COMRADE Aaron Nhepera whose Chimurenga name was Cde Simbi Chinembiri is one of the few comrades who saw Cde Soul Sadza a few days before his death in 1976.
In this interview with our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni, Cde Nhepera narrates how their group watched in misery as Rhodesian forces massacred their fellow comrades, but then he says comrades don’t cry.
Cde Nhepera joined the liberation struggle on February 5, 1974 after a long struggle to convince his father, Daniel Ngwitu Chimutsuko, who had had some brush with the Second World War.
Cde Nhepera, who was born in 1956, grew up in Mt Darwin and attended Chibara and Chimumvuri Primary Schools before moving to Salisbury (now Harare) where he went up to Form 2 at the then Kambuzuma Community Secondary School.
His father was now working as a domestic worker in Mabelreign, but young Aaron had to walk all the way to Kambuzuma because the nearest school, Ellis Robin Secondary School, was reserved for whites only. That irked him as he could not understand why this was happening.
When his father announced that he could no longer afford to send him to school while in Form 2, he took the decision to join the liberation struggle. For the first time he saw his father crying.
Read on …
MH: What do you recall your father telling you as he cried?
Cde Nhepera: After crying that’s when he came back to me and said “son, do you really understand what war is all about?” I told him I didn’t care what war was all about. He started telling me stories about Hitler and what he did during the World War – the killing of pregnant women, young children and so on. He asked me, “is that what you want to do?” I told him l didn’t care.
MH: You were in Form Two, what had really convinced you to join the liberation struggle?
Cde Nhepera: This was around 1973 and by this time, war had already started in this country. There were comrades in my area in Mt Darwin and I had met them several times. We had spoken about me joining the liberation struggle. At this time, the comrades gave us a very encouraging picture of the war. They told us that we were going there to be trained as pilots and that we would still be able to continue with our education.
MH: Who are some of these comrades?
Cde Nhepera: I vividly remember Cde Sam Chandawa, Cde Nkomo, Cde Dick Joboringo and another comrade called Cephas. When my father discovered that I was determined to join the liberation struggle, he said we would discuss the issue with my mother. He said, “lf your mother approves you will go.” Surprisingly, my mother said, “Let him join others.” That’s how I was saved by my mother, Rosy Kanyoka, and that’s how on February 5, 1974; I crossed into Mozambique to join the liberation struggle.
MH: Tell us of your journey to Mozambique.
Cde Nhepera: I think l left Salisbury around September 1973 and should have joined the liberation struggle that year but things were a bit difficult in Zambia and Mozambique at that time. So I waited until February 1974 when Cde Sam Chandawa and his group came to our rural area again. They took a group of boys from my village and as we walked, several other boys joined us.
As we started this journey, everything seemed fine but things changed later. While we were in Zimbabwe, it was okay because we moved from village to village with the povho preparing food for us. When we got into Mozambique, things changed. Finding food was very difficult. Remember at this time, Mozambique was still at war as Frelimo was fighting the Portuguese regime. So there was literally no village life on the Mozambican side. The ordinary people were in hiding as they were being terrorised by the Portuguese with the assistance of the Rhodesians and the South Africans. So finding food and water was a big challenge.
MH: Young as you were and as things got this difficult, wasn’t there a point when you thought you had made a mistake joining the liberation struggle?
Cde Nhepera: Never, ever, but I can tell you that there were some boys who ran away and went back to their villages. Some of the boys were way older than me. As we were walking in Mozambique, the comrades would tell us that after walking a short distance we would get “pabhazi.” We thought that when we got to this place, some bus would be waiting for us (laughs). So we walked in anticipation.
After walking for long hours, we discovered that no, no, no they were not talking about “pabhazi”, they actually meant a base. This was a base where the camaradas, the Frelimo fighters, were based. At that base, they told us this was temporary and things would get better later.
MH: So after staying “pabhazi”, when did you later go for military training?
Cde Nhepera: There were quite a number of bases along the way. When we got to Zambezi River, we could not cross because there was heavy patrol by the Portuguese, Rhodesians and the South Africans. So we stayed along the Zambezi moving from one base to the other for about a month. When it proved difficult for us to cross, it was decided that some of us get quick military training and be sent back to the war front.
You can imagine. We didn’t receive proper training. All they could do was show you how to assemble and disassemble the SKS riffle, show you how to aim at a target and how to shoot. They also taught us a bit of individual tactics – lying down, crawling and so on. After that, this training was over and we were very excited to go back home. Why? Because there was food there. We were actually starving.
MH: How many of you were sent back home and where exactly where you deployed?
Cde Nhepera: Around April 1974, we were sent back home after this training. We were quite a number. I was put in a section that was commanded by a guy called Masuku. The detachment commander was Cde Mhaka while Cde Dick Joboringo was the sectorial commander. I was deployed in the Rushinga area, not very far from my home area. I think I was about 20km from my home area but never thought of going back home and fortunately, I didn’t meet any of my relatives, save for one uncle who was now living in this area.
(Cde Nhepera later went for military training in Tanzania in November 1974. He narrates his encounters with the architects of the Nhari-Badza rebellion and how he was part of the Takawira company that was sent to reinforce the Zanla forces who were given the task to crush the rebellion. He narrates how he later rose through the ranks and was deployed in 1976 together with 67 other comrades to open Munhumutapa sector in Manica Province, led by Cde Wemutsoka. These comrades started operating around the Zimunya area. Cde Nhepera has lots of gripping stories to tell and in the coming weeks, we will publish his narration in full. For this week, we are focusing on the time he spent with Cde Soul Sadza.)
MH: When you say you were the ones given the task to open Munhumutapa sector, what exactly do you mean?
Cde Nhepera: You see, no one had been to this area except those who had gone for reconnaissance. We were going to be the first comrades to introduce war in this sector. The first thing we did was to talk to the masses to get them to understand why we were in their area and what war was all about. We did this as a way of minimising the chances of the people in the area selling us out to the Rhodesian forces. I have to tell you that in the initial stages, there were quite a number of sellouts in the area and of course we gave them a bit of some punishment to show them kuti zvekutengesa hazviitwi (laughs).
MH: What was that bit of punishment?
Cde Nhepera: Honestly speaking, a couple of people lost their lives nenyaya yekutengesa iyoyo. Quite a number of our comrades died due to these vatengesi. If it was proved kuti munhu atengesa, some people lost their lives but others vaingorohwa.
So each time we got to a new area, we would see masabhuku and the chiefs to let them know we were in the area and tell them what we expected from them and their people. Taienda futi kumasvikiro enzvimbo idzodzi totaurira vepasi kuti tasvikawo kunzvimbo yenyu, motichengetedzawo.
Before I went to war, I didn’t know much about zvemasvikiro and so on, but in that situation we had to do this. Ndakazvidzidzira chop chop because this was our life and this is how we fought the liberation struggle. To be honest with you, I think masvikiro played a major role in our liberation struggle. Its not tangible or quantifiable but seeing some things that were happening during the liberation struggle, masvikiro played a major role. Of course we had received military training but pane zvimwe zvaitika that we couldn’t explain, except to say there was some intervention from some powers.
So we spent lots of time making people in the area understand the liberation struggle. I was now the section political commissar but within two weeks I was promoted to become the detachment commander. They saw my experience in terms of bravery and how I spoke to the masses and our leaders thought I should be the detachment commander. The section commander then was Cde Muzanenhamo, he was quite an old man.
One of the days we went for an ambush along the Mutare-Birchenough Bridge. We waited for the enemy to come but the enemy didn’t come. Pakazoitawo an unfortunate truck yeSwift that we stopped and burnt after taking some goodies from the truck. We told the truck driver to get out of the car and one of our comrades who had the bazooka fired at the truck.
MH: This is quite interesting because Cde Shambakumanja narrated this incident exactly as you are putting it.
Cde Nhepera: I know him actually. I think after this attack, the Rhodesian forces started tracking us. We could see helicopters hovering above and vana mujibha informed us that the Rhodesian soldiers were in hot pursuit. The mujibhas told us that the soldiers were coming in large numbers and we decided that we should not fight them but retreat. We were clearly out-numbered. Our commander by this time was Cde Machipisa. He had just come from the rear with Cde Soul Sadza. This Cde Machipisa gave me quite a torrid time. He was asking me why we had decided to retreat instead of engaging the enemy. I tried to explain that we were out-numbered but he was not prepared to listen to all this. I was saved by Cde Soul Sadza who had to explain to Cde Machipisa that it was not ideal under the circumstances to engage the enemy. He reminded Cde Machipisa of the principles of guerilla warfare that you attack the enemy only if you have the advantage. This was my first time to meet Cde Soul Sadza and he really impressed me as a leader.
MH: You were seeing Cde Soul Sadza for the first time. From your assessment, what kind of a person was he?
Cde Nhepera: He was a fatherly figure, quite composed and never showed that he was a member of the Zanu High Command. This was a very high rank but he mixed and mingled with us. He was not very talkative. I would say he was a reserved person, but not very reserved. He was very intelligent. We were together only for about two days if I am not mistaken.
MH: Was it the norm that such a high ranking official could be sent to the war front?
Cde Nhepera: Let me go back a bit. He was the first member of the High Command to come to the war front. I am not sure why he was at the war front but we got the impression that he was to become our provincial commander. After his death, Cde Tonderai Nyika (Cde Zimondi) came and was made the provincial commander for Manica. Later we were told that Cde Soul Sadza had come to assess the situation at the war front as we were operating as ZIPA during this time. ZIPA comprised Zanla and Zipra comrades who had been brought together to fight the war as a combined force.
So like I said, we spent about two days with Cde Soul Sadza and he meant to travel to Mutambara. While still at the base where we meet Cde Soul Sadza, we got information that there was a CID guy in the area. I think he had been sent to enquire about us. The mujibhas told us about this and we went and brought this CID guy to our base. He was questioned and he indeed confessed that he had been sent to track us. He was supposed kuti apfuudzwe but some comrades said we can’t just kill him here. It was decided to go for an ambush naye and tiri ikoko obva apfurwa. We went for an ambush and now we were a large group including even Cde Soul Sadza. We went to this place that people in the area called Pa18. Again, the enemy didn’t come and this CID guy had to be dealt naye ipapo.
MH: Dealt naye? What do you mean?
Cde Nhepera: (laughs) He was shot and killed ipapo. He knew he was going to be shot and so as people tried to separate him from the rest, he would rush back to us as a way of trying to protect himself. He nearly got me shot as he ran to me trying to hide (laughs). These stories are not pleasant to talk about but these things happened. He was shot and almost died in my hands. We later changed bases and that’s when we separated with the group that was going kwaMutambara with Cde Soul Sadza. These comrades didn’t make it to Mutambara because that is when they were attacked. I think for some reason these comrades walked during daylight and that’s how they were spotted. These comrades settled at Chimhenga village, still in Zimunya. I think around 12 noon, while we were camped at our base about 10 km away, we saw helicopters going in the direction where these comrades were based. This was the first battle in that area involving aircraft. We also saw several Rhodesian vehicles going in that direction. In no time, takanzwa hondo yaputika in that direction. Pfuti dzakarira I think the whole day.
MH: You said you were about 10 km away and you knew this is where this high ranking official, Cde Soul Sadza was. What did you do?
Cde Nhepera: Some people would think the logical thing to do in such a case is to rush in that direction to assist these comrades but guerrilla warfare is not like that. Things would not work that way. We were out-numbered and the Rhodesians were armed to the teeth. So we could not walk into such a situation. This was not a regular kind of warfare.
The practice in such instances was just to wait and see those comrades who would have managed to escape. Hapana chataikwanisa kuita. What we only managed to do was to hit one of the planes that was flying back after this battle. This plane flew over our base, flying very low and that one we dealt with it. Takati takuwanira pano and we really hit it ikadonha towards the Grand Reef. That’s all we could do in our small numbers and our limited armament.
MH: So you watched this battle from a distance? How did it feel seeing all the planes and hearing the guns rambling?
Cde Nhepera: We watched in extreme misery. Taingoti dai macomrades akwanisa kubuda. It was so painful because we knew our comrades were dying and we couldn’t do anything about it. This was a fierce battle. All we could do was to hope that nothing serious would happen to the comrades. We just hoped that we would see some of the comrades after the battle. After waiting for hours, no one came and we knew our comrades had been killed. I can’t explain the pain but we didn’t cry. Comrades don’t cry.
We went around Zimunya area trying to establish if any of our comrades had managed to escape but we didn’t find anyone. We concluded that all the comrades had perished. It was just recently that I got to know that Cde Shambakumanja survived that battle. We were later told nana mujibha kuti some of the bodies of these comrades had been displayed at a nearby shopping centre. This was part of the propaganda by the Rhodesian forces.
These comrades had died and we said they would not die in vain. Their spirits were with us and we had to continue the war. Their deaths didn’t demoralise us, we actually felt motivated. The feeling was tinoda kutsividza at the earliest opportunity. We said rest in peace macomrades. Later I moved from Zimunya to Marange area.
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