LAST week, Comrade Agrippah Gava (born 1956) whose Chimurenga name was Cde Conary Mabuto narrated how the Rhodesian forces massacred over 100 refugees at Chikumbi Camp in Zambia and how one could be ZIPRA without being ZAPU.
In this interview with our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni, Cde Conary narrates his journey back from the liberation struggle, his disappointment with the politicians as ZAPU and ZANU contested the 1980 elections separately, the challenges during the integration of forces into the Zimbabwe National Army and gives a frank assessment “why the fighting forces have become nothing in a country that they fought for.” Read on . . .
MH: Let’s get back to your journey during the liberation struggle. As the country was heading towards independence, where were you and what was your role?
Cde Conary: I was still at the ZIPRA headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia and still being the point person in charge of artillery. After Lancaster, there was talk about people going into Assembly Points. I came through Gwayi, we used to call it the Gwayi Column via Victoria Falls. I stayed at Gwayi for a while before I came to Harare where I was staying at Lundi Flats in Mabelreign. This is where there was the ZIPRA headquarters. If you remember is it Shashi or Sabi Flats that is where the ZANLA headquarters were located. The headquarters were just too close to each other. You know sometimes the ZIPRA and ZANLA forces at these headquarters would sometimes exchange fire due to slight misunderstandings. Very small things would trigger the exchanges of fire.
MH: As one of the ZIPRA commanders, were you happy with the way the war had ended?
Cde Conary: (long pause) Yeah, there was some form of excitement in the beginning. We were excited that the war had come to an end. What had impressed us all was that the politicians had went to the Lancaster House talks as the Patriotic Front. We were very happy. But the disappointing thing was that at the end of the day when they were going for elections, they decided to go separate ways. As ZIPRA we were disappointed by the politicians.
MH: Why and how did that happen?
Cde Conary: I told you about the divide and rule tactics that the enemy was always using. The enemy wanted to divide the people of one country. And the politicians were indeed divided. It was now ZANU on its own and ZAPU on its own during the elections. We were disappointed. How could people who had seen the need to unite going to Lancaster go for elections divided? This was one of the things that really disturbed some of us.
MH: In ZIPRA did you have the opportunity to talk about these things with the politicians?
Cde Conary: No, this was political. We were very far from the politics. We were in the army. We were very far from political decisions. We were in the armed forces. The people in the army who were maybe linked to the politics were people like Lookout Masuku, who was our commander then. By this time Nikita Mangena had died. There was Zwangami Dube as the political commissar of ZIPRA. These are the people who could have had a say in the political aspect of things. Some of us were strictly military people and there was nothing we could so.
And so while at the ZIPRA headquarters I was appointed as one of the members of the Joint High Command which was responsible for integration of forces into the Zimbabwe National Army. The three different forces — former ZIPRA, former ZANLA and former Rhodesian army — these were being merged into on force. So in the Joint High Command, I was still in my area of specialty, artillery. We later moved to Cranborne Barracks in Harare. I was now a Staff Officer. My colleague from ZANLA was Cde Denford Munetsi and from the former Rhodesian army there was Major Evans.
Our responsibility was to integrate comrades from the artillery departments. So I would go to the Assembly Points looking for ZIPRA comrades under the artillery department and bring them. Each of the three of us would bring an equal number per each time. For example if we needed 120 artillery men, I would bring 40, Denford 40 and Evans 40. These comrades would go for different assignments like training and so on.
MH: How difficult was this integration exercise?
Cde Conary: In the artillery department, it wasn’t that difficult. I remember that at some point, Denford was assigned something and I remained handling both the ZIPRA and ZANLA side of issues. I would always make sure that ZIPRA and ZANLA were always treated the same. So in our department the integration wasn’t that difficult. Difficulties cropped up in the Infantry Battalions where they started shooting each other and so on. A lot of havoc took place. Otherwise at Cranborne, we didn’t face many difficulties.
MH: What are some of the challenges you faced in your department?
Cde Conary: The only challenge was that at some point I had to be told by juniors that I was a dissident. I was told that ‘‘you are a dissident. There is nothing you can tell us.’’ This despite the fact that I was a member of the Joint High Command. Some junior with a small rank openly challenged me.
MH: How did this happen because we are told that soldiers are known for discipline and following orders?
Cde Conary: It’s because of what I was. My background.
MH: What background?
Cde Conary: The ZIPRA background. There were dissidents during this time around areas like Gokwe and so on.
MH: Which year was this?
Cde Conary: Am talking of early 1980s. I left the army in 1989. By this time, the dissident era had already come to an end through the 1987 Unity Accord. But then when juniors challenged you like that, you would just keep quiet. There was nothing you could do.
MH: How did that make you feel, a junior telling you that?
Cde Conary: That was the anti-climax of the revolution. That’s why I always say, it was supposed to be victory time, but it was not victory time for some. It was lamenting time. The times of the war seemed to have been better than the time of peace.
MH: Didn’t you have problems from those coming from the former Rhodesian forces?
Cde Conary: They were very cooperative. They were not a problem at all.
MH: When you came back from the war, how was the situation at home? Where your parents still there and did you go see them?
Cde Conary: While I was still at Gwayi, I phoned Dr Richard Ngwenya, who was at Magurekure Assembly Point, close to Chinhoyi. My mother was in Chinhoyi and so I directed Richard to go and see her and tell her that I was alive. So Richard is the one who brought the news to my mother that I was still alive. Of course after sometime I then started visiting home.
When my mother saw me for the first time, she was overwhelmed with joy. She was extremely happy. Happiness filled with tears.
MH: And you were also happy to see her?
Cde Conary: Yes, that time we were heroes. We were happy. Very happy to be heroes who had liberated the country. Little did we know that in a few months we would not be heroes? We would be victims. In the beginning we were heroes for sure. We felt it in ourselves that we had done good for our country. But ahh, hey, hey! A few weeks after that, we had to shrink.
Cde Conary: The situation changed from heroism to being victims. I didn’t know that going to fight for your country you come back and be treated the way we were treated. We go there, sacrificed our lives and we come back, only to be killed again. Only to be taken as rubbish. Even today I am still a rubbish. I am still a rubbish.
MH: What do you mean?
Cde Conary: What do I mean? Can’t you see for yourself? Look where I am. Can’t you read? Having contributed in the way that I contributed to the liberation of this country I feel that I deserve better. Just because of what I was, I can’t be given an opportunity. This despite the fact that I am educated and I can do any job.
MH: You continued with your education after the liberation struggle?
Cde Conary: When I came back, I did a Diploma in War and Strategic Studies, did a BA Honours in History then I went to the University of London and did my Masters in War and Strategic Studies at Kings College. I became a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe and later I went to the University of Cape Town to do a doctorate which I didn’t finish because I didn’t go for exams.
MH: In your studies what were you majoring on?
Cde Conary: I majored in post-war rehabilitation of ex-servicemen.
MH: Now, having majored on post-war rehabilitation in your studies, do you think the situation of former ZIPRA and former ZANLA comrades was handled properly after the liberation struggle?
Cde Conary: Things were not handled properly. The comrades were taken just as a spent force to be thrown away. And indeed, they were thrown away.
MH: By who?
Cde Conary: The politicians. The former ZIPRA and ZANLA had to fight back in their small way. This was 17 years later in 1997 after they had organized themselves as an association. They were now saying how can you be paying a pension to the former Rhodesian soldiers for having killed us? The Government was paying pension to the former Rhodesian soldiers but was giving the former liberation fighters nothing.
MH: From your perspective, what was supposed to happen after the attainment of independence?
Cde Conary: There was supposed to be a post-war rehabilitation. These comrades had lost years of their life. They had lost opportunities. You could not just send them home. While they were still in the Assembly Points, there was need for them to be rehabilitated mentally. They had been affected by the war. They were living like animals in the bush — mosquito bites, rainfall, guns, helicopters, blood and death. Living like animals and were no longer used to staying with people. Staying in the mountains. Always waiting for danger and always on alert. No proper time to rest. These people had to be rehabilitated mentally.
After mental rehabilitation, those who were still able to go to school, were supposed to be sent to school. Those unable to go to school, take them through some courses. Give them something to do. Fund their projects. While doing their projects, track them to check on their progress. That is the reintegration of former fighters into civil society. Those with medical requirements, make sure there is a fund for their treatment and so on. All this wasn’t done. The former fighting forces were told to go back to their homes. Those who were lucky to get into the army are the people who earned a better living. The majority of our comrades went back home to be the laughing stock.
Other countries are proud of their liberators. They made sure that they don’t just throw away people who sacrificed their lives. They have come up with different provisions and programmes to cater for these people and reintegrate them into civil society.
Even the disabled were supposed to be looked after. But our disabled comrades, where at Ruwa there and were just dismissed to go back home. Go and talk to Andy Mhlanga about what I am talking about. He was one of the people at Ruwa Rehabilitation Centre when Rex Nhongo came to announce that now it’s time to go back home. He will tell you what happened there.
MH: Is it too late to address this issue?
Cde Conary: It’s not. These comrades are still there and surely something can be worked out. We fought to liberate this country and we get around $200 and the former Rhodesian soldiers up to this day are earning about $500? How do you justify that? Those who were fighting so that we don’t get our independence earning more than those who freed the country? Unfortunately, our population has been taught that war veterans are claiming something that they don’t deserve. It’s unfortunate, but that is the reality. The former Rhodesian Selous Scouts who killed us earn more than us. What impression does this create?
MH: But you are related to the former President Mugabe? Couldn’t he look into your situation?
Cde Conary: The former President is my brother. I told you I am from Zvimba. But I am not one of those people who plead for anything. If I had gone to him pleading and kneeling I think that could have happened.
I don’t regret having fought the liberation struggle as ZIPRA. It’s unfortunate some people see us from that perspective. I have very good ZANLA friends. I respect ZANLA comrades. I had a ZANLA wife for your own information (laughs). Like I told you, I was never a politician who saw things in terms of ZIPRA and ZANLA. I was never a politician. I was in the armed force.
MH: Do you regret the contribution you made towards the liberation of your country?
Cde Conary: No, not at all. I am proud that I did something. I am also proud that in the year 2000, we managed to spearhead the land reform programme. I know a time will come when Zimbabweans will appreciate our efforts. It’s a matter of time.
MH: How do you feel when some people look down upon war veterans?
Cde Conary: These people don’t know what it is like to fight in a war. They don’t know what it means to be shot at. Just look at how those people reacted in November last year when the army rolled its tanks into town, they went silent. They were paralysed with fear. War is about life and death. You must be ready to die. ZANLA would sing “Amai nababa musandicheme kana ndafa nehondo!” That’s true.
MH: When you pass on, how would you want to be remembered?
Cde Conary: Zimbabweans are enjoying themselves and have shown us that we don’t matter. They may as well not even remember us. We don’t need to be remembered, but we are proud of what we did for this country. There is a generation that has been brought up to hate war veterans and to think we are just nothing, it’s all good and fine. We are very proud of the little we did. Hope when the time comes, this generation will do even bigger things for its country. Whether they remember us or not, it’s up to them. We will die as a proud people. Like I told you, maybe it’s some future generation that will enjoy the benefits of what we did and will remember us.
They will remember that there was a war to liberate this country and thousands of people died. They will remember that we fought for nothing — no pay, no salary — but just the need to liberate this country.
MH: After fighting and winning the liberation struggle, why do you think some people still look down upon war veterans?
Cde Conary: I think it was a deliberate thing to undermine the war veterans by those who were in power. To undermine the role that war veterans played. It is them who instilled into the population the spirit of saying the armed forces did nothing. But if the truth is to be told, it’s them who did nothing, those politicians. They were staying as if they were in hotels. They didn’t fight for this country at all. They were being given good food and acquiring degrees. They had white reporters coming to interview them, their wives coming to see them, their children coming to see them.Some of them being trained by the Smith regime to be infiltrators of the armed struggle. They infiltrated the armed struggle. They were not supposed to accept that Lancaster House document because we were going to take the country as the armed forces. We were now liberating zones, taking over the country.
MH: Are you one of those comrades who believed in the bush-to-office strategy?
Cde Conary: Yes. We were now taking over territories. We were now victorious. And the politicians go to Lancaster and sign that bad document. You know why they did that?
Cde Conary: They were afraid that they might be irrelevant. Therefore they succumbed to nothing. There was no pressure at all, but they knew that if the armed forces take over the country, they were going to be irrelevant.
We were now winning the war and Smith realised that. That is why he was serious about Lancaster House. Our politicians they go there and say yes. And they come from Lancaster with nothing for their guerillas, the fighters. Smith protected his soldiers and said the civil service of the country, whoever takes over, must respect that civil service.
Our politicians wrote nothing to protect us, their fighting forces.
They didn’t know our suffering because they were enjoying themselves. Now we come into a free Zimbabwe with half-baked things for the fighting forces. About 20 years after the attainment of independence, you haven’t taken the land and given it to the people. Why when you were saying the land was the biggest grievance of going to war?
You are given degrees and knighted by the Queen of England and you feel good? You are a good black man because you are protecting the interests of the whites. In the meantime, the fighting forces have become nothing in the country that they liberated.
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