Nduduzo Tshuma, Political Editor
OFTEN times when the liberation war story is told, rarely is there mention of instances where civilians cowered in fear as they were caught up in a hail of bullets from opposing forces and the vulnerable position they found themselves in where death would have been as sudden as the sound of the gun shot.
There has also been little narration of the consequences women suffered for either cooking for guerrillas engaged in the protracted armed battle with the white minority rulers before Independence or being linked to the same guerrillas.
Thirty eight years after the 1979 battle of Chenemisa in Hwange, four women recounted to the Chronicle the horror they went through on the day they were caught in between a fight between Zipra and the Rhodesian forces comprised of the Police Anti Terrorism Unity (PATU) the Police Special Brach and the Rhodesian army.
The women, were part of the PF Zapu youth charged with cooking for guerrillas at a homestead situated a few metres from where the guerrillas battled with the Rhodesian soldiers.
It is the same Chenemisa battle where one Sambulo, a member of PATU who had gained notoriety among the Jambezi community for brutally torturing villagers working with liberation fighters met his death.
But before the poignant memory of the battle by the four women, below is an account on how the battle started from former Zipra Sector Commander in Zone Number 1 Cde Davison Ndlovu.
And further, in their words as they recount the horror of being caught up in an armed battle.
It was June 1979, I remember it vividly because the trees were beginning to shed leaves. Our unit was coming from Mlonga with the Rhodesian soldiers on our trail. We didn’t have enough ammunition to fight them as we were coming from Botswana to receive supplies from Zambia but because of complications, we couldn’t get the supplies. That is the reason we didn’t fight.
We continued until we reached Mbizha in an area called Ko Mpesu when we decided that if they kept on following us, we will fight them despite shortages of ammunition. By nightfall, we had received intelligence that the Rhodesian Forces were planning an attack in the morning. We had our youths who used to spy on the Rhodesians and we deployed two on a spying mission. However, when they got there, they were captured by the Rhodesian soldiers.
As they made their way to attack us, one of the youths managed to escape and alerted us that the enemy was on its way.
We moved about 500 metres from where we had been camped to set up an ambush on higher ground so that we could spot the enemy forces as they approached.
We lined up with the Bazooka man on the far end because the arrangement was that he would be the first to fire and that would signal the start of the battle. We saw their large unit approaching us in a battle formation and the escaped youth pointed Sambulo out to us saying he should be the main target as he was terrorising villagers in the area.
We watched them approach us and waited for them to get within shooting range and our Bazooka man fired at them. That was to signal the start of an onslaught on the enemy forces and a serious gun battle ensued. We were at a point of advantage so we didn’t have a problem shooting them but those people were prepared because within minutes, we heard the spotter plane coming and then we started withdrawing and within a few minutes two helicopters were also on the scene.
After the shoot out we heard that Sambulo had died on the spot and another notorious man called Nyathi had been shot. We had to withdraw with a number of civilians that we wanted to move from the area.
A lot of civilians were caught up in the battle. There was a homestead where youths cooked for freedom fighters and the previous night a beast had been slaughtered so there were many people. Our task became more difficult because as we fought the enemy, we had also to defend the civilians caught up in the middle of the battle because our Commander in Chief and PF Zapu leader (the late) Dr Joshua Nkomo was very clear that no civilians should be killed during the war but this time we were in a tricky position because the civilians were caught up right in the middle of the war. Dr Nkomo didn’t want us to endanger civilians but the situation had become so bad that we had to fight at the same time defending the civilians.
And the Four Women
Regina Ncube (62)
I was chairperson of the PF Zapu youth in the area and when the battle occurred, we had cooked for a lot of people the previous night and retired to our homes very late. The homestead we used to cook from, a few metres from the battle area, belonged to an old blind woman who lived with her grandchildren. We returned to the homestead in the morning as we used to do.
When we heard that the enemy was coming to attack, we hid our pots so that they would not destroy them. When we were told that they were inching closer, we left the homestead to hide but it later turned out that we hid too close to the battle zone. The fighting was intense and it still haunts me today.
We left the old woman in one of the huts as we fled and she stayed a week without anyone giving her food because we fled from the homesteads to live in the bush. One of the grandchildren was taken by Cde Ndlovu and hidden in the bushes. He survived the battle and now lives in Victoria Falls. There were children who died in the battle, I remember two, belonging to our colleagues in the youth, who were born in 1978, died from choking by smoke during the battle. As we ran, we took turns to carry them and place their faces in our armpits to protect them from the smoke but they didn’t make it. The whites in the helicopters were shooting indiscriminately at everyone, guerilla and civilian and some of our youths also died on the scene. I have heard some excited people say they want war and I really wonder if they know what they are talking about because our experience was painful and we don’t want to ever go back there. Some say these whites are nice people but what we went through was hell and I really don’t see anything nice about them.
Muzina Ncube (60)
On the day of Sambulo’s death who was a real terror here, when you were arrested and Sambulo came, you knew that you were in serious trouble. The youths told us that the whites were on their way because we had been sold out by a fellow villager. The freedom fighters said it was too late to escape as we would be killed by the white soldiers. They made an L formation in their ambush and told us to lie behind them and when we hear the bazooka man firing, we should roll downhill in the opposite direction. It is when the helicopters came that we ran in different directions, some children died because of smoke inhalation. It wasn’t a good day and we spent weeks away from our homesteads. My blood boils as I remember that day because the pain we went through on that day comes rushing back.
Rebecca Ncube (59)
What I saw on that day still raises goose bumps on my skin to this day. I’m still haunted by that day of smoke, bombs, guns and instant death raining from the sky. Earlier in the day, we were enjoying ourselves but things changed when we heard that the white army was approaching. The freedom fighters didn’t seem moved but some of us were so scared that we could have soiled ourselves. In terror, during the exchange of gunfire, I tried to rise but one guerilla pressed his knee on my back so that I remained on the ground. He said he was not going to let me run and be shot to death. The gunfire was so intense that it was really confusing to tell where it was coming from. There was panic everywhere.
Samukeliso Mnkandla (53)
I was one of the youngest in the group and after the gun battle, the freedom fighters told us to flee as the helicopters approached. We ran in panic and terror, falling along the way and getting bruised but little did we know that we were headed in the direction of the helicopters. We crossed two deep rivers.
As we approached the third, a group of guerrillas emerged from the shadows. Gunfire erupted from helicopters that suddenly loomed in the sky. The freedom fighters —God bless them — kept their cool and directed scores of us to relative safety at the banks where we were briefly shielded from the murderous rain of bullets. It became an exercise in quick intervals of running, ducking, hiding, serious injury and death. The helicopters and the spotter plane were firing all over but we managed to cross the river and hid in the bushes.
The terror was not the last for Muzina and Rebecca as they were picked up by the Rhodesian police and taken to Jambezi and then Victoria Falls where they were systematically tortured.
“There were some villagers who were in the habit of selling out others to the Rhodesian forces. We were taken and beaten up in Victoria Falls by the police and tortured through electric shock. Our crime was cooking for guerrillas and that our husbands had gone to join the war via Botswana,” said Muzina.
“The police were so ruthless that at one point a white one pointed a gun at us and told us he could just shoot us dead on the spot. After our torture, we were forced to walk back home using a route that was planted with land mines. Every step we took could have easily been our last but through the Grace of God we managed to survive and made it home,” she said.