2nd Chimurenga Chronicles: Chimoio massacre: I did what I had to do
Thousands of Zimbabweans were killed at Chimoio

2nd Chimurenga Chronicles: Chimoio massacre: I did what I had to do

Last week, Cde Midson Gomba Mupasu whose Chimurenga name was Cde Norman Bethune narrated how, as Commander at Chimoio camp prepared for the attack of this camp by the racist Ian Smith regime in 1977. He went on to narrate how the attack happened on this dark day.
We continue this interview this week with Cde Bethune standing his ground that despite the warning of the impending attack by the spirit mediums, he didn’t see it necessary to abandon the camp altogether. Our team comprising Munyaradzi Huni and Tendai Manzvanzvike takes him to task, but like a true commander Cde Bethune speaks with brutal honesty. “I am not trying to please anyone here zvigondipei? Peopled died. My comrades died. This is the truth, take it or leave it,” he declares.
Read on …

Cde Bethune
Cde Bethune

SM: Now Cde Bethune, you spoke about having anti-airs, what happened to them during this attack?

Cde Bethune: They were all destroyed. They knew where they were and they destroyed them. Later we got to know that that spotter plane was the one that was taking daily aerial photos. The Rhodesians later revealed this and its in some of their books.
They said they used the aerial photos taken by that supposed Red Cross plane. That’s why they were very accurate with their bombings.
SM: Kumasvikiro, was their base attacked? Did they survive?
Cde Bethune: They all survived with their crew. Vakabudawo nenzira yavakabuda nayo.

SM: What really haunts you from that massacre?

Cde Bethune: The fact that from my position, I could hear comrades crying, I could hear some comrades shouting. The cries and shouts continued for a long time. I couldn’t do anything.

SM: Do you think there was a way you could have saved people from this massacre?

Cde Bethune: If only people had listened to me, I don’t think many people would have died. Like I told you, like kuNehanda ndakatosvika while some were still asleep. Many people died there. They woke up in the confusion. I think from Nehanda to HQ it took me 10 or so minutes. I don’t think many had woken up and things happened just too fast.
I think I also survived because I was out of the house already because one of the bombs destroyed that house. I still had my gun but this was not the time yakuiridza.
You see, comrade ukarohwa nefragment yebomb, inoita kunge bullet. Unowira pasi. Bomb rinorova pasi then the fragments anosimuka going in different directions.

SM: So after the bombing what did the Rhodesians do?

Cde Bethune: They briefed whoever was their commander while standing at our HQ. After this we started seeing the helicopters flying back to Grand Reef in Rhodesia. One of the helicopters actually landed at the camp. It was almost five hours of non-stop bombardment and shooting.
I think around 4:30pm to 5pm, when there was silence now, that’s when patakabuda mugomba with that female comrade I spoke about. It was now very quiet and there was no movement around the camp.

SM: Those instructors and those who were on training did they manage to fight back as you had planned?

Cde Bethune: They were caught unawares and they couldn’t do anything. Only a few tried to fire back but the firepower was just too much. Some comrades from Percy Ntini base shot some Rhodesian soldiers.

SM: So around 4:30pm to 5pm you decided to get out of your position?

Cde Bethune: We started walking towards Chimoio hospital because I knew many comrades who had survived had gone to Chimoio town. When I got there I saw many comrades there.
This female comrade I helped is still alive. She comes from Chipinge. I can’t really remember her name. She stays in Chitungwiza. Mutsuku and mupfupi. She walked all the way in her pants and bra. Ndiani aiti haana kupfeka? Akatozopihwa hembe tasvika kuChimoio.
But I saw bodies scattered all over as I walked past the camp. My dead comrades. Some matumbu ese ava panze. The scene was horrific.

SM: Tell us what you saw when you got to Chimoio?

Cde Bethune: I saw my comrades shivering with fear, narrating kuti comrade so and so was killed, comrade so and so was injured. It was horror. I was taken to Chimoio hospital. From there I was transferred to Beira Hospital where I got my X ray taken. Ndakaitwa six stitches pakapinda nemafragments. The doctors tried to remove the fragment between my ribs but they discovered it was life threatening.
I was later taken to Tanzania where I received further treatment from some Chinese doctors. They also said don’t remove this fragment. You won’t survive. Saka ndogara with that fragment in my body. When the weather changes, the pain can be unbearable.

SM: So the clearing of bodies was done when?

Cde Bethune: It was done on the third day after the attack because on the second day, kwakauya a group led by Cde Gibson Mashingaidze and the late Cde Agnew Kambeu.
Cde Mashingaidze had a group of trained comrades who were supposed to be deployed to the war front coming from Tanzania. They were at Mabanana base. So these comrades, including ana comrade Murehwa who survived the attack, came together and went to Chimoio camp. They had to do this in a very strategic way fearing surprise attacks from Rhodesian forces. They were also suspecting that the Rhodesians could have planted grenades and so on.
And true to their suspicion, the Rhodesians had poisoned the food that was in our store room. They also poisoned all our drugs.
When I think about what happened at Chimoio this day, my heart bleeds because kune macomrades aibika naCde Chombo, three female comrades, vakatorwa vakaiswa mudrum remvura yavakanga vaisa pamoto kuti ishandiswe, boiling water. That pains me up to this day. That drum is still there at Chimoio.
On November 23 1977, it was extremely hot, that’s why many bodies were found in a state of decomposition a few days later. Macomrades angu akanga ava kuora. (Pause)
What pains me even more is that during the burial of these comrades, one of my comrades, Cde Chikavangwena his body was never found. I think he was captured and taken to Rhodesia.
SM: When this attack happened, approximately how many people were staying at Chimoio camp?
Cde Bethune: I think in all there were 6 000 plus people and I think around 3 000 died. Almost half the camp was wiped out.
I know that pama graves aripo, there are about 22 mass graves. The biggest mass grave rakapinda 500 and the next one rakapinda 400 bodies. Some mass graves have 150 and 140 bodies. (sigh of relieve and pause)
I was briefed all this nana Cde Murehwa and Cde Mashingaidze, who is now a Brigadier General in the army.

SM: Some survivors from this massacre say you as commander did not prepare adequately for the attack despite being warned. Some of them say you did not warn them.

Cde Bethune: What can you expect kana munhu ari guilty? How many Africans do you know vanobvuma kuti ndiri wrong?

SM: Some say after being warned nemasvikiro, you were supposed to tell all the people.

Cde Bethune: Its not true that I didn’t tell people. Kana usingaterere, iwe uchiti munhu ari kutaura iwe uchitaura, unganzwe here what I will be saying? Handiti you listen then you talk later? All this talk now is mere excuse. Some people did not listen to what I was telling them.
The bases that were at Chimoio, there was no that relationship where people could just visit each other just like that from base to base. It was not allowed. Munhu akanga asingangofamba madiro. But pane vanhu haushaye ane musikanzwa. People just didn’t listen to me.
If I am to ask those comrades kuti where were you when the bombing started, some were still asleep.
And do you think with 6 000 people I was supposed to tell each person individually? I told the base commanders also. What else was I supposed to do?

SM: Why didn’t you move all the people away from this camp altogether?

Cde Bethune: Going where? What arrangement yaikunda what we had put in place kuti they wake up early and go to their hideout places which were about 2km away from the camp?
They would go to these hiding places and spend the whole day vachiita politics. What was wrong with that?

SM: What was so special about this place that you didn’t want to abandon it?

Cde Bethune: We could not run away? Hazvigone and zvanga zvisingagone. Running away going where? Which other place was safer than paChimoio?
Even if we were to move elsewhere, the set up was going to be the same. If they wanted to come and attack they were going to do it anywhere.
War principles tell you kuti haungotizi. You do whatever you have to do pauri ipapo. Why should you run away? Taifanirwa kutiza going where? According to us, this place was the safest under the circumstances.

SM: You conceded that the firepower from the Rhodesians was just too much and there was nothing you could have done. The bombing, the helicopters and later the paratroopers. The force was just too much?

Cde Bethune: They were prepared for this massacre these Rhodesians.

SM: Yes, we can see that clearly from what you are saying and from the deaths and injuries. But the question is, as commander, why didn’t you anticipate this? It’s not like you didn’t know the ruthlessness of the Smith regime.

Cde Bethune: We didn’t have air supremacy and that was their only strength.

SM: That’s exactly our point. Because you didn’t have air supremacy, why did you think you were able to fight back?

Cde Bethune: We were going to fight just like we were doing right at the war front. They had their air power but the liberation struggle continued and takavarova tisina air power till independence.

SM: No, Cde Bethune, the difference here is that there were so many people without guns and who were not trained. Others were still undergoing training. At the war front there were well trained freedom fighters and they walked in small numbers.

Cde Bethune: Are you trying to suggest that we should have left this camp?

SM: No, we are not suggesting anything. We are just asking you questions so that you tell us how you saw things. Its not like you discovered air supremacy of these Rhodesians at Chimoio. You were a veteran fighter having spent quite a number of years at the war front.

Cde Bethune: The answer according to the way you are asking is, leave the place. Don’t try and dodge that. That’s what you are pushing at. According to my military training and as a commander, we were not supposed to leave the place until it happened.

SM: As you told us the tactics of guerrilla warfare, you said if you can’t win it don’t fight.

Cde Bethune: That’s true. But this was a different situation.

SM: Maybe let’s repeat and say, as commander at Chimoio do you think you prepared adequately after being warned of the impending attacks?

Cde Bethune: With what I had I think I did my best kuti kana murungu awuya ndinodzorera. Of course pane zvimwe zvaidikanwa, but according to what I had, I had prepared enough and I was supposed kumira with what I had.
I was not supposed kutiza ini ndaiva nepfuti and ma anti air. The Rhodesians came tiine izvozvo.
Dai paiva nemukana kuwana zvimwe, taizvida but hondo yakauya tiine izvozvo zvataiva nazvo. We were never supposed to run away. We were supposed to do with what we had. Just imagine if comrades had that mentality kuwar front, kuti murungu ane ndege and so on, vototiza we were never going to win the war.

SM: Cde, did you listen kumasvikiro when they warned you to prepare for this attack?

Cde Bethune: We listened. That’s why we surveyed places for people to go and hide the whole day. We knew the Rhodesians would not attack in the evening because they relied on air power and that meant attacking kwakachena. It’s very easy for people to look back and say this and that, but for us this was real and hapana kwataitiza tichienda.

SM: What about moving further into Mozambique?

Cde Bethune: Those Rhodesians were going to follow us anywhere because of their air supremacy.

SM: You mentioned that after being told of the warning of the impending attack by the spirit mediums, you told your immediate superior Cde Rex Nhongo (Cde Solomon Mujuru) who didn’t say anything about it. Now comrade are you not saying this because he is no longer around to defend himself and also because of current politics where Mai Mujuru was expelled from Zanu-PF?

Cde Bethune: You asked me to tell you how events developed, so was I supposed to skip some parts just because Cde Rex is no longer here? Will that be a correct reflection of what happened? I am telling you what happened if you want to link it to current politics thats not my fault. Handisi kuzosiya to tell you what happened nekuti uchati this and that.

SM: Do you sometimes get frustrated that many people died because they didn’t listen to your orders to leave the camp by 6:30am?

Cde Bethune: Of course. I always think about that. If only people had listened to me. Like I told you, ndaitofamba myself trying to find out kuti vanhu vabuda here mu Camp.
As a guerrilla fighter I knew kuti hausvore any information you get regarding your enemy. I had that experience from the war front.

SM: You said there were base commanders at Chimoio. Did you lose any of these commanders?

Cde Bethune: All the commanders survived and they are still alive. Some got injured.

SM: After the attack, did you have the opportunity to tell these commanders kuti ‘you see now macomrades, you were supposed kuburitsa vanhu venyu early?’

Cde Bethune: I didn’t have that opportunity. I was now in hospital.
Of course some of the commanders were to blame because havana kuburitsa vanhu vavo in time. Some of them should shoulder the blame.
I think some of them did not take my orders seriously. They didn’t know kuti hondo yakaita sei and they didn’t see importance of vacating the camp early.
Now that some of the commanders failed to follow my orders, the blame comes to me. Some are even lying that the attack happened vari paparade. Which parade? They are mixing up what happened at Nyadzonya camp and what happened at Chimoio camp. So its up to me to correct all that.
People should not talk about things they did not see happening. Taura zvakaitika pawaiva iwe and how you survived. People should stop imagining things after watching stupid war movies. This was a real situation.

SM: How come some of the survivors think they were let down?

Cde Bethune: Let down by who? I did all I was supposed to do. Some people just didn’t listen. Even after discovering this, I woke up everyday waking up people so that they could go to the hideouts. What else was I supposed to do?

SM: Would you say there was indiscipline?

Cde Bethune: No, not as such. You see chinhu chinonzi hondo kana usati wambochiona, unofunga kuti idambe. Then kana wazochionaka, you see kuti hondo is about people dying. War is death.
Many people had not experienced war so they didn’t know what to expect. Some of them were actually wondering why as commander I was taking it upon myself to wake them up.
My experience at the war front had taught me kuti Rhodesians carried most of their attacks during the day, especially during dawn.

SM: These people who had no guns at the camp, had you taught them drills on how to react in case of an attack since you knew an attack was imminent?

Cde Bethune: We had not done that and we didn’t think it was necessary because they were supposed to be at the hiding places.
Training these comrades the drills you are talking about meant getting someone to do that. We didn’t have that personnel.
Military drills need a proper instructor who knows what he or she is doing. What you are saying zvaitoda a plan or a programme. The plan I came up with was the best under the circumstances.
Some of the days many of the comrades would leave the camp very early but of course you would find some who would be last to leave.
I think for some people vakanga vakusvora kuti ko tiri kumbobudirei when that attack isiri kuitika.
The comrades were supposed to get out of the camp early whether the attack had happened or not. It’s that simple.
You see macomrades you can ask me all manner of questions now as you look back but hondo chinhu chinoda kungogara munhu wakagadzirira. Hachisi chinhu chinoda kugadzirirwa chaitika. It will be too late.
Speaking like we are doing now is very easy. Hondo is a different game macomrades.

SM: How about getting reinforcements from other Zanla comrades?

Cde Bethune: That was now up to higher authorities and like I told you I told Cde Nhongo about the warnings from our spirit mediums. Saka maida kuti ini ndigozomufungira manje kuti zvandakuudza uchaita sei? I did what I had to do with what I had.

SM: Do you feel those above you let you down?

Cde Bethune: No, I don’t take it like that. They had their own plan of which I can’t speak for them. In the army, if you tell your commander or leader something, you don’t keep telling him the same thing. Its like you are now challenging him.
One of the details you may need to know is that the Rhodesians attacked Chimoio thinking that Cde Mugabe (President) was still staying there. At some point he was staying at Chimoio at Chaminuka base, I think for about three weeks, but by this time he was already in Maputo. The attack was in November but he had left with other leaders in March.

SM: Cde Bethune, you spoke about saving this female comrade, are you not trying to be a hero here to show that at least you saved someone?

Cde Bethune: I said that comrade is still alive. To be a hero kuti zvidii and zvigondipei? Those who know me know that I would not want to make myself a hero from such a dark day. I fought many serious battles at the war front. They were enough to make me who I am.
I want to also tell people that the terrain you see at Chimoio today is not the one that was there in 1977. There was a thick forest.

SM: Comrade, do you sometimes dream about what happened at Chimoio?

Cde Bethune: I dream of people fighting in a war. I sometimes see vision yevanhu vakafa vakati katakata. All this comes to my dreams. I dream of some comrades, like Cde Josiah Ziso, Cde Kuruta, Cde Jokwi and others vachinditi mhanya mhanya mhanya! Tora cover, tora cover! I wake up and say ko comrade nhingi ari kutaura this aripi? Only to realise ndiri mumba and macomrades aya akashaya. I don’t know kuti zvinenge zvichida kududzira chii?

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  • fortune chisango

    So painful but at least it shows that not enough was done to save people’s lives. The evacuation should have been organized well in time not to wait for the morning of that very day, and always kusateerera kumasvikiro kwaiuraisa.

  • Mahlaeya

    It is a pity that after fighting and enduring so hard for the independence, many of the surviving comrades, and their widows are languishing in abject poverty, while a few, who were not even at the war-front but pursing studies abroad, are enjoying the sweat and blood of the comrades who perished on that fateful day!

  • MweniTafara

    Kana nhasi chaiwo masvikiro ari kutaura asi hapana ari kuteerera from top to bottom of Zim folks, vari kutererwa ndetwutwu twuri kunzi twumaporofita, I cant remember their names because they are so small and inconsequential.