Burnt alive at Mkushi Camp
THE following is the second excerpt from the biography of Group Captain Sithabile Sibanda, aka Cde Ntombiyezizweni Mhlanga, as researched and written by Tjenesani Ntungakwa and titled “Fighting for my country, a woman’s choice: The unspoken story of the ZIPRAWomen’sBrigade”.GroupCaptSibanda hasbeenawardedtheLiberationMedal(1990), IndependenceMedal,MozambiqueCampaign Medal (1991), 10 Years Service in the Air Force (2000), Long and Exemplary Medal after 15 years of service in the AFZ (2005), Sadc Medal oftheDRCCampaign(2008),theUnitedNations Medal (2008) after serving in the Sudan under the United Nations Mission in Sudan.
THEY intended to confuse us like blind mice and finish the rest of the multitudes of ZPRA women.
I was not certain if there would be a way out. Anyway, I was still convinced that somewhere somehow, God would not sit and watch us perish.
Innotime,thecookingfacilitieswereshredded by bomb splinters and we had to find an alternative haven. Together with Charity Ndiweni, we headed for the tributary of Mkushi River. In fact, Charity was the one who suggested we take chances. It was not given that we would survive. I thought twice and hesitated. Charity was joined by Consider Toyi Toyi and went into a hidden depression. They survived by default because the gunshots and grenade fragments injuredtheirlegsbutleftthemalive.Thecasualtieshadbeguntomount.TheRhodesianswere bayingforourblood.Theydroppednapalm.It was in the form of a porridge-like paste which burnttheskin,andwasmorereactiveinwater, making it difficult for us to run into the river. It lit up the trees and was fuelled by the wind that blew across the open spaces.
Hell had arrived on Earth via Rhodesian intransigence against our efforts to set Zimbabwe free. Many of my comrades burned alive as they fled the wrath of Ian Smith’s dogs of war. As a result of the vegetation burning, there was no camouflage left.
One of my companions, Chiratidzo Iris Mabuwa, commented about the fiasco which unfolded at Mkushi.
“They had a bomb which was very unusual.Itlookedlikeacone-shapedrubberobject with a height that could have measured up to a metre. It bounced up and down, taking time to explode. To make matters worse, the piece of armament sounded like a whistle and inflicted some psychological damage on us. It was frightening”.
I crossed the Mkushi tributary and waded towardsananthill.SomehowIwastemporarilyblessedinthesensethatmymovementhad been in the opposite direction into which the jets flew. Training taught us that one had to go against the flight path of bombers; not along theirnoseline.Inthatway,thepilotswouldnot easily spot what was under their jets.
They had flown in from the East and I decided to go Westwards. Such an outcome gave me a bit of breathing space, but again, there was still a long way to go before safety was assured. From my position, I observed Rhodesian paratroopers being dropped to finish us off.
They were so clear in my sight, heavily haired white soldiers and black troops who were armed with what must have been Nato machine guns, flare launchers and FN and G3 Rifles. They wanted to ensure that even our bones would not be left to tell the full account of Mkushi, and bury the Zpra Women’s Brigade in shallow graves of history.
Inearnest,bombardmenthadstartedbythe kitchens at around 11:00 am. It was an attacking norm of the Rhodesians to begin by hitting where everybody congregated for food. Even at Freedom Camp, as we were given the accountsmuchlater,theRhodesianshadbaptised the eating facilities with bomb-fire. They knewmostofuscrowdedthereinanticipation of being fed after the earlier part of training exercisesandwouldhavebeenrestlessbecause of hunger.
There was fire and smoke everywhere, and the natural undergrowth turned black with soot.
It was like the re-enactment of Sodom and Gomorrah! I kept climbing so as to avoid the heatthatcouldhaveeatenintomyboots.There I met Melfina and Hluphekani who had been responsibleforsecurityatMkushi.Thethreeof us held onto the top of one of the anthills until dark. We had no plan in mind. The Rhodesians even hoisted their flag to spite us.
At nightfall, we deliberated on our next move. We came down and began to walk in a single file.
Theadvantageofsuchaformationwasthat it would have been easier to tell had there be any planted explosives. If the first person survived after stepping on a particular point, it was guaranteed that the path was safe. In the event of an ambush, it would have been easier for us to make our way out of firing. Our hearts pounded like sledge hammers, but we had no choice except to keep going. As we got down, some gunfire cracked and we leapt for ourlives.JustclosetothewatersofMkushi,we bumped into Ossie and Florence Sikhumba holding onto to some roots by the river bank.
From there, we saw some Aborigines who were serving in the Rhodesian Army having landedahelicopternearthekitchen. Wecould tell they were Aborigines by their noses.
The general practice in the British Empire was to hire indigenes of their colonies and conscript them into the state’s military service. Such had been the case when the British drafted the Gurkhas of Nepal during the Falklands War of the 80s against Argentina.
We proceeded, unsure of where we were going. It became necessary that we went further along the shores of Mkushi. The smell of corpses was everywhere, worse within the campsite where the casualty figure had been very high. On that day, the darkness was unusual and we dragged ourselves onwards.
Suddenly, we heard a faint scream from the bushes.Aswedrewcloser,therewasoneofour girls who had fallen victim of Napalm. Her body had been opened up by the burns, leaving the muscles dangling like a skinned buck. We took turns to carry her on our backs. One of her legs had been torn open and the bones protruded like white staffs.
She had lost a lot of blood and could hardly hold on. Mksuhi River roared to its fullness andwewouldnothavemadeourwaythrough its waves. Then we were four: Ossie, Malfin, Sikhumba and I. The spotter planes made our confused journey difficult. The aircraft engines made a lot of noise whilst the soldiers firedflaressoastoexposeanyamongourselves who were in hiding.
Our movement continued until dawn at whichwedecidedtoleavethehelplesscomrade in some kind of ravine. She had become too weak to hold on and it was no longer wise to take her with us. Thus it was prudent that we gave her our last words. We made her realise that it had become dangerous for us to continue with her. I made it clear that she had the optionofjumpingintotheriverandleaveitfor herfatetodecide.Itmighthavebeenunfair,but we had been honest with her. We got to some pointwherewedecidedtorestandthere,aflare shotuplightingthewholebushveldt,exposing anything that lived and moved. It was by sheer luck that we sneaked out. Hluphekani was the only one among us armed with an AK47 and had just one extra magazineathand.MySemenovhadbeenlost during the commotion at Mkushi. All in all, we must have covered about 40km on foot from Mkushi. As the sun came out, we began to feel much safer and spotted one homestead at which some Zambians lived.
We agreed among ourselves that not all of us could go there in case the Rhodesians had deployed their units within the surroundings. It was agreed that Hluphekani had to go and findoutifwecouldgethelp.Theideawassuch that if one person were to die, the rest of the groupwouldsurvive.Bytheway,Hluphekhani was a man even though he had been assigned to our Brigade.
He took his AK onto the hip position and carefully approached the tin-roof houses of the Zambians. He came back and assured that it was safe for us to go there. The Zambian family we came across was kind to us, and offered us some Mahewu to quench our thirst. We were told about a gathering point to which we had to go.
For the unfamiliar reader on the history of guerilla warfare, a gathering point, generally referredtoasa“GP”,meantsomekindofdesignatedsafetyzoneafterabattle.Whenwegotto the GP, some of our commanders, like Mhoto, hadalreadyarrived.Therewasasizeablegroup of survivors who were visibly shaken by what had happened at Mkushi.
It was a disused school with dilapidated buildings. That was when I realised that the four of us must have taken the longest route to the place. As a cadre trained by the nationalist Zimbabwe African People’s Union, I had to be open with my comrades. There was no choiceotherthantellingMhotothatwehadleft one of us in agony on our way from Mkushi. Mhoto got charged and insisted that in Zapu, the rule was not to leave any comrade dying in the jungle.
With five others, we were assigned to go and fetch the injured young woman. I almost fainted,buthadtobestrongbecauseoftheoath thatwehadsworninZapu.Ithademphasised loyaltytotheparty,theMotherland,leadership and people of Zimbabwe.
I led the pack and retraced our spoor to where we had left the girl. She was still there, moaningforherlifewithnoideaofwhatcould havehappenedlater.Wetookherwithusback to the gathering point and my conscience was free, meaning my duty in Zapu had been accomplished. Unfortunately, I never got to know her name.
ItsohappenedthatonedayafterIndependence in 1980, she recognised me in Bulawayo and quickly reminded me that I had been the one who rescued her after the Mkushi bombing of October 1978. I was taken aback; shelookedsofitandtoldmeofhersubsequent treatmentintheGermanDemocraticRepublic, formerly East Germany. We never met again. From the GP, we had to begin another long walk to a farm at Kafue which belonged to Aaron Milner. Milner had been the Zambian Home Affairs Minister during the 70s and was considered a darling of President Kaunda. As a matter of detail, Milner was a Zimbabwean who had joined Kaunda’s United Independence Party in the early 60s and rose tobearespectableministeroftheUnipgovernment. When the Nationalist struggle began, it brought together “some like-minded forces” in Central and Southern Africa.
It ought to be remembered that the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland had activated a serious interactive processes among Africans to reject the colonial federal system of governance imposed by Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy and some other European countries on their imperial colonies in Africa.Infact,someZambiantradeunionists, thelikesofDicksonNkokolawhoworkedwith other such characters as Aron Ndabambi and Aron Ndlovu, were active in assisting the first Nationalist organisation in Zimbabwe, the Southern Africa African National Congress to take off.
By the way, it was Aron Ndabambi, born in 1911, who worked for the Rhodesia Railway AfricanWelfareSocietywhenJoshuaNkomo joined the organisation in about 1948. Thus when Milner left Southern Rhodesia for Northern Rhodesia, it was normal in the politics of those days.
ItwasaftertheIndependenceofZimbabwe in 1980 that Milner relocated to Zimbabwe. We took some days to Kafue. Finally, we got there, weary and wasted like desert stowaways. Apparently, Aaron Milner had offered the sanctuary to Nkomo, one of his trusted friends.
Among the first ones to address us was Zpra’sDeputyChiefofOperations,TjileNleya, whose pseudonym was Ben Mathe. Mathe was also widely known within Zpra circles as “Dhubu”. “Dubhu” had a deep meaning in Kalanga. Itreferredtothetraditionalloinclothswhich African men wore to cover themselves below the waist. Dhubhu explained to us that what had happened at Mkushi was probably the work of some Rhodesian informers who had found their way into Zapu.
I was not worried because after any defeat, there was a tendency to witch-hunt from within.
We were alive and for me that was more important than anything else.
Myassessmentofthesituationwassuchthat theRhodesianshadbeenthoroughlyreconnoitringMkushiforageswithoutourknowledge. Theymighthavecarriedoutsuchamissionby air, ground or both.
I remembered the stories we used to hear from sentry guards of what sounded like the shuffling of boots just outside the perimeters of Mkushi at night.
In my opinion, such reports had not been taken seriously, and that sort of information could have been helpful. To be blunt, the situation left us more vulnerable to Rhodesian air-raids.
There was a day when we paraded at the square and a huge helicopter hovered above.
Out of ignorance, we thought it could have been Joshua Nkomo.
Out of excitement, we waved at the flying machine, which later disappeared into the skies. My colleague-in-arms, Chiratidzo Iris Mabuwa, had her perception of the matter during the writing of this book.
She stuck to her conclusion concerning the bombing of Mkushi, “We were observed from the air. The Rhodesians must have even drawn a map of the camp and knew exactly where to hit.”
Explained differently, others insisted that there might have been some sellouts among us,somethingItooktimetobelieve.Assuming it had happened that way, it was not unusual in a normal war.