Chifombo to Zambezi: Death before death

LAST week, Cde Gomba Midson Mupasu, whose Chimurenga name was Cde Norman Bethune, narrated how he was recruited to join the liberation struggle in 1968 and his long journey to Mgagao Training Camp in Tanzania.

In this interview with our team comprising Munyaradzi Huni and Tendai Manzvanzvike, Cde Bethune continues his narration of the training at Mgagao. He talks about walking over 200km from Chifombo to Zambezi River carrying materiel before the Second Chimurenga started in earnest. He talks about the early years of the liberation struggle as the Rhodesian forces fought to block the freedom fighters from venturing deep into Rhodesia. Read on . . .

SM: Cde Bethune, let’s talk a little bit more about life at Mgagao. Were there any comrades who ran away from training?

Cde Bethune: There are some comrades who tried to run away. I remember Cde Tumai. He tried to run away but they caught up with him. The biggest challenge was that in Tanzania, they use Swahili as the language of communication. At that time you could not communicate in public using English. The English language was confined to school campuses or at home. You know after discovering this, the Smith regime trained some of its black soldiers to speak Swahili so that they could infiltrate our training camps? But still that didn’t work because most of these spies were fished out. During our time, security was really tight.

Remember after the Chinhoyi Battle, the war stopped. The leaders had realised their mistakes and from 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 the leaders sat down to iron out the mistakes and weaknesses. They looked at why the 1964, 1965 and 1966 generation had failed to be successful in waging the war. It was a lesson learnt. Lots of mistakes. You know most of the comrades who were sent to the front in the early 1960s were sent by Zanu just to get some publicity so that the party could get support? That is why most of them were captured. These comrades you now call heroes to me are sellouts. They sent comrades into Rhodesia during their early 1960s without any planning just to get publicity so that Zanu could be recognised. Vakatengesa vamwe vavo.

Our generation which opened the war front in Mashonaland Central is the one which later showed the world that Zanu was now serious in executing the war. The party’s military wing, Zanla, was now oiled and determined to fight the war. Kurovana naSmith and Smith accepted through the media kuti ndiri kurohwa.

SM: Obviously during training, things would sometimes get tough. How would you keep your morale high?

Cde Bethune: There are some comrades who were good at singing and we would sing revolutionary songs. One of my favourite songs was (singing) “Takawira mukono waidzvova. Tichafa nenzira iyo. Makatifira kuti tizvitonge. Nesu tose tichatevera …” We would sing such songs morari vobva wasimuka. (Singing another song) “Toricheka cheka here bhunu? Toricheka cheka here bhunu? Hondoo iyo! Yaaa, yaaa, hondo iyo!” When we started training end of 1970, up to March 1971, we would go for jogging every 4:30am. We would run a distance of about 25 to 30 kilometres, everyday. After coming back we were given about 30 minutes to bath and drink tea, then we went for parade. During the first days, this was torture but later we were used (to it). Up to this day, I can still run this distance.

The instructors would tell us that at the war front we were going to run long distances because this was guerilla warfare. The instructors were ruthless and they would not tolerate lazy people. Remember, we had no means of transport at the war front. You know we had some comrades when we were at the war front who would surrender to the Rhodesian forces kuti ini ndaneta. Pvuti dzichirira munhu kungo simudza maoko surrendering. According to international law, once someone raises his hands in surrender, you are not supposed to kill him.

SM: We have spoken to some comrades who vowed that instead of being captured, they would have blown themselves so that the enemy could not capture them alive. Did this actually happen?

Cde Bethune: I never got to that situation, but I can tell you that even myself I would not allow the enemy to capture me. Fortunately, in most battles I either fought my way out or retreated tactfully. It was good for some comrades to blow themselves up because of the information they would be holding. You realise that the enemy is going to kill me through torture to get this information and you kill yourself. It’s called sacrifice.

SM: Did you see this happening yourself?

Cde Bethune: No, I didn’t but I heard that one of our comrades, Gordon Shiri, killed himself that way. I am told that he failed to get water to drink and he became too weak. Some of his comrades carried him for a while but they discovered that this was now hampering their movements. They left him pachuru saying kana tawana mvura we will come back to collect you. When these comrades got back to where he was, he had died. Some comrades think he killed himself but I am not really sure about that. This comrade was an instructor, he was my age, we trained together and so I was really surprised to hear that such a seasoned fighter had died that way. When this happened I was now at the rear at Nampundwe Farm.

SM: Let’s go back to Mgagao. When did you finish your training?

Cde Bethune: We finished training in March 1971. From Mgagao we were sent to a transit camp called Kongwa. Cde Chemist Ncube, Cde Josiah Tungamirai, Cde Dick Moyo, Cde Cephas Tichatonga, Cde Tumai, Cde Josiah Ziso, Cde Mugwagwa and others were taken to Lusaka. They teamed up with groups that had been trained at Chunya camp and Itumbi and came for reconnaissance in Rhodesia. After their reconnaissance that’s when we met them around August 1971. I remember August 18 that’s when we left Kongwa and got to Chifombo on the 20th. Around October, I remember it was not raining, that’s when we started walking from Chifombo to Zambezi River to leave materiel. We did this until December 1971.

SM: How difficult was it carrying materiel from Chofombo to Zambezi River? What distance are we talking about here?

Cde Bethune: This distance was over 200km. I think walking like from Harare to Mutare. We would sleep on the way. Just to give you an idea, we would walk like from Harare to Headlands in one day. From Headlands up to Nyazura the next day. Actually, I think Mutare is too close.

SM: Comrade, Comrade, Comrade, are you being real here?

Cde Bethune: Yes, I am very serious. We were determined. Like I told you, during training we were told kuti tichafamba netsoka. So we were ready for all this. By this time, the female comrades had not yet joined us.

SM: When you say carrying materiel, what exactly do you mean? How heavy was it?

Cde Bethune: When I say carrying materiel I mean carrying war weapons. Chainyanya kurema chikasha chemabara. It was just a small box that contained between 1 000 to 2 000 bullets depending on the type. I think this box was between five to 10kg. I am not sure about the kgs but I can tell you kabox ikako kairema. Ndokusaka waizoita chikofu pamusana apa. Handiti mombe ukaisunga pajoki inozvimba yosvuuka? Ichocho isu takachiita.

SM: You would go how many trips?

Cde Bethune (laughing): Paifiwa macomrades. Zvaida kushinga chokwadi. There was no one we could say ndiye achazozviita. It was not easy. It’s very difficult to explain such things to someone today and someone understands what you are saying. Dai zvaiitwa nevanhu vandinoona vava kushandira Hurumende now, most of them would have surrendered. Vaitiza! Kurwa kwaitova easy than kufamba. Besides this heavy box, at the same time we would be carrying land-mines, then ma mortar 60mm and 82mm. We would also be carrying shells of RPG 7 and RPG 2.

When we got to Zambezi, we would take the materiel to a place we used to call kumaPopo. This was a large orchard belonging to Mozambicans. It had mainly pawpaw trees, that’s why we called the place kumaPopo or kumaPapaya Base. Frelimo had its base there also. So isu vatakuri taingonzi we leave the materiel at one place. One of the comrades, we called him Baba vaJuru, together with Cde Joseph Khumalo ndivo vaiziva kuti vanoatora vachienda kupi. Our job was to carry the materiel and drop it pavanenge vataura. After dropping the materiel, we would hit the forests going back. These two comrades had the responsibility to make sure that the materiel got into Rhodesia. Most of the materiel found its way to Duhwa area in Mukumbura at Kakwidze Base. All this way, Cde Khumalo and Baba Juru would be with the comrades carrying the material. Once they got to Kakwidze, the two would instruct the comrades to drop the materiel at one point and order them to leave. These two would know where to hide the material. They were the ones who distributed materiel to the freedom fighters when the war started. From Kakwidze, all groups at the war front had someone responsible for logistics. He is the one who was responsible for distributing materiel at the war front to his group of comrades.

So before the war started, we made sure that we carried lots of materiel that could sustain the war. By the way, along the way from Chifombo to Zambezi, we would sometimes fight the Portuguese soldiers in Mozambique. Our ratio as we walked was one-to-two. As we walked, we would be in groups of six so what I mean is that if, for example, we met 12 Portuguese soldiers, we were supposed to avoid them if it was possible.

So I am saying one comrade to two Portuguese soldiers, but kana zvaramba we had to fight. We were supposed to go into contact (fighting) with the number of Portuguese soldiers that we knew we could kill. Kwete kungoridza chete. We were never supposed to waste our materiel. You were supposed to fight knowing that you are the one responsible for carrying the ammunition. So it was important to make sure that each bullet hits a person. This is what we had been taught. Our ambush was supposed to be around 20-30 metres because 50m unenge usisanyatsowone murungu. So murungu aifanirwa kuswedera mudhuze. Close, worova hako. Ukanyatsomurova anosimuka mudenga, ozoti pasi buuu! Even iwe comrade ukarohwa at close range unotosimuka.

SM: You are talking about kurova murungu but the Rhodesian army also had blacks?

Cde Bethune: Yes. During the early years, the Rhodesian forces would go around in groups of nine. So there would be eight black soldiers and one white. These blacks are the ones who would be walking in front. But these numbers increased over the years after the Rhodesian forces discovered that in those small groups taivarakasha. From nine they went to 10, then 12.

During these early years, among our group of six – one would have specialised in firing a bazooka – RPG7, three with an AK47, another with a 60mm mortar and others with light machine guns. Armed like this, we were very, very dangerous. Hatina kumira mushe and team yakatokwana. Aiwaaa, ahhhh, kana 16 soldiers tinorova! Taitanga kusimudza duri raMbuya Nehanda (60mm mortar). Roti pakati pavo zhiii, then isu tomirira kupedzisa vaya vanoda kutiza. Unonzwa kuti pa, pa, pa, pa! Later during the struggle, we started using semi-automatic rifles. During my time at the war front, this is how we operated. I later went back to the rear around April 1973. This was after a fierce battle at Gwetera. We were with Cde Chimedza. Taifamba nesvikiro rekwaChaminuka. We were supposed to go to Domboramwari. Kwainzi kune banga riri padombo. As we were walking to Domboramwari, we were sold out and we got into this battle. After this we failed to go to Domboramwari.

SM: We will get back to this battle later. For now let’s go back to the years you were carrying materiel to Zambezi. Before carrying the materiel, did you conduct any rituals?

Cde Bethune: Every time pataifamba, taiwombera. This was usually done by the section commander or commander in charge of security, or commissariat. Everybody knew that before embarking on any mission, taiisa fodya pasi pemuti wemuchakata. (clapping hands) “Hekani waro Chaminuka weee, Nehanda Nyakasikana, vazukuru vari kukumbira kuti tive machena. Tiri kukumbira kuti tifambe munezvakanaka. Ndimi zimbuya guru, chisvitsai kuna musikavanhu. Zitateguru guru Munhumutapa, ndimi makatisiira basa iri sezvamakataura kuti mapfupa angu achamuka changamire. Hatina zvakawanda zvatinokumbira. Tiri kukumbira machena. Pfumo ndimi makarisiira panzira. Chiitai kuti titakure pfumo ramakasiira panzira. Tatenda!” After this toti macomrades, handei. Munhu wese rinenge rava gandanga chairo. You know after conducting this ritual, sometimes we would meet lions but they would just look at us. I saw this with my own eyes.

SM: Comrade are you being honest here?

Cde Bethune: Yes, of course. I know many people think that lions don’t have a good relationship with human beings. During the liberation struggle, taitora shumba seshumba dzepasi. Unlike the ordinary lions, these lions I am talking about you could see them not very far and they would just stare at you. We took them sana sekuru vedu, mhondoro dzedu. Sometimes these lions would walk by our side as if dzaitiperekedza. After a while, they would just disappear. We never heard stories of comrades who were killed by lions during the liberation struggle or even snake bites. Our ancestors are the ones who had cleared the way for us so that we could only fight one enemy – the Rhodesian soldiers.

SM: When were you deployed into Rhodesia to start the war?

Cde Bethune: After getting wind that freedom fighters had found their way into Rhodesia, the Rhodesian soldiers came up with a plan that the freedom fighters could not get over Mavhuradonha Mountain and go to areas like Dotito, Mt Darwin, Chitiriri and Chahwanda area. But by this time, James Bond and his group were already operating between Mt Darwin and Bindura. I was deployed around Gwetera area facing Shamva. Before getting to Gwetera, we fought quite a number of battles along the way. We were still on the Mozambican side. I remember one battle at Karomokafue, then Musengezi, then Nzoumvunda, then Kakwidze and then Kwaduhwa. We engaged in these battles together with Frelimo. During this time, Frelimo was preparing for transition dialogue with the Portuguese government in their country. From 1972 up to 1974, we had very good relations with Frelimo because we fought many battles together, especially from their spring bases that were in Mukumbura area. Most of the battles, the Rhodesians would wait and ambush us. Their idea was to make sure that we would not go deep into Rhodesia.

From Chigango, Chiswiti, Katerere, Chitsungo, Muzarabani to Musengezi Mission, there were so many Rhodesian informers by this time. After discovering this, as freedom fighters we took a decision not to rely on people from these areas. We relied on people from Duhwa area which was on the Mozambican side. These people could speak both Shona and Portuguese because they were Zimbabweans who had migrated to this area. Families from this area understood the war and they helped us a lot in terms of food. When the war in Rhodesia intensified, these people abandoned their homes and went further into Mozambique. When these people left, they left matura echibage. I think chibage chavo chakatozopera around end of 1974.

After discovering that these people were in trouble with the Rhodesian soldiers, we told them that kana varungu vasvika pano don’t hide it from them that we were around. We told them to tell Smith’s soldiers that “kwanzi kana mauya imimi masoldier aSmith tikuudzei kuti vari kukutsvagai”.

They were supposed to tell these Rhodesian soldiers where they thought we were so that they would not be tortured. Unfortunately, some of these villagers were killed by the Rhodesian soldiers, especially those we would have defeated. As they retreated, they killed many of these villagers.

To be continued next week

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