Choosing Life 4

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When Kingdoms Clash

The "Forgotten War"

Thirty odd years on, the war is incongruously referred to as “the forgotten war” by those who know anything about it at all.  Rhodesia, once a landlocked British self-governing African colony had in 1965 refused to accept her former colonial master’s decision to hand over in a single swoop total power to rule to a group of self-absorbed, power hungry politicians in the name of achieving black majority rule. The Rhodesians wanted a gradual process of integration and  handover, but the World had other ideas and for fifteen long years, war ravaged our land. My story’s not about the politics, though.  The history is there for anyone who wants to take the time to read it[1]. My narrative is about war and the way that it affects the people who take part in it. 


Belingwe, Rhodesia, 1976

My first brush with war’s grim reality occurs early one evening. I am driving a police Land Rover along a track in the Belingwe Tribal Trust Land.  Drawn by the sound of the approaching vehicle, an old village headman is waiting by the track. I stop and he speaks in animated Ndebele to Ncube, my constable, who rapidly translates into English. There are two makandangas (terrorists) in a hut in his kraal (village). He thinks they are dead or injured, but he is too afraid to look. The reality began to dawn on me.  The war is real. 

Not that I ever thought otherwise, it had been going on for years. But for me this is the moment of truth.  All the training, some of it brutal, some fascinating; the long hours of PT designed to convert young bodies into hard muscle; learning to operate an impressive array of different weapons - from antiquated Greener shotguns to sub and machine guns; explosives, grenades and other things that go thump in the night; charging straw mannequins and screaming abuse at them whilst repeatedly savaging them with bayonet fixed rifles. We actually did that, a hangover from military training in distant times past.  Then there had been the bushcraft, surviving off the land, anti-ambush drill, twin-section attacks with live ammunition requiring the static group to focus hard on moving their line of fire to avoid killing their own side; so much training.

The ‘front’ which until recently has been confined to the north east has been vastly extended. Portugal’s President Salazar has been deposed in a bloodless coup and the Portuguese have pulled out of Mozambique. The line of incursion that once consisted of Rhodesia’s border with Zambia has been extended by hundreds of kilometres along the length of her eastern border with Mozambique.

The Rhodesians with combined military forces of less than twenty-five thousand men and women (about eighty percent black volunteers) face three thousand, two hundred kilometres of hostile border. Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army), previously based in Lusaka, Zambia, has been booted out by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda after continued inter faction squabbling and is operating from Mozambique, supported mainly by China. Joshua Nkomo’s USSR backed ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army) continues to operate across the Zambezi River on the north.

In Belingwe, as in many other areas, both of these military wings are now in full operation. We do not mind a bit that whenever they encounter each other a bitter fight breaks out, the century old enmity between these ethnic groups more important than mutual cooperation aimed at murdering the country's white population. After the war in the early years of Zimbabwe’s independence, Mugabe will go on to annihilate countless thousands of Matabele men, women and children to settle this old score on the pretext of maintaining security[2];   and the rest of the world will remain astonishingly silent when this information at last becomes public. But on the ground in 1976, Ncube and I face unknown odds but an opposition that undoubtedly includes one or more deadly, fast-firing RPD machine guns and an RPG-7 (rocket propelled grenade launcher); just two men and a Land Rover.  True, we had our automatic assault rifles, but we lacked combat experience. 

Still, we have to act. Ncube asks the old man to point out the hut in which the kandagas are. The headman points to one and we ask him to take cover while we investigate.  In seconds he disappears into thin air. This is not his fight, besides which he is unarmed. Ncube and I spread out and carefully scan in every direction.  Sensing a trap, an ambush, we know that any mistake can cost us our lives.  Almost every day, the Rhodesian Broadcasting Service announces with regret the death of one or more members of the security forces.  With chameleon caution we move towards the hut, not directly, but circuitously, from tree to tree, trying to maintain whatever sparse cover offers itself.

Arriving unscathed at the door, I motion to Ncube to cover me, like they do in police movies.  Then I do what only a greenhorn would.  In the months and years ahead, wild horses will not  induce me to kick in a door opposite which there might be an entire horde of AK-47-toting men and a withering hail of fire.  But today, I get away with it.  There, in the dim light of the hut, is a sight I hope never to see again.  The first thing that strikes me is the impeccable state of their ZIPRA uniforms.  Pressed and in parade-ground order, this almost sartorial display is hopelessly incongruous in that setting. The two boys are part-seated, part-slumped against the wall. Their eyes are open, and staring, the look of horror fixed to the moment in time they had died.  It dawns on me: they are no more than eighteen years old, possibly younger. Their Kalishnakov rifles are propped up a short distance away, but not within hand reach. I wonder if this was a fatal error.  The two bullet holes in each of their chests have bled surprisingly little.  One or both bullets have each found their mark, two young pulsating hearts instantly silenced forever.

It is a shocking site. Technically these boys are the enemy, to be shot down on site unless, of course, they surrender.  But even those who surrender or who survive wounds face the hangman’s noose.  The law does not regard them as protagonists, members of a legitimate army. But the death of these two boys strikes me deeply.  They should be in school, studying for their A-levels, not slumped dead in this gloomy hut.  

I need to find out what happened.  These boys have not been killed by our side.  There are no other Rhodesian forces in the area;  Ncube and I are the whole army there for this moment.  Besides, our forces would never have left the two AK-47s behind. I summon the old amaduna.  He appears with trepidation. I’m not sure if it is us or the executioner’s squad that he is most afraid of. But he seems to realise that we mean him no harm and we piece the story together. 

The  boys, like so many other youths, had been abducted from their homes and taken out of the country for military training as 'freedom fighters'.  Months later, they had returned.  But these two didn’t have their hearts in it. They did not want to fight for freedom.  They just wanted to go home to their parents. And so they had deserted and taken refuge in this village. But the terror network has done its job.  The local political commissar has tracked them here.  They must have been terrified by his arrival but they don't expect what happens next: a double-tap to the chest at point blank range. This is totally consistent with the shocked surprise on their dead faces.  It occurs to me that they must have known that he was coming.  They were waiting for him, their uniforms immaculate, ready to take their punishment like men, but not knowing what what an irreversible fait awaited them. 

The British, it is said, did something similar in the trenches of World War I.  Those hapless boys and men too terrified to go over the top were court marshalled and executed by firing squad or even shot in the back by their own officers .455 Webley revolvers. The charge: ‘LMF’ lacking moral fibre. Thirty-odd years on I sometimes still see the faces of those two boys at night, dark and haunting, and it reminds me that war is never justified, the ends, according to the tenets of men, always justify the means.

Over the following months and years all of us involved in that conflict will see so many terrible sights. Civilian buses that have hit boosted Russian TM 46 landmines are one of the worst. The mine’s 5.7 kilograms of TNT is bad enough on its own. But with a large box of first grade TNT underneath, the blast is hugely magnified. The bus’s aluminum body above the blast site simply converts to thousands of deadly shards of shrapnel. You don’t want to hear about what the passengers seated anywhere near that area look like.  Of course, the mines are not intended for civilian buses. They’re meant for us and sometimes they find their mark (as the picture to the right demonstrates). But collateral damage never worries the guerrillas.


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[1] Here are a few links to sites which describe the politics and events that took place all those years ago:

The following site offers some amazing photographs of the period: