Last week, Comrade Agrippah Gava (born 1956) narrated how ZIPRA gunned down Rhodesian Viscounts in 1978 and 1979 and went on to give details about ZIPRA’s plan after this attack.
In this interview with our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni, Cde Conary speaks about how Rhodesian forces massacred over 100 defenceless refugees at Chikumbi Camp in Zambia and how he saw a fellow comrade whose stomach had been ripped open by a bomb kept on calling for help, but was ignored by the medics. It sends shivers down the spine. Read on …
MH: Comrade, you indicated earlier on that you saw horrific scenes at Chikumbi Camp when it was attacked by Rhodesian forces. Can you tell us more about what you saw and what exactly happened?
Cde Conary: What happened was that it was early morning. From nowhere Rhodesian planes suddenly appeared and they started bombing this camp. The commander of this Rhodesian operation was called Greenleader. From the helicopter, he was actually giving command to the Zambian Airforce to stay put on the ground and never to attempt to fight them back by coming into the airspace. I vividly remember him with his hoarse voice saying “eeehhh, this is Greenleader, we are not after you the Zambians! We are after the Rhodesian renegades stationed 10 km North of Lusaka! And therefore we are warning you, don’t come into the airspace!” This was even reported on the news at 8pm that day through their Rhodesian war communique. So they bombed that camp.
There was no protection for anyone. This was a refugee camp. There was no training taking place at this camp. This was just 10 km from Lusaka. It was just a transit camp. So defenceless people were massacred. Some ran away and escaped but many were killed. You could see body parts scattered all over the place. It was terrible and horrific.
MH: When this bombardment was taking place, where were you?
Cde Conary: I was there inside the camp. I also had to run for dear life. All I know is that in that maze of confusion, bombardment and death, we managed to get out of the camp. The first bombs are the ones that killed many people. The Rhodesians were also dropping napalm drums, people being roasted like meat. There was nothing we could do to help. We could not even fight back. Like I told you very few people had guns and there were all light machines guns.
After this bombardment, there came a time to ferry the injured to hospital and bury the dead. It was just too horrific. Ambulances came and the injured were taken to Lusaka, at the University Teaching Hospital. But as the injured were being picked up from the scene, I saw this comrade would stomach had been ripped open. You could see all his intestines and all hanging outside. But he was not dead. He was calling for assistance. The medics had realized that this comrade was going to die and taking him into an ambulance was going to be a waste of space. They left him there calling for help.
It was not only him, many were left calling for help but their condition showed that it was a matter of time before they died. I tell you such images never get out of your mind. They live forever. The medics reasoned that it was better to assist someone with high chances of survival. It was terrible I tell you. The lungs had been cut out, the liver in pieces but the comrade was able to call for help. What do you do?
This happened even at the war front. We got reports were some comrades would ask their fellow comrades to finish them off after being injured in a battle.
MH: How does this horror affect the mind?
Cde Conary: Anyone who has gone through this needs rehabilitation. This horror affects you the whole of your life. Up to now we have comrades troubled by hallucinations from the war. Those pictures never get out of their minds. Zimbabwean freedom fighters need a lot of rehabilitation. They saw a lot which was not supposed to be seen by a human being. Unfortunately, there was nothing like rehabilitation. You look today and think war veterans are normal. They are not. They can’t be. It’s not all war veterans who are normal. They have not been treated. The psychological effects of the war are still fresh and haunting them.
MH: We will come to that issue towards the end of the interview. So those comrades who died during this battle, how were they buried?
Cde Conary: The Zambians provided us with caterpillars and we buried them in mass graves. We picked up human parts that were scattered all over the place. I don’t even know the exact number of comrades we lost during this bombardment, but I should think the number was over 100.
MH: Comrade, when you see such horror, do you cry?
Cde Conary: We were no longer crying.
Cde Conary: That is what death can do. You lose the heart of crying. Even the training prepared us for this. We were trained not to cry. Sometimes the war turned you into someone who didn’t even smile.
MH: In ZIPRA as you buried these comrades, would you conduct any rituals?
Cde Conary: There were no rituals. Things like ancestral spirits and so on, no we didn’t do all that.
MH: As ZIPRA what did you believe in as you fought the liberation struggle?
Cde Conary: We believed that if someone is dead, he is dead that’s all. We didn’t believe that there is life after death. Even when I came back from the liberation struggle I was like that. I believed that life is something you describe through historical materialism. Death is just a change of form. We believed that we had to fight the war ourselves. There was no ancestor to help us.
MH: Let’s turn to another issue. Do you have a close comrade you lost during the liberation struggle?
Cde Conary: No, I don’t have.
Cde Conary: I think it had to do with a lot of hardening. I was never attached to someone to an extent that if they die I would drop down no.
MH: But what does the word comrade mean?
Cde Conary: Yes, it means comrade in arms but as you know at war people die. Did you watch the Second World War? Do you know that as we fought during the liberation struggle, there were sell-outs? Selous Scouts? People who were sent to infiltrate us so that we could be killed by the Rhodesian forces. When you identify these people, what do you do? That is your answer.
MH: Now that you have spoken about sell-outs. Tell us how you would deal with sell-outs?
Cde Conary: Some would be handed over to the Zambians who would deal with them. I don’t know what happened at other camps (laughs).
MH: Tell us a bit more about the ZIPRA tactics regarding fighting the war.
Cde Conary: The fighting concept of a guerilla is hit and run. You don’t have to waste manpower which has been trained and guns that had come as gifts from other countries. This is why the guerilla had to be thoroughly trained. As guerillas, the main strategy was to ambush the enemy, hit and run. The weigh down the enemy. A guerilla is not a force that takes over territory. There was now the grand strategy of a regular force being prepared at the rear. This regular force was supposed to be the occupying force, the conquering force. This force liberates territories.
MH: How would you deal with cases of indiscipline during the liberation struggle?
Cde Conary: I can’t really say in our case there was a lot of indiscipline. Most of the indiscipline was at the war front. There are some comrades who when they were given guns, they would not take orders from their commanders. They became dissidents. We had people who when they came to the front, started robbing buses, shops and so on. The command at the rear would really be worried. To solve this problem, we had some commanders who would go to the war front and put things in order.
MH: As ZIPRA which countries supplied you with most of the ammunition?
Cde Conary: It was the USSR, West Germany and Czechoslovakia.
MH: You were one of the deputy commanders in charge of artillery until when?
Cde Conary: Until sometime before the Lancaster House talks. After that operation to hit Mana Pools was conducted, the chief of artillery was imprisoned by the Zambians.
Cde Conary: Because that operation had created some problems on the Kariba and the Zambians were not happy about it. So they arrested him after confronting the ZIPRA High Command. The ZIPRA High Command handed over the Chief of Artillery, Andrew Ndlovu and he was put in jail. He was only released when Lancaster House was over.
MH: As one of the deputies, how did that make you feel?
Cde Conary: It really was a drawback but we continued to operate.
MH: So after his arrest did you take over?
Cde Conary: No. I didn’t take over but on everything that was being done in relation to artillery, the Chief of Staff was now consulting me.
MH: How was the relationship between ZIPRA and the Zambian government?
Cde Conary: It was a very close relationship because at each and every ZIPRA camp, there was maybe a platoon of Zambians. We also had our battalions being trained by the Zambians at Mulungushi. On the political front, the relationship was also very mutual.
MH: There is talk that the Zambian government at that time supported ZIPRA and not ZANLA. Was this true?
Cde Conary: I don’t really know much about that but as I said earlier on, can you go and read about the liberation movements in Southern Africa. You will hear about what were called “Authentic and non-Authentic Liberation Movements.”
MH: No, comrade tell us more yourself?
Cde Conary: No, go and read for yourself. All I can tell you is that in Angola there was MPLA and Unita; in South Africa there was ANC and there was PAC. If you go and read you will discover a lot about these liberation movements. Each and every country had what were called authentic and non-authentic political parties. The authentic parties were preferred by the groups of countries that supported the liberation struggle.
MH: ZANLA and ZANU were riddled by divisions during the war. What was the situation like in ZAPU and ZIPRA?
Cde Conary: There were no major divisions, but like any organization there was tribalism. You can call it tribalism, you can call it ethnicity. People sometimes would group according to their ethnic background. For example when Rex Nhongo left ZIPRA and went to ZANLA. You are aware that Rex Nhongo was ZIPRA trained? Why did he and others leave ZIPRA? Of course some left when FROLIZ was formed, but why did James Chikerema leave ZAPU? You need to research more on these things. Chikerema comes from Kutama. Why did he leave ZAPU to form FROLIZ together with Nathan Shamuyarira?
MH: Was ethnicity an issue in ZIPRA?
Cde Conary? It was not a pronounced issue but it would occur. That is why people like Rex Nhongo left. When Rex left, he went on to conduct popular battles under ZANLA.
MH: But you didn’t think of leaving despite the fact that other Shonas were leaving?
Cde Conary: No, no, no. It never crossed my mind because when I saw Joshua Nkomo coming with members of his Central Committee, the majority were Shona speaking people. There were people like Willie Musarurwa, Msika, Msipa and so on. That is why Nkomo was called “Chibwe Chitedza.”That was not a Ndebele nickname. Even the ZIPRA High Command was full of Shona people. There was Ambrose Mutinhiri, with high rank among the commanders. You had Masengo who later become Zimbabwe’s ambassador in Botswana after independence. He was the chief of training in ZIPRA. There was Eric Nyawera from Nyanga, there was Emmanuel Siziba, this was his Chimurenga name but he was not Ndebele speaking at all. At the end of the day you also had me. A Shona from Zvimba here.
I never thought of crossing from ZIPRA to ZANLA because I was never a politician. I was never a politician. I was a school child who joined ZIPRA, the fighting force and not ZAPU, the politicians.
MH: Did you play any role during the Lancaster House talks?
Cde Conary: I didn’t play any role at Lancaster. This was for commanders like Lookout Masuku Most of the comrades who went to Lancaster were not soldiers. They were party people.
MH: Can you clarify what you mean they were party people and not soldiers?
Cde Conary: ZAPU was the political party. ZIPRA was the armed wing, this was the army.
MH: So there were some comrades who were ZIPRA but not ZAPU?
Cde Conary: Yes, quite a number of them. The young school boys coming from Manama Mission in 1978. Are they ZAPU? You have the Minister of Foreign Affairs now, SB Moyo. He came from Manama in 1978 as a young school boy. Could you call him ZAPU? He was a mere school child who joined the liberation struggle to fight the liberation struggle. He didn’t join ZAPU. He joined ZIPRA because he came to fight. You have the former Minister Chiratidzo Mabuwa. She also came from Manama. Would you call her a politician?
MH: Am happy you have mentioned former Minister Mabuwa. Where there female comrades in ZIPRA?
Cde Conary: We had female comrades. They received training but they had not gone to the front when the war ended. We actually had a camp for the female trained comrades. Their commander was Gertrude Moyo. Former Minister Mabuwa was also there together with Cde Mhandu, she is a Colonel in the army now. These female commanders after receiving training continued to train other female comrades. In ZIPRA we would not allow female comrades to mix with male comrades. Female comrades stayed in their own camp away from their male counterparts. The leadership was afraid that if the two mixed, they would start producing children instead of focusing on the war.
I remember Joshua Nkomo who always said “what are we going to tell the parents of these girls when they go home with kids?” It was a big offense to be found in a camp for female comrades in ZIPRA.
Next week we will publish the last part of this interview were Cde Conary speaks passionately about how war veterans from the liberation struggle should have been treated soon after the war. It’s a touching narration. Don’t miss it!
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