrest me! Which they did; surrounded by six security men I was frogmarched out of the terminal and up a flight of stairs into the administration building. I was paraded before a uniformed officer who was clearly senior to the goons who had nabbed me downstairs. But he too spoke no English and had never heard of the United Nations. There then followed this pantomime where I was taken higher and higher up the airport building, through higher and higher levels of security; until we got to the top floor, where finally I met an officer who spoke English. After hearing the explanations of his underlings, he turned to me.

“Senhor, you know this is a very serious matter, taking a photograph within a restricted military area. I appreciate your semi-diplomatic status, but nevertheless you did break the law.”

Despite his stern words I saw a human look in his eyes. I profusely apologized for my mistake, explaining that I did not speak Portuguese and had made an honest mistake. He asked where I was from and I said Jamaica (no one in Africa has ever heard of Grenada, and Jamaica opens all sorts of doors). He said he had been there once to attend a Commonwealth security conference; we chatted about the places in Jamaica he had visited and how much he liked the Jamaican people. After a few minutes he sent me on my way with no more than a flea in my ear. As we descended the building I watched with satisfaction as word filtered down: the boss let him go – without paying anything! By the time we got down to the gate my Air Zimbabwe flight was waiting for me, having been told to wait due to a “security situation.”

There was one small problem: although the airport police had physical control over my body, they did not have control of my passport; that was still in the hands of Immigration. Who, evidently, were in no mind to give it up. With my rudimentary Portuguese I heard the Immigration officer who was holding my passport say to the policeman: we don’t care what your boss says, the airport is our area as well; we saw him take a picture: he’s ours!

Oh God! By this time the stewardess was standing at the door of the plane waving her hands: come now – or stay! I looked the Immigration officer in the eye, put my hand on my passport, smiled then softly but firmly pulled it from his fingers. Still smiling I said obrigado, put my hands in the air and slowly walked to the plane – very slowly! PS they were all armed to the teeth. I could feel eyes boring into the back of my head – better eyes than bullets! Goodbye Mozambique, the next time I would return I had more trouble with men in uniform, but that’s another story altogether.

– Brian
My Facebook page: Island Boats Grenada

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

paul April 7, 2012 at 6:15 pm

You returned?……….
I wouldn't of set foot in that country again…………….


mick November 10, 2012 at 4:18 am

hmmmm…not sure I believe this story….


Mike727 June 5, 2013 at 3:01 pm

I know where Grenada is, my dad got shot at by Cuban Army Regulars who weren't supposed to be there at the Point Salinas Airfield.


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