An alarming picture of political tension in Mozambique—a country whose government has been widely praised by the international donor community—has emerged in a report produced jointly by religious bodies and human rights campaigners.

The hard-hitting report, published last month, contains the first eyewitness accounts of last year's ''black November'' when street violence broke out in the north of the country and the police suffocated at least 88 people who had been rounded up for allegedly supporting the opposition.

The report is the result of unprecedented cooperation between the Christian Council of Mozambique, headed by Anglican bishop Alfonso Sengulane, and the country's Islamic Council, its bar association and the Mozambican Human Rights League. (About 30 percent of Mozambique's 19 million citizens are Christian and 10 percent are Muslim. About 60 percent follow traditional African beliefs.)

In 1992, Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony neighboring South Africa, ended 17 years of civil strife, fomented by the Cold War powers, between the Resistencia Nacional Mocambicana (Renamo) and the Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique (Frelimo). Frelimo has twice won elections and currently holds power.

But the most recent election, in 1999, was close-run and Renamo, which is strong in the impoverished north of the country, refused to accept the result.

President Joaquim Chissano is widely praised by donors for converting from Marxism to free-market policies which in 1999 made Mozambique the world's fastest growing economy. However, Renamo claims all the benefits are concentrated in the south of the country.

Renamo's leader, Afonso Dhlakama called for demonstrations in several provinces on November 8 last year. After the protests were authorized and then, apparently, banned by the authorities, 35 people died in clashes in which police used live ammunition, the report says. In Montepuez, in Cabo Delgado Province, the protest was particularly violent, and about 500 Renamo supporters attacked the district administration, police command, and jail in order to release prisoners.

On November 18 Montepuez police retaliated, rounding up dozens of people and suffocating them to death in a cell in police headquarters over a period of three days.

The report's authors, who traveled to the scene and interviewed survivors and police, said the cell measured seven meters by three meters. Designed for nine prisoners, the cell at one point was stuffed with 133 men who were given no food or water.

''I had six people die around me. You could feel their bodies go cold, but it was impossible to move,'' one survivor told the authors of the report. ''We worked out a special way to sit, with our legs wrapped around each other."

''On the first day there were seven deaths in the cell. When they took out the bodies, they also took one man to hospital whom they later brought back, and he died,'' another survivor said. ''Then the police commander came and ordered his men to close all the shutters to prevent any air from coming in. It was 40 degrees outside, anyway. By the end of the second day, more than 80 people were dead. The police took the bodies and put them in a mass grave."

The casualty figures are unclear. The report puts the death toll from the suffocation at 119. At the end of the third day, only 13people were alive in the cell.

Human Rights League president, Maria Alice Mabota, said on behalf of the report's authors that the events typified ''barbaric and anarchistic acts across our country which threaten to escalate into generalized social tension."

As a result of the outrage over ''black November'', President Chissano, with the blessing of Dhlakama, has appointed a working party which will report its findings to Mozambique's parliament on March 15.

Related Elsewhere

The Christian Council of Mozambique is involved in many ecumenical councils, as well as continued flood relief efforts.

The International League for Human Rights hasn't updated its Africa pages since 1998.

The U.S. State Department's 2000 report on Mozambique fails to mention of any incidents like "black November", but the 1998 State Department report speaks of "numerous police abuses, including extrajudicial killings, excessive use of force, torture and other abuse."

Read the original media reports of the prison deaths last November from CNN and AllAfrica.

Previous Christianity Today stories on Mozambique include:

Prison Ministry in Mozambique | Missionary says women suffer grave injustices. (Aug. 4, 2000)
Now You Must Forgive Mozambique its Debts, Methodist Bishop Tells West | Economic situation 'has gone from precarious to catastrophic' after flooding. (March 13, 2000)
World Relief Continues Rescues in Mozambique, Commits to Rebuilding Region | (Feb. 28, 2000)
Swapping Guns for Sewing Machines | (May 19, 1997)