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.

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