The Sunday Mail
Retired Brigadier General Timothy Kazembe is not your ordinary soldier. The Zambian government has honoured him with the Order of Grand Commander Distinguished Service First Division. He served in the Zambian Defence Force from 1970 up to 2003 with his last appointment being the Defence Secretary at the Ministry of Defence.
He currently holds several posts in Zambia and played a crucial role in the peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo but that’s a fascinating story for another day.
Born in 1947, Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe was in the thick of things as he coordinated military activities of liberation movements in Southern Africa.
Our Deputy Editor, Munyaradzi Huni (MH) tracked down Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe in Lusaka, Zambia and his hospitality told the story of a commander with a big heart. Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe talks about Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle from a military point of view. He talks about effect by the Smith regime to provoke Zambia into a war so as to derail the liberation struggle. He talks about the incident at Chifombo where Zambian soldiers shot and killed some Zanu cadres.
Without mincing his words, he talks about the assassination of chairman Herbert Chitepo in 1975. “From a military point of view, that was the job of an insider that one,” he boldly declares and goes on to explain.
Read on . . .
MH: I spoke at length with former Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vernon Mwaanga about Zambia’s involvement in the liberation of Zimbabwe. He gave me the politics and the diplomacy. Now, we want to hear Zambia’s view of the liberation struggle from a military point of view. Tell us, as the liberation movements came to set up camps and offices in your country, from a military point of view what were the challenges?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: From a military point of view, I can tell you that there were many challenges. First, the hosting of liberation movements in Zambia was political to achieve independence in all these countries.
When the liberation movements were here, the Rhodesian forces attacked us and we wanted to retaliate. We were restrained from doing so by the politicians. Hitting back at the Rhodesians would change the course of the war. It would now be a war between Zambia and Rhodesia, side-lining the liberation struggle.
Second, we had the responsibility to monitor the movements of the freedom fighters and their ammunition. We had stringent measures that the liberation movements had to follow and we were forced to assign our forces to move with some of the freedom fighters.
MH: We will talk about the stringent measures later. Tell us, in terms of logistics how were the arrangements?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Any logistics in terms of moving ammunition from one point to the other, we had to know where they wanted to go, when and how.
These were the days I was a staff officer and later operations officer. Later like I told you I became a border centre officer. I was deployed in Siavonga area to coordinate the movements of the freedom fighters from and into Rhodesia.
I would ensure that the freedom fighters crossed Zambezi River safely after checking the presence of the Rhodesian forces. As Zambian forces, we were informed of any movements and for those fighters who would have crossed into Rhodesia, we would give them a date to report back. We also gave them an alternative date to return in case something went wrong in Rhodesia.
At times we even gave the freedom fighters targets to go and hit in Rhodesia after sending our surveillance teams.
My responsibility was to operate about 150 kilometres into Rhodesia at that time.
MH: How would you do it? Would you go with your forces into Rhodesia?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: (laughs) No, no, no. We found people to use to gather information regarding the movements of the Rhodesian forces. These people would go for reconnaissance.
MH: Let me take you back a bit. You spoke about the decision not to retaliate when the Rhodesian and South African forces invaded Zambia to attack the Zanla and Zipra cadres. At what level was this decision taken?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: At the time, the Zambian Defence forces were highly politicised in matters relating to the liberation war. We knew that if we go head on with these rebel forces from Rhodesia and South Africa, we would lose direction.
However, it doesn’t mean we didn’t hit back. We killed many Rhodesian and South African rebel forces in Zambia. We would only fight back after a direct attack. We had this gun which we called “KK’s voice” which these rebels feared a lot. Just a 75mm anti-tank gun but when fired, it caused havoc to these Rhodesian and South African forces.
MH: During these early days, what ammunition did these liberation movements have?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Well, they carried small arms, grenades and rocket launchers.
MH: These weapons were being sourced from all over the world. When they got to Zambia, how were you making sure that these weapons remained in safe hands and that they would go to the specific areas where they were supposed to go and not harm ordinary Zambians?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: There was very close liaison and co-ordination between the headquarters of the liberation movements and the Ministry of Defence. All movements of logistics we had to know. We also provided escort for some of the movements. Of course we had one or two problems, regarding the movement of ammunition but generally things were in order and under control. We managed to monitor all movements of logistics.
MH: There was the political side of the liberation struggle and the military side. How exactly were you coordinating these two?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: There was a time when the military thought they were not being given the chance to carry out their duties. They wanted to hammer the rebels from Rhodesia and South African who were invading Zambia. But as I said, we were highly politicised and we were operating at the same wave length with our politicians.
MH: So for coordination purposes how was the structure like?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: For the military, it was the Ministry of Defence and for politics there was Foreign Affairs. Other departments like Office of the President, Intelligence and Security and Home Affairs also chipped in.
MH: The setting up of camps during these early days, how did you choose the areas you chose?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: It depended on the type of camp. Others were transit camps where people coming back from training would stay temporarily and they were off. Others were logistical camps where some ammunition would be kept secretly. Then other camps were to coordinate the operations to send the freedom fighters into Rhodesia. There were also camps for quick training.
So some of these camps, in fact quite a number, were nearer the border around the Central Province and around Lusaka.
MH: Did the Zambian military train some of the freedom fighters?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Yes, we did. The purpose of establishing the Liberation Centre was to first train our own people who would be attached to the liberation movements. So at every camp, we had our own officers liaising with the leaders of the freedom fighters. That’s why when liberation movements had casualties, we also had casualties.
These officers were there to monitor and see that things were moving smoothly. They would report to the head office regularly. They would also monitor the discipline of the freedom fighters and make recommendations to their leaders and so on. These officers would together with the commanders of the liberation movements train some of the recruits.
The training was mainly about minor tactics – like formations, how to conduct patrols, how to fire a fun, gathering information and so on.
MH: So from Zimbabwe, you dealt with which liberation movements?
Rtd. Brig, Gen. Kazembe: There was Zapu under Joshua Nkomo with its military wing Zipra. Later, Zanu came first under Reverand Ndabaningi Sithole and later under President Mugabe with its wing as Zanla. We worked with these military wings separately. Their political leaders also operated separately. Sometimes their commanders would inter-mingle. Remember their commanders were also political leaders.
MH: What would you say were some of the differences between Zipra and Zanla?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Let me start from the political parties themselves. Zanu took the stance of the armed struggle. They said the only way the rebel Rhodesian forces would understand was the armed struggle. They said negotiations were not working and through the talks, the Smith regime was just playing delaying tactics at the same time trying to manipulate other political parties. So Zanu took a stance to fight an armed struggle.
Zapu said we could use both routes – negotiations and the armed struggle. So from those approaches you can see there were differences. These differences at some point led to clashes between these two parties. Also the Smith regime was not idle. It started training agents to infiltrate the liberation movements. So some of the clashes we are talking about were caused by the regime.
MH: The Zambian government has been accused by some Zanla commanders of supporting Zapu. What is your comment?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: I really don’t think that was the situation. It was the fluidity of the situation that was on the ground. How Zanla and Zipra comrades were operating. Of course there could have been some dynamics that gave that impression at the political level.
Also remember Zapu was like senior to Zanu in terms of their formation. Maybe Zapu had dealt with UNIP in Zambia for a long time. At the military level I didn’t see what you are talking about.
MH: From a military point of view, reports say the declaration of the Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI) by Smith in November 1965, changed the course of the war. Explain to us how UDI changed the course of the war?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: The UDI prompted the intensification of the liberation struggle. On 11 November 1965, the regime in Rhodesia declared UDI. This sparked a series of reactions from all over the world, including the OAU, the region and even ourselves as the hosts of the liberation movements.
This is the time the regime started pursuing the liberation movements heavily and attacking them, especially along Zambezi valley. In declaring UDI, the Smith regime was fooled by the support they were getting from the South African government.
That action led the Zambian government to deploy soldiers on its borders and even start training and acquiring weapons to face Rhodesian and South African hostility. On the other hand, this was good for us because countries like China then gave us lots of ammunition to defend ourselves. We didn’t buy anything. We were given for free. We were given small arms including some artillery guns.
At that time Zanu and Zapu were banned in Rhodesia and we agreed to host them here. We agreed because we wanted them to use Zambia as a safe haven for the political and military leaders because they were banned in Rhodesia.
MH: When you provided a safe haven for the political and military leaders of these two political parties, it obviously meant providing them with security. Tell us a bit more about the security arrangements?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Many of the leaders like Joshua Nkomo, Chitepo, Tongogara and others we gave them protection and some privileges to enjoy. The movements had trained their own cadres so these gave them protection, then we chipped in with our own as and when asked to do so.
MH: When you mentioned the name Tongogara, you posed a bit. Tell us from a military point of view what kind of a commander was Cde Tongo?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Tongogara was a strong character, militarily and politically. He carried out so many brave activities as a soldier. Very brave operations. Even the way he encouraged cadres who were weak in mind to be strong and be motivated was out of this world. Sometimes he would jump out of the truck while it was still moving. That was a brave soldier that one. He was a military strategist. He could see in the future in terms of operations. He could see things that some could not see and come up with a counter strategy. He would think in advance.
You know sometimes we would sit down with the Zipra and Zanla commanders strategising how to execute the war. Like I told you I operated as a border officer so I knew exactly the points to attack and how to go about it.
We would exchange notes on how best to attack the Rhodesian forces.
Some operations went wrong and we would interrogate the freedom fighters what would have gone wrong because we planned everything to the last detail.
MH: How would you assess the effectiveness of your strategies?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: You see the military operations affected the political direction of the war so we had mechanisms to assess the effectiveness of our operations.
Whenever we heard the tone of the Smith regime softening, we knew our strategies were working. When the military was hitting them hard, they would quickly agree to sit down for negotiations.
If we captured any one of them, we used to call them terrorists here, they were very sensitive. Because of that we would make lots of noise about the capture and you would see their moral going down. They would cease their operations for days and their politicians would soften their stance.
Of course, the other strategy was that our comrades would tell us how their operations would have gone.
Whenever we captured these Rhodesian terrorists we would treat them well but of course we would put them under interrogation.
MH: So in terms of military, extracting information is quite important?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: All military operations can’t be carried out without information. You need information to use the appropriate approach, to attack at the right time and to know what is required. Even to determine how you go for the attack and how to retreat.
MH: When you were deployed along the border, tell us exactly what were your responsibilities and how you operated?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: We would study the movement of the moon to see the appropriate time to send the freedom fighters across the Zambezi river. We would look at the river itself to see the appropriate crossing points and check the water levels.
We would get information across to see the movement of the Rhodesian forces and we would also assess that after crossing the comrades should go to this or that place.
Our job was to make sure the freedom fighters crossed into Rhodesia without being detected. We would choose the appropriate place and appropriate time to cross, mainly it was during midnight.
It was a delicate exercise because it meant life and death. To make matters worse, we were coordinating not only one group but many groups. One in Siavonga, one in Chirundu and many other areas.
Even when they were returning from the front, we had to make sure they crossed safely. Once they got to the Zambian side, we would sit down and assess how their operations would have gone. I would get the report and bring it to Lusaka.
As the war went on, there were just too many freedom fighters crossing into Rhodesia and when Mozambique became independent, from a military point of view we were happy because it meant some freedom fighters would now be crossing via Mozambique.
Also after those clashes between Zanu and Zapu that were caused by the differences in approach to the war, the opening up of camps in Mozambique was a blessing because the clashes sort of died down. Another thing was that crossing into Rhodesia from Zambia caused lots of military headaches due to the Zambezi river. From the Mozambique side into Zimbabwe, its all land and so this helped in the war effort a lot. Although Zanu was now opening from Mozambique, the political headquarters were still in Lusaka.
MH: While in Zambia you said the liberation movements were given a number of conditions, tell us of some of the conditions.
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: The headquarters of these liberation movements were supposed to be in Lusaka only. The Liberation Centre was in Lusaka in Kamwala. We couldn’t allow the liberation movements to open headquarters everywhere because that would create lots of security problems and logistically it would strain us.
The office bearers were not allowed to go anywhere anytime and anyhow. I told you of the 20 kilometre radius for the office bearers. These office bearers were under constant monitoring. We limited staff to six people per each liberation movement. We didn’t want many people at the headquarters because that would make the headquarters a target for the Smith regime.
The office bearers also had to provide us with the list of their freedom fighters in Zambia and what exactly they were doing. The Office of the President and the First Division would have that list.
All the itinerary of the freedom fighters we were supposed to know well in advance. Even the dates of coming back we were supposed to know. All the crossing points were designated. The freedom fighters were not crossing anywhere and anyhow.
Remember these people were crossing to and from Rhodesia without passports. So the border centre officers were important in making sure that everything went according to plan.
MH: As the war intensified, reports say you actually had to remove some Zambians who were living along the border with Zimbabwe. Why did you do this?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Yes, we had to remove some Zambians living along the border with Rhodesia. The Rhodesians were attacking villages along the border to discourage Zambians from supporting the liberation struggle.
The Rhodesians de-populated people along the border on the Rhodesian side so that the freedom fighters would find no one to help them upon crossing into Rhodesia. Also they wanted free movement along the border so that whoever they saw, they knew it was a freedom fighter. From our side we removed people along the border, but we left politically correct tribesmen who would assist the freedom fighters in terms of food and to assess the situation along Zambezi river. These tribesmen suffered a lot as the Rhodesians attacked but they remained vigilant. We relied on them a lot for information. Of course some Zambians cooperated with the rebel forces but in no time we would identify them.
MH: Tell us a bit more about the attacks by the Rhodesian and South African forces into Zambia?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: You know what they say. When somebody is drowning, he or she will try to pull anyone nearby. The Smith regime intensified attacks into Zambia as a desperate measure because they could see that they were losing the war. It was like a drowning man trying to pull others with him. The Rhodesian forces attacked places such as Kavalamanja, Mushika, Chakwenga and Mugulameno in Feira (Luangwa district of Zambia); Chivundu, Siavonga, Sinazeze, Devil’s Gorge, Simonga and Kazungula in the Southern province; Mboroma, Mkushi, Maheba and Chikumbi in the Central province and Chongwe and even the Liberation Centre in Lusaka. Scores of Zambian civilians, police officers and soldiers were killed in these ruthless attacks.
These raids by the Rhodesian rebels into Zambian territory not only left many Zambians dead and others maimed but also had a devastating economic effect on the people in the affected areas.
Despite this, the Zambian government and its people remained steadfast in supporting the liberation struggle. We knew the Rhodesian rebels wanted to divert their defeat by starting a war with us but we refused to be drawn into the fight.
If the Zambian people had not received enough political education, these attacks would have made the people turn against the government. The Rhodesian rebels wanted to discredit the Zambian forces, to make them appear weak and unable to defend their people. But this trick didn’t work.
Our political leaders and military commanders were sure independence was near. Even the ordinary people knew the independence of Zimbabwe was near.
MH: These attacks you said they intensified towards the late 1970s? How exactly would they carry the attacks? Give us more details?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: On 6 March 1978, sixteen Rhodesian jet fighter aircrafts accompanied by armed helicopters crossed into Zambia and bombed transit camps and villages in Kavalamanja area of Feira. Immediately after the raid, three armed Rhodesian helicopters dropped a force of paratroopers in the area.
A Zambian company from 2nd Battalion which was deployed in the area was bombed. Its Officer Commanding Captain Kalima and eleven soldiers were killed.
They carried air offensives using fighter jets and helicopters and ground attacks. They slaughtered many innocent people and damaged property in Zambia.
You are aware of their ruthless attack using helicopters accompanied by two jet fighters on Mboroma camp and at Mkushi which was for girls. Only one girl survived that attack at the camp.
They bombed Chikumbi camp just a few kilometers north of Lusaka killing almost all freedom fighters who were there and civilians who were in close proximity.
In April 1979, a combined rebel Rhodesia force of Selous Scouts and Commandos crossed into Zambia through Chirundu using land rovers at night. They attacked Joshua Nkomo’s house and the Liberation Centre in Kamwala.
For some reason, prior to this attack, the Zambian army (armoured fighter cars) and Ferret Scout cars which were deployed at Kafue bridge had just been withdrawn to Lusaka. These rebel Rhodesians carried these and many other attacks with assistance from South African forces. Like I told you, some Zambians assisted them but we dealt with them effectively.
MH: Besides these barbaric raids into Zambia what other military strategies did the Rhodesian rebels try to implement to defend themselves?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: They went for desperate measures. They started compulsory military training for all whites. Anyone around 17 and 18 years was supposed to be trained. The Rhodesians even called for Soldiers of Fortune from as far as the UK, Canada and so on to come support them in the war. We got all these intelligence information from their people we captured.
Seeing that they were being defeated, the Rhodesian rebels modernized their air force. They secretly acquired aircrafts from South Africa. The Rhodesian rebels established strategic posts including observation posts along the border with Zambia and Mozambique. They also intensified intelligence activities with assistance from the South Africans. The other tactic I spoke about it earlier on where I said they de-populated the areas along Zambezi river. However, all this didn’t deter us from supporting the freedom fighters. In fact, also at this time, the Zambian Defence forces recruited more soldiers to counter the operations of the Rhodesian rebels. On the other hand, more friends were also helping us.
MH: General, let me draw you to an incident that happened around 1974 at Chifombo in Zambia. Some Zanla commanders I have spoken to speak about an incident where after clashes between Zanu and Zapu cadres, the Zambian regiment shot and killed some Zanu members. Are you aware of this incident?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Yes I am aware of this incident. It was an unfortunate incident. I am also aware that this incident has been misconstrued.
As the Zambian forces we were under instructions never to side with any party when these two were fighting. I know after this incident the recruits from Zanu quickly concluded that Zambia was supporting Zapu. No. What happened is that because of this misconception that Zambia was supporting Zapu, some Zanu cadres resisted orders from the Zambian regiment leading to a standoff. Unfortunately, some Zanu cadres were shot in the process.
MH: When this incident happened, where were you?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: I was at the army headquarters in Lusaka. You see, the clashes between Zapu and Zapu cadres really complicated things for us from a military point of view.
MH: I am happy that you are saying you were at the army headquarters. Did the army take any action against these members of the Zambian regiment who shot and killed the Zanu cadres?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Any incident that happened both in good and bad faith was investigated by the military. In this case, we investigated and discovered that this was a normal occurrence under the circumstances.
The members of the Zambian regiment acted according to what the situation required. This was an unfortunate incident, but the Zambian soldiers had to defend themselves. They felt threatened by the advances of the Zanu cadres. Of course the politicians took advantage of that incident and blew things out of proportion. Like I told you Zapu and Zanu were fighting a common enemy but they were rivals.
MH: Zipra and Zanla tried to fight as a united force but the efforts didn’t work. Why?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Like I told you, the approach to the war between the two was different. Also there was mistrust between these two fighting arms so they indeed tried to work together but it didn’t last.
MH: Earlier on, you spoke about the provision of security to both the political and military leaders of Zanu and Zapu. Now on 18 March 1975, chairman Chitepo is assassinated in a car bomb. Many people are still asking, where was Chitepo’s security?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: That was really an unfortunate incident. You see around 1974, there were lots of dynamics in Zanu. The matter was investigated and I wouldn’t want to say much about it because as Zambia we agreed that we would not say much about what we know.
MH: I hear you General, but just briefly, from a military point of view, what do you think exactly happened? Someone placing a bomb under a car. Is that an easy thing to do militarily?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: It had to be somebody who knows his movements. Someone who knows the right time to set the bomb. That person had to be an internal person. It’s not an easy thing to set up that kind of a bomb.
MH: With the security that leaders like Chitepo used to have both from the freedom fighters and from the Zambians, was it possible that someone from outside could come and place the bomb under the car?
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: The planning had to be done very, very well. As for someone from outside, uuumm, that would require even more delicate planning and that was not an easy thing to do considering the risk and so on. From my point of view, it should be insiders who knew the movements and so on. That one was the job of an insider. That was an insider that one. That’s all I can tell you for now. We were gripped with sorrow when we heard about the death of Chitepo.
That tragedy made us ever more alert and even the way we viewed the liberation movements changed. We heightened security. But like I said, it could be infiltration by the Rhodesian Special Branch.
MH: Besides this assassination, there were also cases of parcel bombs and so on sent by the Rhodesian Special Branch.
Rtd. Brig. Gen. Kazembe: Yes, there were such incidences. All these incidences were made possible mainly because of the clashes between the liberation movements. The clashes left loopholes that the Rhodesians capitalised on.