BORN in Mhondoro, Ngezi in 1945 in a family of four girls and three boys, the late national hero Retired Brigadier General Felix Muchemwa started his education at Nehanda Primary School, then went to St Michaels Mission in Mhondoro before proceeding to Kutama College in 1961. He then went to Fletcher College and later enrolled at the then University of Rhodesia as his journey to become a medical doctor started.
In March 2013, our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni (MH) had an extensive interview with Rtd Brig-Gen Muchemwa where he narrated his political journey up to the attainment of independence in 1980. As a medical doctor during the liberation struggle, Rtd Brig-Gen Muchemwa came face to face with the brutality of the Smith regime.
We reproduce excerpts from this interview. Read on …
MH: We understand you were a qualified medical doctor when you chose to join the liberation struggle, but Brigadier Muchemwa tell us exactly when you joined politics?
Brig Muchemwa: In 1965 on the 11th of November when Smith declared UDI, I was locked up together with fellow comrades like Cde Ndisenge in Gweru where we spent about two weeks. About 19 of us were sentenced to three years in prison after being accused of being rebellious against the authorities following our protests against UDI. We were put in the prison where most of the time we were depraved of even clothing.
After being sentenced to three years with hard labour, I was then told that I could not join any political party or be involved in any political activities. But by 1968, I was already chairman of an underground movement connecting university students with the comrades who were in the Zambezi Valley. We coordinated as much as we could with Cde Didymus Mutasa, Cde Chadzingwa, Cde Mafu from Bulawayo, Patel from Gweru and others to assist the comrades in the struggle. I became president of the SRC at the then University of Rhodesia in 1969 and by 1970, I think I was turning into a violent person.
MH: Once again you were courting trouble with the authorities. What did you do this time?
Brig Muchemwa: At that time, my mind was no longer set on qualifying as a doctor because I thought that was very useless. I thought it was better to destroy the whole system, then I could start my university studies afresh. When we were provoked by Mayor Chisholm, who was a lady mayor of the city of Salisbury, that Africans were not really suitably qualified to be taught at the university but should be trained only as technicians, garden boys, I got really angry. I mobilised students to demonstrate against her. My aim was to hit very hard at the mayor so I asked students to hit her with tomatoes and rotten eggs. The students went beyond what I had expected. They hit her with lots of faeces. So you got a picture in March 1970 of the mayor of Salisbury plastered with faeces on her face. The British and Americans were furious and they zoomed on us. We got lots of support from Angela Davis in America and other student movements in France.
When the Smith Regime declared the Republic of Rhodesia this meant that the students at the University of Rhodesia, which was literally a college for London University and for Birmingham University, who were actually getting London and Birmingham degrees were cut off. All students were now getting Rhodesian degrees that were not recognised the world over and so we went wild again. We spent a week protesting in a bid to force the closure of the university. As SRC president I was arrested and sent to detention. They asked me where I would like to be detained and I said choose for yourselves. I then suggested that they could put me at a mission hospital so that I could help the community while the regime was looking after me. Surprisingly, they agreed and I was sent to St Michaels Hospital in Mhondoro.
MH: What kind of detention was this?
Brig Muchemwa: All they wanted was to detach me from the other university students. It was an isolationist system. My studies were cut short. This was in 1970. When this happened, students at Birmingham University went on strike demanding that I should be allowed to finish my studies at their university. Eventually I was given my passport, with orders that I could not come back to Rhodesia. I went to Birmingham University to further my studies from 1970 to 73. Around 1971, we created the ZANU Birmingham branch where Cde Didymus Mutasa was the chairman, I was the secretary. We together until I think 1974, when Cde Chitepo came. He came to debrief us on what was going on at the war front. He said things were really bad – the conditions were very difficult and we sat in my flat in Birmingham discussing what medical support the comrades wanted. He asked me whether I could join the revolution at that time. Unfortunately in 1974, I had been appointed lecturer in the Birmingham Medical School lecturing in Anatomy so I could not just cut short the contact with the university. I asked Cde Chitepo if they could give me the chance to finish off my contract which was a two-year contract. He agreed but said we should keep in touch. So my name was written down and the party was now channelling all medical supplies from the UK through me. When Cde Mugabe left Rhodesia, he was given the book where people who had committed to support the struggle but who were scattered all over the world had been recorded by Cde Chitepo. At the time, Cde Sidney Sekeramayi was already the ZANU representative in Sweden. We later met as medical people and agreed that we should join the struggle.
MH: Brig Muchemwa, you had your degree, you were a lecturer in the UK and you had a promising career ahead of you, what motivated you to commit yourself to the liberation struggle?
Brig Muchemwa: I had all this but I still had this nudge to say all this is not worthwhile unless your country is free. When Cde Ushewokunze came in 1977 in April and said we have got your name under Cde Chitepo diary that you would join the struggle, I accepted. Cde Ushewokunze said you are wanted at the front, people are dying. I was sending lots of medicine but that wasn’t enough I said I am going to join the struggle. Before I left Birmingham University, I was given a three-week crush course by some surgeons on how to deal with war injuries. In June 1977, I left for Mozambique, Maputo. My first patient was Cde Maimbodei who had a big crash injury at his back. A bomb fragment had destroyed his spinal cord and so he was paralysed in the lower limbs. I attended to him together with some Bulgarian doctors.
MH: So how then did you get into the thick of things?
Brig Muchemwa: When Cde Nhongo heard about my arrival, he left Chimoio and came to Maputo. He gave me orders when we met that I was supposed to go to Chimoio. I went to Chimoio and Cde Nhongo was there to receive me. Cde Sekeramayi was already there. They told me that the next day we were proceeding to Doroi. That’s when I met the disaster. There were no medicines in the camps. The medicines that had been supplied to the camps were maximally vitamins but not the antibiotics and other drugs which myself and Cde Sekeramayi wanted. I teamed up with Cde Sekeramayi and Cde Ushewokunze and changed the whole medical set up. Within about a month, the medicine that we wanted came. By August and September the medical supplies had improved.
MH: Can you briefly tell us how was the situation when you got to Doroi camp?
Brig Muchemwa: About 50 comrades were dying per day. On the first day I went to Doroi, we had to drive carefully as we were driving between some dead bodies. When I arrived there on July 1, 1977 I together with Cde Sekeramayi and Cde Nhongo who was the commander, we sat down and said this was not just a medical problem but an organisational problem. More than 35 000 comrades were having to queue for food at one place. That’s unbelievable. So we had to split Doroi camp into bits and pieces so that people could queue for their food in smaller groups of about 5 000.
MH: Brig you mean 50 people dying everyday? That’s really alarming. What were the causes of these deaths?
Brig Muchemwa: It was mainly malnutrition. There was also a lot of malaria which was rampant and pneumonia. Chest infections that were really bad. Diarrhoea was also on a massive scale. As you know anyone with malnutrition will go into a diarrhoea condition. Most of these comrades died in the barracks. Others did not even die in the barracks. They would try to go and relieve themselves in nearby bushes and die there. I actually had a team of comrades who would go into the bush to try to collect these comrades who would have collapsed. That’s when we found out that about 50 people were dying per day.
You see these comrades who had diarrhoea would be so weak, so pathetic and most of the times they would be naked. Some could not even stand up and queue for food at the Guzinya. There was no system to ensure that these weak comrades would be catered for. We had to put about 10 000 comrades who were severely affected on their own. These would get special food like powdered milk and meshed beans to make it smooth. It was very difficult to resuscitate these comrades. However, by September 1977, with more and more food being sourced by Cde Nhongo, we managed to cut down the death rate of 50 per day to one per day. After reducing the death rate, that’s when I lost my job at Doroi. The commanders said you have finished your job there, now go to Parirenyatwa Camp.
MH: Brig, so can we say the situation that you found at Doroi was a reflection of the situation at all ZANU camps?
Brig Muchemwa: Tembwe was equally affected. Chibawawa was equally affected but on a lesser degree with about 25 to 30 people dying per day. We had three major camps – Doroi, Chibawawa and Tembwe. All these were affected.
MH: When you look back at the situation you found at Doroi, on reflection now, do you think there is something that could have been done to prevent what happened there?
Brig Muchemwa: It was impossible to have done it earlier. These were the periods after Chitepo died. The party went into turbulence. This was only solved around January and February 1978 when the Dzino group was arrested. Dzinashe Machingura and his group were saying we don’t want to see Tongogara and we don’t want to see Cde Mugabe. After their arrests, that’s when the party regrouped to execute the war again. After Chitepo’s death it was confrontation after confrontation within ZANU and between ZANU and ZAPU.
MH: After being transferred from Doroi, where did you go?
Brig Muchemwa: I was then transferred to Chimoio around September 1977 when I was told by Cde Nhongo that I was now going to be the chief medical officer for Parirenyatwa Hospital which was our hospital at the rear in Mozambique during the liberation struggle. This hospital was part of the Chimoio Zanla headquarters in 1977. Cde Sekeramayi and Cde Ushewokunze were already there. I was the chief medical officer for the Parirenyatwa hospital. Cde Ushewokunze was in charge of organising medicines while Cde Sekeramayi was given the task to monitor all bases. At Parirenyatwa hospital when I arrived there were over 8 000 comrades and fortunately here we had an ambulance, a mobile ambulance theatre and to me as a surgeon that was very helpful. This meant that any comrade who was injured at the front, we could actually repair whatever damage in that mobile ambulance theatre.
I remember at one time we received a comrade who had been injured at the war front who had a shattered jaw and a lacerated tongue which was almost decaying. As we were attending to this comrade, Cde Tekere came to me and asked what I was trying to do and I told him we could repair the jaws. He could not believe me. Before we came, such people were being transported to Chimoio town where again there were no proper doctors at that time. At one time Cde Sekeramayi cried when we delivered a young child who later died due to intestinal complications. This was Cde Chimedza’s child.
So the situation was that pathetic but thank God we had that mobile ambulance theatre and thank God we had anaesthetic drugs which we would actually use. I together with Cde Sekeramayi did a lot of reconstruction surgery at Chimoio before it was attacked. And when Chimoio was attacked, (pause) I tell you it was a doctor’s nightmare.
MH: Take us through exactly what happened when Chimoio was attacked and what you mean this was a doctor’s nightmare.
Brig Muchemwa: I had just finished my medical rounds in the barracks. We had two barracks. All patients both male and female were mixed up in the barracks. I had just finished my ward round between 5 and 6am. The member of the High Command was Cde Ziso. We had identified patients who were to be sent to Chimoio town for further treatment and other patients who were to go to Beira. Our mobile ambulance theatre was being manned by Cde Paris who I had asked to go and collect some diesel while I took a bath. As I started bathing, this was around 7:30am, I just heard a cracking sound.
A week before this, there was an incident where some comrade called Cde Kissinger had took a gun and started shooting in the air. All of us had rushed for cover. So when I heard this cracking sound, I thought this was Kissinger again. I didn’t know that this was something more serious. As I was trying to put on my clothes, I saw a huge crowd of comrades pouring out from the base running towards nearby bushes. One of the comrades who had already passed me came back and said Cde Muchemwa manyai, manyai. I asked him what was wrong and he said hondo, hondo. I asked him what hondo? I was refusing to run with him. I asked him, muri kutya chiiko imi? I think I was in a kind of trance. I did not know the magnitude of what war was. I thought this was kuchichidzirwa.
MH: Cde, by this time had you received any military training?
Brig Muchemwa: I had not received any military training. That’s why my reaction was that of a typical person asingazive kuti hondo inofamba sei. I literally walked and I think that’s what saved me. You see if you panic in a battlefield wakuvara. If you watched how Rex Nhongo operated in the battlefield, he never panicked. But I was just confused and I never ran away and that helped me. A lot of comrades were running up and down. You could see people panting. This panic also contributed a lot to the deaths of many comrades. At one point I actually slept. But I didn’t sleep because I wanted to sleep. I was made to sleep and many comrades also slept because of napalm gas. Carbon monoxide was pumped at the beginning of the bombardment. A lot of napalm was pumped in not really to burn us but to produce this carbon monoxide which would make you sleep. So I slept. You see carbon monoxide can make you believe that you are ok, when you are not okay. Around 11 and 12 am, I realised that no, no things were not okay. As I was trying to come around, I was called by some comrades who were saying our comrades who were manning our anti-air had been injured. I went where these comrades were but I couldn’t do anything to the injured comrades because most of them were amputated. What do you do with gushing wounds that are bleeding heavily? I didn’t have any kit. As I tried to assist some comrades, I found myself as a target of the Rhodesian forces. There was a barrage of gunfire and all I could do was just to roll away.
But that defiance that I should not panic still was in me. I would rush to a nearby bush and watch the situation from there. Around 4pm, I was joined by some girls, three girls who were totally nude. This shocked me. I asked why they were naked and they said they had undressed so that the Rhodesian forces could not see them. These girls felt a bit secure because I was with them but they didn’t know that I had not received military training. These girls later died after they thought of running away from the base using a route that had a slight depression. There was heavy gunfire and I knew they all were gone.
MH: Now, Brigadier as a medical doctor and seeing all this …
Brig Muchemwa: I was worried more about the injured comrades. I wanted them to be taken to another place so we could treat them. I said to myself I can’t run away from all these patients. Cde Sekeramayi, Cde Ushewokunze and Cde Ziso were not there, so I could not leave the patients alone. Zvinozonzi Muchemwa akatiza mapatients? This is what was going in my mind. But then every time I tried to assist any comrade, the Rhodesian forces would fire at me. I could hear the comrades calling me saying “Cde Muchemwa ndakuvara, please ndibatsireiwo kani.” In the end I decided to get out of the war zone and after crossing Mudzingadzi, I saw a helicopter coming for me. Ndakangojambira mutsanga nemumabanana trees. The Rhodesian forces thought I had crossed into the nearest bush and they fired at that bush heavily. After sometime, I then sneaked away when the firing had stopped. I later met some comrades and I again told them that I wanted to go and take some of the injured comrades. I was still preoccupied with my patients. Early the next day we went back with some comrades to Chimoio but we could not go any far. The heavy bombardment started again. One of the comrades, Cde Obey who had received military training said we should abandon the mission to get the injured comrades. So we walked to Chimoio town. When I got to Chimoio town, I faced another challenge. Some comrades had escaped to the hospital in Chimoio and many were injured. Others had their stomachs ripped open and all the intestines were outside. It was horrific. There was a Portuguese doctor in charge and when she saw me, she refused to accept that I was a medical doctor. She said “you Zanla want to make medic like a dotori.” meaning you want to take this medic as a doctor. After sometime this Portuguese doctor agreed to give me a chance and she took me to the theatre. I was given a patient to attend to and she was satisfied. She then gave me a theatre to work from. From that day November the 24th until after a week, I never saw the sun. I was busy operating comrades who had been injured at Chimoio camp. Some comrades who looked for me and could not find me thought I had died at Chiomio camp because they could not trace me as I was always in theatre.
MH: While in theatre, tell us about the most gruesome case you attended to?
Brig Muchemwa: The most gruesome case that I attended to was when a female comrade akapinda muguru rinocherwa nenhire as she was running away from the bombardment and shooting at Chimoio. Her stomach had been ripped open and as she dived into that big hole, she was holding her intestines. The last group of Rhodesians left Chimoio camp I think on the 25th which was a Friday but we discovered this female comrade the next Thursday. This was virtually a week after the attack. No water, no food. Hura hwake hwakanga huchingova jecha chete. The first thing we had to do was to wash the bowl. Hura hwese huri kunze.
MH: Cde, is this possible kuti matumbu amunhu anobuda panze the way you are telling me?
Brig Muchemwa: Yes, this is what happened. Munhu akabata hura hwake. She could barely speak. I was glad that she didn’t try to eat anything because in that state she wasn’t supposed to eat anything. You can’t eat with a bowl like that, but can you imagine for eight days she survived with nothing to eat or drink? Unfortunately she later died.
The other most gruesome case I attended to was a comrade who had been burnt by napalm. The whole body had been, let me say roasted. That comrade was still alive only because mhino dzake dzakanga dzichiri kufema. I had seen many other comrades at the battlefield who had been burnt beyond recognition. Can you imagine someone has been burnt the whole body ozosvika kuhospital after three days?
MH: So approximately how many comrades did you attend to in this theatre where you were locked for almost a week?
Brig Muchemwa: From the records that we counted with Cde Sekeramayi, we attended to not less that 5 000 comrades. You see some comrades were discovered days later and they all were brought in and we attended to them. Remember there were about 9 000 comrades at Chimoio camp. I am glad that I had been conditioned to prepare myself to meet such horrific cases during the three week crash programme I had been taken through as I was about to leave Birmingham. I had been told that don’t think you are going to be treating civilians. Ndakanzi when you get to a war situation, usade kuzviita shasha. Don’t even believe kuti unogona kusona munhu. That’s not the issue. The issue is wagona here to treat ronda racho period. They told me, the more wounds you leave open the better. They also told me that ukaona ronda rine makonye chitoti dai makonye iwayo azara because ndiwo achadya nyama dziya dziri kuwora. They clean the wound. We spent three weeks together with Cde Sekeramayi removing fragments from bodies of thousands of comrades.
MH: Brigadier, I know you were a qualified doctor but tell me, as you came face to face with all these gruesome cases and all these deaths, didn’t you at one time think that you had made the wrong decision to join the liberation struggle?
Brig Muchemwa: No, not at all. This made me even more determined. This was 1977 isn’t it? After this I ended up with Cde Sekeramayi at Swallop base where we assisted other comrades. These comrades vakanga vabaiwa mainjection evitamin B complex and antibiotics. After this five of these comrades died. We said no, no, let’s check all the medicine to see whether the medicine had not been contaminated. Takangobaya about 0,5ml into a monkey that we used to call Jimmy and that monkey died. I am trying to answer your question whether it never crossed my mind that I had made the wrong decision. We started encountering such problems. Cde Tongo then said Muchemwa you should go for military training. I said thank you very much. So from February to May I went for military training. I was trained by general Mashingaidze at Takawira Two base in Mozambique. In May, Cde Sekeramayi was sent by Cde Tongo to come take me. Cde Tongo said I was supposed to go to Geneva to represent the party. He said I was supposed to finish my thesis during this time. So this was chance given for me to go to Birmingham isn’t it? So I went and finished my thesis. After this I came back to Mozambique. On my return, Cde Chademana our representative in Botswana came with people like Simba Makoni, Cde Mumbengegwi in July 1978 to see comrades in places like Chimoio. At that same time, the Rhodesian forces started bombing all our bases. As I was getting to Gondola from Maputo with the bombings still going on, that’s when I met Cde Zvinavashe who said to me, “ko iwe takanzwa kuti wakaenda kuGeneva, kowakadzokera hondo shuwa shuwa?”
I had made a decision kuti if I don’t participate in the war, wandinosiira basa racho ndiani? I had the chance to remain in Birmingham but I came back. You know I nearly killed someone who insulted me after my return.
“Go well Rtd Brig-Gen Muchemwa! Go well my Mhondoro homeboy! I am glad I have your story in full. We spoke for five hours isn’t it? The book you were always asking about will be published soon. Sorry for the delay, but promise me you will read it from the world yonder! Till we meet again!”
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