Freedom Camp massacre: I saw 226 cadres gunned down

COMRADE Bulukani Masola (born 13-05-1959) ,whose Chimurenga name was Cde Peter Scotch last week narrated how he joined the liberation struggle and the establishment of the ZIPRA communications department. He spoke about how they used this department to intercept Rhodesian communication and the death of Cde Nikita Mangena.

In this interview with our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni, Cde Peter Scotch says “never underestimate the power of child solders” as he narrates how he became number 4 in the ZIPRA signals communications department while still 19 years old.

In gruesome and graphic details, he narrates how he watched as Rhodesian forces machine-gunned hundreds of ZIPRA comrades at Freedom Camp in Zambia and dropped napalm bombs on defenceless cadres. It sounds like a horror movie, but this is real 226 ZIPRA comrades perished. One of his friends had been blown to pieces and this is how he describes the situation.

“I think he tried to wake up and he was blown apart. So I picked up his foot and that is the only thing that I buried. Just his left foot and a boot.” How does someone below 20 years remain normal after seeing such horror? Read on . . .

 

MH: Last week you narrated the sad death of Cde Nikita Mangena and you told us that after this death, there was the re-organisation of ZIPRA. Tell us a bit more about this re-organisation.

Cde Peter Scotch: Yes, after the death of Mangena, there was the re-organisation of ZIPRA at the headquarters. There was a new structure that was put in place in the Northern Front and Southern Front command. At the beginning it was normally just the High Command but when the Northern Front and Southern Front command was put in place, Rodwell was then made the commander of the Northern Front.

The Northern Front from our perspective was anything above the railway line in Rhodesia from Plumtree to Mutare. The Southern Front was anything below the railway line. So Rodwell’s responsibility, was not only to command areas like Feira, Mt Darwin, Hurungwe and so on. His area now covered the whole Northern Front. This meant his responsibility was now much bigger. The Northern Front was the one now with the responsibility to spearhead the war effort. I was then appointed as the Northern Front signals commander. We moved to Lusaka. By this time, Zvafa was still alive and we worked very, very well. He was one of the most brilliant cadres that we had. Very pragmatic and he was a motivator. I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he had recommended that I be made the Northern Front signals commander. When we moved, the structure was such that it was Zvafa, Timothy and Flemming and then myself. So for all intense and purposes I can say I was number 4 in the ZIPRA signals hierarchy but in charge of where the action was – the operations. This was 1978 and can you imagine I was just 19 years old?

MH: At that young age, how difficult was it to execute your duties?

Cde Peter Scotch: You need to know that the liberation struggle was fought by youngsters. When Mangena died, he was about 32 I think? All these guys I am talking about the Rodwells and so on, the instructors, they were 23 or 24. Never underestimate the ability of child soldiers. At that age, the ability to perform and focus is incredible. There is nothing else you have in your mind.

MH: Wasn’t there the temptation to get over-excited, over-experimental?

Cde Peter Scotch: Yes and no. I think in my case, when you have everything cut out in terms of what you are supposed to do, you don’t have much room to get excited because it’s so clear that this is your assignment and what you need to do. Everything is defined and that is what you need to do. For example, when I went back to Lusaka one of the first missions I had was to prepare about a company of 100-120 signals personnel that were going to be integrated into the regular brigade that was being trained by the Zambians at Mulungushi. So my work was cut off. The moment I got there the guys had been selected and I started training them. I did that but also continued managing signals operations at the whole front. This also involved the continuous training of the guys at the front. Sometimes even adding more people, ensuring adequate supply of signals equipment and the day to day operations. I was now slightly detached from operations at the communications centre at the headquarters. Of course I knew what was going on but not on a day to day basis. They guy who was running the centre is actually now in signals in the army, Colonel Siziba. We used to call him Dobson.

MH: Who are some of the people you trained?

Cde Peter Scotch: Ummm, let me put it this way – the core of the signals department in the Zimbabwe National Army which was headed by Colonel (rtd) Tshinga Dube are the guys that we trained. They became the core of the signals department because they were integrated into that department at independence.

MH: Tell us a bit more about the attack at Freedom Camp.

Cde Peter Scotch: After we went back to Lusaka, in fact this is when we also had another incursion into Zambia by the Rhodesians. By this time Zvafa was still alive. When I was training those guys and the headquarters was still at Freedom Camp, through various intelligence sources and our interceptions, we were aware that the Boers were preparing for an attack. So we had a house which housed the communications equipment. We had a perimeter fence. So three weeks before the attack at Freedom Camp, I ordered a trench to be dug right round the perimeter so that in case of an attack the first line of defence would jump into those trenches. But about a week before the attack I just felt that the fence should be taken away. And so it was taken away. At the same time we were moving the headquarters to another place which had bunkers and so on. The rest of the operations moved to this new HQ. The only part of the HQ that remained at this original place was the communications headquarters. So on that fateful day, it was an October morning. I remember I woke up around 6am as usual. We normally would have parade around 8am. I walked around and saw a friend of mine who was asleep and I tried to wake him up. I said to him “get up, it’s time to get going” but he said “no, no let me sleep a bit more.” So I went back to my guys and I asked for everybody to be on parade. I had that company that was training but I also had about 10 guys who had just come from the Soviet Union. We were trying to give them some orientation before deploying them. Normally these comrades would not come on parade. But that day I insisted that I wanted everybody on parade. This was around past 8am. The procedure was that if you are on parade the man of duty would rotate, from either section commander or platoon commander. This man on duty would give you a report and you would say “Section A so many, Section B so many and so on.” On this day the guy on duty came to me and said “sikwanile” and I said “no, no that is not the way to do it. Do it properly.” When he went back, one of the section commanders just started shouting “nanso, nanso, nanso.” The next thing we heard was a loud explosion. I shouted “Cover! Cover! Cover!” The comrades took cover into those trenches.

Where we were at Freedom Camp, that was a transit camp and on this particular day, we had units that were coming from Angola and we had units that were preparing to go to Angola. So all in all we were around 1 000 to 2 000 people. The bombardment started around 8:20am. This was the time when people were supposed to be lining up to get their breakfast and so on. It was also that time of the year when right round the perimeter of Freedom Camp was a field which had been ploughed and it was all clear. So I recalled what had happened at Feira.

There I was, I was the only person with a weapon, one AK47. But it was not even on me. It was inside the house. And there was nothing I could do with an AK anywhere. All I thought was, if these guys have paratroopers like what I saw in Feira, then we are finished. I got up and managed to cross that field. When I crossed the field I looked back, I could see about three jets that were now bombing the central part of the camp. Some of them were dropping napalm. You could actually see that when the jets drop a bomb, there would be a ball of flame.

I then saw three helicopters in a battle formation. They were literally machine-gunning the comrades who were trying to run away. It was open massacre. It was a killing ground. I sat under a tree and saw the helicopters go once, twice and then out. It was for about 30 minutes. I watched all that.

MH: You say you ran across this open field and watched the massacre from there. Does a good commander run away from a battle, especially considering that your comrades didn’t have anything to defend themselves?

Cde Peter Scotch: (laughs) Remember I told you that prior to this attack I had ordered the fence to be removed and we dug trenches? That was the best defence that the commander could do under the circumstances. All these were bombardments from jet fighters and the helicopters. There was no weapon at all. No weapon.

MH: You tell me about 1 000 to 2 000 people, no weapons? How come?

Cde Peter Scotch: No weapons at all. This was just a transit camp. It was a refugee transit camp. No weapons at all. I remember at some point, I think some requests had been made to mount some anti-aircraft guns. This was about 20km from Lusaka and we couldn’t do that. That was also the route where you had civilian aircraft passing and so on. So there was no way the Zambians would agree to this.

So my role as commander of that unit was simply to put the first line of defence which were the trenches. There was nothing else I could do. In retrospect, that actually worked because when I came back to the camp later, out of all the people that were there on parade, my unit, we lost nobody. The only injury was someone who was hit by a shrapnel. He was taking cover then the shrapnel flew and hit him. The one person who died from my unit was at the kitchen. But comrades from other departments who were not on parade were massacred.

After the bombardment I then moved to the main road. Freedom Camp was off the road from Ndola to Lusaka. So I went to the main road and when I got there that’s when I met Cde Mutinhiri and other comrades. Believe me when that bombardment was taking place, the whole of Lusaka came to a standstill. I met Mutinhiri and these other comrades and told them what had happened. We then went back to Freedom Camp.

When we got back, we got to the entrance and I think that is when we parted. My immediate task was to quickly check what had happened to the communication headquarters. Going towards the communications headquarters, I passed by the place where I told you I tried to wake up that friend of mine. Those jets were dropping about 500 pounders and when those pounders land, they decimate everything around. So I looked around the place where he had been sleeping, but I only saw his left foot. I think he tried to wake up and he was blown apart. So I picked up his foot and that is the only thing that I buried. Just his left foot and a boot.

Walking further, there were bodies all over. Some guys had been burnt by napalm, different limps all over the place. It was a total disaster.

MH: Were there some comrades who were still alive?

Cde Peter Scotch: Ohh, yes there were. Some were alive, injured and so on. I walked to the communications house. Fortunately, the damage to the house was cosmetic. The equipment was not totally damaged. I think Mutinhiri and these other comrades contacted the Zambians. Ambulances came, civilians came to help and some of our guys carried their comrades to hospital.

We started picking up the dead bodies. Next to the communications house, there was this mango trees, we started lining up all the dead bodies. We lined up in two rows 226 bodies. I think about midday to just after lunch, we managed to organise excavators and bulldozers and buried these comrades in mass graves. We started carrying these comrades one by one putting them into the mass graves. I think around 3pm we had finished the burials. Soon after this, it rained a lot. Lots of rain.

After this, I didn’t go anywhere. I took my stretcher and put it next to my communication house and that I where I slept.

MH: Umm, this is gruesome and horrific. Can you tell us, you lined up 226 bodies and some comrades were injured, how do you sleep and where do you get the courage to continue with the war?

Cde Peter Scotch: (long pause). You have no option. In fact this just demonstrates how high the stakes are and the resolve required to be able to win the war. When you see the extent to which the enemy can go to ensure that you don’t take over the country, it makes you aware that there is value that the enemy is trying to defend which is yours. Not theirs.

That even makes you more determined to fight because if you don’t you are the one going to be killed. You would rather take the fight back to them. So instead of the massacre and instead of death making us afraid, this motivated us further. These are your colleagues you are seeing dead. These are comrades who had become part of your family. You see them dead there and you ask yourself, why? The answer is the Boers don’t want to let go what is yours.

MH: You are turning a tragedy into something that motivates you?

Cde Peter Scotch: Correct. You become much stronger and more resolute. Now you know that if you don’t do that, a lot more of your colleagues outside and inside the country are going to be killed.

MH: You said you took your stretcher and slept just outside the communications house. Tell us what was going through your mind?

Cde Peter Scotch: I will be honest with you, I didn’t shed one tear.

MH: Why? How come?

Cde Peter Scotch: I pinched myself and asked myself, “am I alive? Am I really experiencing all these things?” You become emotionless. Your mind somehow becomes blank. I know some comrades went crazy. Even the guy who was the camp commander, he was called Mbizvo, he never recovered from that. He never even came back to the camp. The guy who was the chief of staff at the camp was killed. I remember he was called Ishmael. It was that bad.

In my case, I came back and said this is what has happened, life has to go on. The struggle has to continue. We have a programme that we have to finish and we will finish it. There is nowhere else to go, except to be here and see this through.

MH: But on hindsight, do you think something could have been done to save these comrades?

Cde Peter Scotch: It’s difficult. Very difficult to say. Don’t forget the struggle was fought with a lot of constraints in territories that were not ours. Assuming that you would have wanted to take certain measures, it also depended on internal and external factors. Some of those places we were we had just been offered and even the defences we could put there we could not put the defences arbitrary. There had to be some kind of agreement with our host. So that’s a bit of a difficult question to say we could have done this or that.

MH: You mention the issue of constraints. What were some of these constraints?

Cde Peter Scotch: When we were training, we started being a group of about 300 and we ended up around 1 000. I had a pair of shoes I started training with but for sizes 8 upwards, there were no boots. My shoes were torn after three months and after that I trained barefoot, right in the middle of the game reserve. You know I went to the Soviet Union barefoot. You know during training we used wooden poles? Around January-February 1977, we went for about a month surviving on a cup of beans in the morning, a cup of beans in the afternoon and a cup of beans in the evening. And we still had to train. These were some of the constraints on the training side. When it came to operations, we still had lots of constraints in terms of equipment, food and so on. We need really had enough to execute the war the way we would have wanted.

However I must admit that our hosts played their part. I remember Kaunda even used to starve his own people to provide for us. We even had structural problems within ZIPRA itself. Remember we were learning on the job. Nobody had done it before. So you find out that some decisions were ok, some were not. We corrected mistakes as we went. Under these circumstances I don’t think anything better could have been done.

To be continued next week. Hold on for a frank and honest discussion

 

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