The Sunday Mail
AFTER narrowly escaping with his life during the Nyadzonia massacre, Cde Baxton Mupotaringa (BM), a former ZANLA combatant, later received basic military training. He also trained as a medic, before using his newly acquired skills to save lives. In this instalment, he narrates to our Senior Reporter TENDAI CHARA (TC) how he cheated death when his group was ambushed by the Rhodesian army.
TC: Last week, you recounted events leading to the Nyadzonia massacre, the military training you received and subsequent deployment to the war zone. Kindly take us through some of the battles you took part in.
BM : We stayed at Tembwe for close to three months as we awaited deployment to the front.
We were then deployed to Tete.
Initially, we were housed at a former FRELIMO military camp called Battaliao.
From this camp, we were moved to Guru, another former FRELIMO camp.
From Guru, we often crossed into Nyamaropa, Nyanga, for military raids.
We often went as far as the Regina Coeli area.
As soon as we got to Guru, our commanders started planning for battles.
They wanted to expose us to the practical aspects of war.
Plans were made for us to attack the Nyamaropa District Administrator’s offices.
At Nyamaropa, the district administrators were blacks, who were also members of the Rhodesian army.
That was the first time I fired a shot in a real battle situation.
After the battle, I was happy that I had put into practice what I had learnt during military training.
During the ambush at Nyamaropa, we also used the Mortar 60s and we could hear the Rhodesian soldiers’ terrified cries as we shelled them.
A lot of Rhodesian soldiers died during that surprise attack.
Deep down in my heart, I was rejoicing.
I felt we had avenged the killings in the Nyadzonia attack.
After the attack, we retreated to our base inside Mozambique, just after Kaerezi River.
Since our section was specifically for reinforcements, we were deployed to the war zone in small groups.
Five or six newly trained fighters would be integrated into a section that had experienced fighters.
The commanders were battle-hardened cadres, who had seen it all on the front.
Remember, we were practising guerrilla warfare.
We would hit the enemy and then retreat.
The commanders didn’t want us to engage in conventional warfare since it is associated with high casualties.
After the Nyamaropa raid, we were grouped into different sections and deployed to different operational zones.
I joined a section that was under the command of Cde Mhanda.
We had Cdes Cleopas, Blockbuster and Saigon in this section.
Our section was deployed to the Nyadowa area and we operated in areas surrounding Regina Coeli and also in Chirimanyemba.
In our zone, we occasionally laid landmines along Bhinya Road, ambushed the enemy and performed other acts of sabotage.
From Nyadowa, we moved to the Nyatate area.
The biggest challenge we faced in Nyatate was lack of cover.
The Nyatate area did not have enough trees to conceal us from prying eyes of the enemy.
The Rhodesian army had established observation points in the mountains.
This lack of cover made us vulnerable to attacks.
The enemy could easily spot us from a distance.
We set our base on a hillock that was near Nyatate Primary School.
Our base was sandwiched between two hillocks, with the only way out of the base being through a narrow valley, which was also a wetland.
The tall grass in the wetland offered cover.
During the day, we could lie low at our base.
At night, we often conducted the popular pungwes.
One day, we were sold out to the enemy, resulting in an enemy attack.
The Rhodesian army had hired some Red Indian mercenaries, and these came to attack us.
The mercenaries walked around with sacks, which they tied around their waists.
These mercenaries had been misled by the Smith regime into believing that the guerrilla fighters were easy targets.
I think they were given the impression that freedom fighters were some sort of dwarfs who could be easily captured.
So, the mercenaries always had their sacks ready, so that whenever they captured a freedom fighter, they would shove the perceived dwarf into the little sacks.
I would want to believe that the mercenaries, whom I think came from the United States, had been promised good money for every freedom fighter they would capture.
The mercenaries who came after us that morning had distinctive features and wore rings on their ears and noses.
Their faces were always painted black so as to hide their white faces.
The attack occurred after we had camped at this base for four days.
During the war, we were advised against staying at the same base for a long time.
We stayed at this base for that long because we were waiting for further instructions from the rear.
TC: If you can go straight into the details of how the battle unfolded.
BM : Yes, Cde Ngwenya was our commander during that time.
What happened was that it was very early in the morning and we had just had our breakfast when all hell broke loose.
After having our breakfast, we went to our individual positions to rest.
Our aim was to spend the day at the base, then leave for another base during the night.
Locals had alerted us on the presence of Rhodesian soldiers in the area.
After serving us breakfast, the villagers went back to their homes.
There were about 12 of us.
As we relaxed, we noticed six helicopters approaching from the direction of Nyamombe River.
Helicopters make less noise when they fly low along river banks.
We were taken by surprise.
The helicopters were already in battle formation and it was clear that the attack had been meticulously planned.
As the helicopters approached, our commander instructed us to load our guns with armour-piercing bullets.
Armoured bullets are designed to hit and penetrate steel bodies.
After changing the magazines, we were instructed to open fire at the helicopters.
Our commander ordered us to focus on hitting the helicopters’ tail rotor blades.
If a helicopter’s tail blades are hit, the machine will crash.
Our commander, who was calm despite the approaching danger, also instructed us to remove the automatic firing system
and replace it with the single-shot firing system.
Our commander wanted us to carefully take aim, then fire one shot at a time.
He didn’t want us to waste bullets.
The battle raged up to around 10am, when our commander ordered us to retreat.
We had downed two helicopters and the enemy had called for reinforcements, which came in the form of a bomber jet.
The arrival of the bomber jet turned the tide against us as bombs rained on us.
The few trees that served as our cover were easily flattened and we were exposed.
We had to retreat and find our way out of the killing bag.
Our only escape route was through the narrow wetland.
The enemy was aware of this and had sealed off that route.
The majority of my fellow comrades were shot and killed as they tried to escape through this route.
Unlike my fellow comrades who rushed into a death trap, I was fortunate enough to notice that this route was sealed and rushed back to the hillock where the bombs were raining.
Cornered and without bullets, I retreated into a thicket and awaited death.
Don’t miss the next instalment in which Cde Mupotaringa will give us a hair-raising account of how he was shot and seriously injured but still managed to escape.