Reliving ‘fiery’ Feira Battle . . . Six days of non-stop bombardment

Last week, Cde Joseph Sibuko Mbedzi (born 1951), whose Chimurenga name was Cde Joseph Sibuko, narrated how he joined the liberation struggle in 1971. He narrated his journey until his deployment to the war front where he rose through the ranks to become the ZIPRA Northern Front Commander.

In this interview with our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni, Cde Mbedzi narrates how he lost 28 comrades during the famous Feira Battle following six days of non-stop bombardment by the Rhodesian forces. Did you know that freedom fighters could take a nap in the middle of serious bombardment? Cde Mbedzi talks about the “absence being the presence and the presence being the absence” in 1980. Read on to understand why.

 

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Cde Mbedzi: The first attack into the rear by the Rhodesian forces was at Kavhalamanja Village, next to Feira Township. Feira is on the Zambian side while on the Zimbabwean side is Kanyemba. The Rhodesians spotted our comrades crossing the Zambezi River. This was during the day, so they were spotted by the enemy. When they were about 50m from the river bank, the enemy attacked. The comrades who were manning the crossing point returned fire in order to protect those who were in the canoe. However, one of the comrades in the canoe was captured while three were killed and two survived. The two survived by swimming back to the Zambian side of the Zambezi.

MH: Do you still remember the name of this comrade who was captured?

Cde Mbedzi: I can’t remember his name but he was my homeboy. After being captured, he gave the enemy all the information regarding our camps and everything. By this time we didn’t know that he had been captured. So immediately after this attack, the Rhodesian helicopters started patrolling the area. Our anti-air unit fired some artillery towards the helicopters. The helicopters disappeared after discovering that there was some heavy machine gun fire.

The enemy then planned to attack the area. They deployed their reconnaissance unit in conjunction with our comrade they had captured. It was around March 1977 during the rainy season. This comrade knew exactly where I was sleeping together with General Moyo. We were in our tent as commanders. We heard their movements during the night. They had a very small torch. It was raining. When we heard their movements, we sneaked under the tent and crawled some five metres away. We could hear them whispering, “They were here. Where are they?” We didn’t fire at them and after a while they walked away.

In the morning, we asked some of our troops to make patrols, but unfortunately for us, the enemy was already inside the camp.

MH: How?

Cde Mbedzi: They took advantage of the new recruits who had just come for reinforcement. So these comrades didn’t know each other by that time. The enemy put on the same uniform as ours. Around 10am, the supply unit came with more supplies in a truck. When we called one of the units to come and offload the stuff that included uniforms, the enemy started shooting.

Soon after this, the bombing started. In no time we saw the enemy dropping paratroopers from Dakotas. Unfortunately or fortunately, they dropped the first paratroopers right on top of one of our units. Those paratroopers were hit. They dropped the second batch of paratroopers some distance away from the first place, but our troops were advancing and so they shot them again.

The Rhodesians retreated a bit farther into Kanyemba and they didn’t know we had a base there. That base was heavily armed with heavy artillery pieces. A Dakota was hit and it returned to its base on fire. This battle took almost six days. The Rhodesians wanted to penetrate our camp but they were failing. There were two mountains on each side and a flooded river on the other side. So there was only one way to enter into the camp. Those who had sneaked into our camp we had dealt with them.

Seeing this, the Rhodesians resorted to bombing the camp. The Zambians had also given us an anti-air unit. We even had the heat-seeking missile and the Rhodesians realised that we were indeed well armed. They started using some guided missiles. They launched about two, but it was wet and so they didn’t explode. Some of their bombs also failed to explode. We were very lucky.

The enemy wanted to push our troops towards the river so that they could corner them. As commanders, we commandeered the troops to advance towards the enemy. In the evening, the helicopters would retreat but they had ground forces. Some of these Rhodesian soldiers were very fluent in Shona and Ndebele. So during the night they would appear as if they were assisting the injured people. They would take the injured comrades to a secluded place and kill them.

`One of the comrades tipped us that this was happening and we apprehended the Rhodesian solder who was doing this. When we captured him, we discovered that he was a Selous Scout. We interrogated him and due to the fact that we knew the bombardment would start the next morning, we had no time to hand him over to the rear. We shot him dead that night.

MH: Who exactly shot him?

Cde Mbedzi: One of the comrades who had discovered that this is what he was doing. We later searched him and discovered that he had a Rhodesian identity card regardless of the fact that he was putting on a ZIPRA uniform. During the night we evacuated those who were injured to a safe place but still within the camp. At first we thought the safest place was a place where there was the Zambian army, but we discovered that they were also under attack. The Zambians had to withdraw. So there was nowhere for us to go except to re-arm ourselves and fight on.

We had our stores at the camp, so we took our ammunition before it was burnt by the bombs that were being dropped by jet fighters. In the morning, fire started attack. Heavy bombardment.

MH: This went on for six days?

Cde Mbedzi: Yes, for six consecutive days.

MH: As commander what were you doing?

Cde Mbedzi: You discover that you don’t even have the chance to fire even a shot. I was commanding to make sure that the troops survived. We had a skeleton kitchen and so when at one point I asked my comrades to go to the kitchen, they were attacked. The enemy had already sneaked into the kitchen. A fierce battle ensued but we killed some of these Rhodesians. Others, however, managed to escape. After a few days, I could see that my comrades were really getting tired but the enemy kept coming. You know some comrades slept through this heavy bombardment?

MH: Sleeping?

Cde Mbedzi: Yes, sleeping. The enemy also gets tired and needs time to rest. The Rhodesians could change the forces and it was only during the change-over that my comrades quickly slept. They knew that danger was coming but I would allow them to sleep for a very short time. We would take turns to be on the front line. You know when a soldier is under attack, one hour sleep is enough for a day. And when it is raining, you don’t sleep. So for six solid days, we were under heavy attack but we stood our ground.

MH: Yourself as commander, did you find time to sleep?

Cde Mbedzi: I only managed to sleep on the sixth day. You know I lost a lot of weight within those six days. On the sixth day, during the afternoon that is when we decided with General Moyo to go separate ways to give each other a chance to take a nap. I think the enemy was also getting tired. So when it got a bit quiet, I took a nap. I also think the enemy was re-strategising at that time. They never thought we could put up such resistance. Sometimes the enemy would retreat about five kilometres away. We would also be re-strategising.

MH: So how did this battle end?

Cde Mbedzi: One of the days, the ZAPU headquarters sent some reinforcements together with the Zambians but they were all crushed by the Rhodesian airpower. This is when we discovered that we were alone in this battle. The troops inside Feira were the ones who were supposed to fight and win this battle.

MH: How many where you inside this camp?

Cde Mbedzi: About three companies. Two old companies and the new company that had just arrived. A ZIPRA company used to have 71 people. We really had nowhere to go except to fight. Our advantage was that due to the mountains and the river, the enemy was using one way to try to overrun us, but we resisted. On the sixth day, we saw the Rhodesians picking up their dead bodies and we knew they were about to retreat for good.

We managed to kill quite a number of Rhodesian soldiers. Like I told you the first and second batch of paratroopers were hit while still in the air. We lost about 28 comrades during this battle. The Zambians lost 26 soldiers. The Zambians were angry. You know after discovering that they could not penetrate our camp, the Rhodesians went and bombed nearby villages. Many civilians were killed. The Rhodesians even destroyed one Zambian school that was nearby. Every March since Independence we go there for memorials.

After this, the Zambian government decided to move our bases and camps away from the locals. This made life very difficult for us. We were given bases about 30km away from the Zambezi River. It was now very difficult for us to walk to the Zambezi carrying our ammunition and food. It took us many days to walk to the Zambezi and look for a crossing point. We had to speak to the Zambians. They agreed to move us back near the Zambezi River.

We discovered that our problems were coming from the Rhodesian base in Kanyemba and so we decided to attack this camp. We attacked Kanyemba with heavy artillery around 4pm. The Rhodesians returned fire, but we destroyed their camp but failed to assault fearing helicopters. In the evening, we deployed more comrades inside Rhodesia and they continued pounding Kanyemba. Some of our comrades got injured in this attack. For treatment, we went to this clinic where there were two nursing sisters who assisted us. We later took these two nurses to the rear in Lusaka because we knew the Rhodesians would come looking for them. These nurses were sent for further medical training and at independence, they came back as fully trained doctors.

MH: At least that’s a happy story in the middle of war. But Cde Mbedzi, tell me, as commander you lose 28 people, how do you feel? What goes through your mind?

Cde Mbedzi: It was painful. This is the time as a commander you think of getting into Rhodesia to commit genocide but then we were fighting a heavily armed army. These deaths gave the commander the time to reflect and think. That is when we decided to retaliate by hitting their Kanyemba camp. We decided to destroy all Rhodesian camps that were close to the border. From Kanyemba we destroyed their camp at Masoka and then Mana Pools.

When we got to Mana Pools, we were given information that (Bishop Abel)Muzorewa was coming to make an address. His auxilliary soldiers and Rhodesian soldiers were also coming. We wanted to stop Muzorewa from coming the next day and so we planned to attack the night before. This was during that time when there was talk of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. We destroyed the camp, I mean bringing it down. The soldiers were on parade around 7pm and we attacked. It was as if we were shooting at schoolchildren. We used mortars and so on to make sure that no one survived. Muzorewa never came the next day because we had brought the camp down. We crushed the soldiers there.

MH: As you are crushing those soldiers, you feel ok?

Cde Mbedzi: Yes, of course. I felt ok because that was war. This was my target. It’s like when you are planting something in the field. When harvesting, you expect a bigger harvest. I was expecting a good harvest here. A good tonnage. The following day, the Rhodesians decided to send patrols from Guruve, they even brought some armoured tanks but it was very unfortunate. We were expecting this and so we had already mounted heavy artillery at Mahuwe. When they came, we hit them like hell. Even the povo was shocked by our artillery. The firepower was just too much. I remember some ZANLA comrades even celebrated our victory during their pungwes.

MH: You were responsible for planning all these attack?

Cde Mbedzi: Yes. I was the overall regional commander.

MH: Sorry to take you back to the Feira battle a bit. You lost 28 comrades, how did you bury them?

Cde Mbedzi: We evacuated for a day and then came back. The Zambians came to assist us. The ZAPU High Command had to send some of its commanders. There was Dingane, Enock Tshangani and others. The Zambians were still scared because they thought the enemy could come back again. When we returned, the Rhodesians sent some jet fighters, but they didn’t bomb us. I think they just wanted to scare us. At the front was General Moyo and myself. It was tricky because the area was booby-trapped but we knew how to move in such an area. Unfortunately, the driver of one of the Land-Rover from the headquarters when he was reversing after the burials, his car was blown apart by a landmine. We had to bury him also.

MH: When you were burying these comrades, did you conduct any rituals?

Cde Mbedzi: No, we just buried them. I can’t say it was a proper burial. These were shallow graves. We would go close to the dead body and dig a trench close by and bury the comrade. There was no time for ferrying the comrades into a mass grave. The Zambians later on had to rebury these comrades. I think this was after we got our independence.

MH: In your narration, I don’t hear about female comrades. Did you have female fighters?

Cde Mbedzi: Yes, we had female comrades. We had a women’s brigade which trained in Mkushi but the female comrades were not for operations. They were for administration purposes. The leader of this female brigade was Cde Getrude Moyo. She is still alive. She was deputised by Busi Ngwenya, who is now Colonel Mhandu.

MH: When you talk to ZANLA comrades, they talk about being assisted by the spirit of Mbuya Nehanda to fight during the liberation struggle. From the ZIPRA side, what did you believe in?

Cde Mbedzi: From the ZIPRA side, since the day I was deployed at the war front, I never consulted spirit mediums. We believed in the combat tactics but we respected what the locals said. If the locals said don’t do this, we would not do it. We respected our culture and you could see sometimes, for example when we were attacked in Feira, you know the eagle, there were so many eagles in the sky that joined the jet fighters. The whole area was dark because of the eagles. They were diving like jets. It was as if they were trying to block the jets from attacking us. You could tell that there was something happening although we didn’t take it seriously.

MH: Do you have a comrade that you lost during the liberation struggle whose death still haunts you?

Cde Mbedzi: Yes, yes, the comrade who was my pronto, my communication guy. His name was Mbokotho. He wanted to go and mount the radio on a higher position. He was hit by the enemy as they were going up the mountain. The radio was captured. They fell into an ambush. I had worked with him for a very long time. A well trusted soldier. An honest person. He was always by the side of his commander. Rest in peace, good soldier! You see when they went to the first peak point, the radio didn’t respond. They decided to go to another peak that is when they fell into an ambush. We lost two comrades. Three survived. We said our comrades were not going to die just like that. We said let’s track down these Rhodesians.

Fortunately, these Rhodesians were ambushed by our other troops. They took back our radio and even the one belonging to the Rhodesians. You know up to this day, I still think of Mbokotho. This guy was very special to me as a commander. It was a big blow. I can understand now what they mean in military terms when they say it’s better to sacrifice 10 people to save one person because of his importance. After Mbokotho’s death, our radio communication unit was never the same.

MH: Ok. Let’s go back to your story. After attacking the several Rhodesians camps near the border where did you go?

Cde Mbedzi: We advanced farther into Rhodesia. We moved to Kachuta, Mudhindo, Nyakapupu and so on, knowing that the rear was clear. The Rhodesians were now afraid of us and the biggest danger was that they were now poisoning most water sources. But it was easy to see that the water had been poisoned. We would just look into the water to see if there was anything alive in the water. If there was nothing, this would mean the water was not safe to drink.

MH: Did you face issues to do with indiscipline as a commander?

Cde Mbedzi: Yes. I would say no one is supposed to sleep in the villages or no one should go for girlfriends, but some comrades would sneak out at night. You would discover the next morning that this guy was not here or the villagers would tell you “this one sometimes sleeps at our house”. Some comrades would go as far as Feira to go and buy beer includinf for other comrades.

MH: As commander what would you do to them?

Cde Mbedzi: It was not easy to punish them. The only way to stop that was to keep them busy by attacking the enemy during the day. Keep them busy. So they knew that if I discover anyone of them was sneaking out, the next day I would make sure we hit the enemy during the day so that helicopters would make us run the whole day. This way they would discipline each other.

MH: Did you encounter problems of sellouts from the communities?

Cde Mbedzi: Ohh, yes. Some were sellouts but not by design. They were victims of circumstances. Sometimes these mujibhas were tortured and they were left with no option but to give out information. Some of them died in the crossfire.

So when we got to Guruve as commander I started assigning my units different tasks. I would give them orders to attack certain targets on given days. I would plan three attacks in one night to really confuse the enemy.

In the next instalment Cde Mbedzi gives an insight into ZIPRA’s operations. All this and more in The Sunday Mail next week. Be sure to get your copy.

MH: Where you part of ZIPA in any way?

Cde Mbedzi: Yes, but only as a fighter but ZIPA failed because of the involvement of some Frontline States and also because the enemy wasn’t happy. The Rhodesians sent their people so that as fighters both from ZIPRA and ZANLA we would quarrel and disagree. We would quarrel over petty issues like saying “you are not well trained and so on”.

When ZIPA failed, some ZIPRA comrades walked from Mozambique to Botswana. I remember Cde Chippa and others opened the Mberengwa Branch. There was also Cde Nelson Mupamawonde. When ZIPA failed, the people who were put under lots of pressure were the politicians. They were under pressure from the Frontline States.

MH: As ZIPRA tell us how you operated?

Cde Mbedzi: In ZIPRA, Rhodesia was divided into two, the Northern Front and the Southern Front. Our biggest obstacle was the Zambezi River. Later Botswana agreed to give us crossing points into Rhodesia. Only crossing points and no military bases. This made our life very difficult.

MH: So in your operations you never clashed with ZANLA because they were also fighting in some of the areas you were?

Cde Mbedzi: We never clashed. The fighters understood each other. The area we would meet frequently was in Guruve but we never clashed. Our tactics were different. You know as ZIPRA we terrorised the Rhodesians such that in 1980, I met the former member-in-charge of Guruve, Inspector Leng. He told me that during one of the battles he wanted to capture me but they failed due to our firepower. It was not easy to capture me. Maybe it was easier to kill me but not to capture me.

I would tell my comrades that don’t get captured. If you are severely wounded, kill yourself with a grenade because once you are captured, you will give out all the information after torture. This would put the lives of many people in trouble.

MH: Do you have any regrets from the liberation struggle?

Cde Mbedzi: Yes, there is this battle in the Kazangarare area. There was this white man called Jim Buck. He lived in a double-storey house. We assigned a unit to go and destroy this house but they missed the target. This way we had exposed the weapons we had and this gave the enemy encouragement that these people don’t know how to use their weapons. As a commander, this is bad. We don’t fight to wound people. We fight to kill people. When they missed I was angry. As if that was not enough, after this battle, we planned to ambush two Rhodesians who had gone to Mana Pools for fishing. Those whites were daring, I tell you. Despite the war, they would go on fishing trips.

So I sent a section to go and ambush these two Rhodesians. But this section failed to execute the plan. They just got out of their hiding place and said “hands up” to these two Rhodesians without firing any shot. One of the whites fired at them as he went down. I wanted these two whites to be captured but the idea was to injure one of them first. When this white guy fired, they shot the other one and the one who went down put up some fight before they killed him. He actually injured some comrades. I regret those two incidents. Can you imagine a unit being injured by one person?

MH: There is talk about the attack of the Viscount?

Cde Mbedzi: I wasn’t part of it but it happened in my area of operation around the Hurungwe area. This was a special operation by the ZIPRA High Command. The High Command, just like in any situation, can assign a special operation without the knowledge of the commander in that area. You only know about it afterwards.

MH: Did the High Command later explain to you what this operation was all about?

Cde Mbedzi: Yes, they did. I actually asked why these people were deployed without my knowledge. They told me that they thought Peter Walls was in that plane. The Rhodesians had almost at that time attacked Joshua Nkomo’s house and they were attacking refugee camps in Zambia. The High Command wanted to retaliate.

MH: After the war, how did you come back home?

Cde Mbedzi: I was the last comrade to leave Guruve on 29 October 1979. We saw a spotter plane dropping some pamphlets telling us that the war was over and we were supposed to go to assembly points. We moved some troops to the assembly points but me, Toddy Mpisi and about five other comrades were the last to leave Guruve. As the commander, I was the last to walk out of Guruve. We crossed to Kazangarare area. Most of our comrades went to Papa 1 Assembly Point. We, the last,  last moved to Mushumbi Pools.

MH: As you moved, where you excited?

Cde Mbedzi: We were not excited. We were not happy. We didn’t trust what was happening. When we got to the assembly points, people were not happy. The monitoring forces were saying they were the ones to patrol the areas and we didn’t trust them. But we later solved the issue. From Mushumbi Pools I went to Chitungwiza with my heavy artillery. When I went to Papa 1, that is in Chitungwiza, I became the overall commander. I told the monitoring forces that I wasn’t going to surrender my weapons just like that. This artillery was later integrated into the Zimbabwe National Army.

MH: Did you join the army?

Cde Mbedzi: I joined the army at 2 Brigade. You know as in any revolution, when things are ripe, people start thinking of other people. Later it was compulsory for us to leave the army. When we were fighting the war, there were others who were training. From nowhere these people were suddenly put in positions above us. Suddenly we were being told that we were not educated but we had fought and won the war.

MH: Who was sidelining you?

Cde Mbedzi: The ZIPRA High Command. They took people from nowhere. The field commanders were thrown away. Can you imagine a person like Tshinga Dube, who was our head of signals, he was made a Colonel? Philip Valerio Sibanda, who was the head of our reconnaissance unit, had to fight his way up the ladder. We blame the ZIPRA High Command for all this. Some people want to talk about ZANLA, but no, it’s the ZIPRA High Command which sidelined us. You know up to now some of my comrades are still asking why. The absence are now the presence, the presence are now the absence. We prosecuted the war, but we are now the absentees.

 

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