The Sunday Mail
Last week, Comrade Joseph Sibuko Mbedzi, whose Chimurenga name was Cde Joseph Sibuko, spoke about how he, as ZIPRA commander for the Northern Front, together with his team spent six consecutive days under heavy bombardment from Rhodesian forces in Feira. It sounded like a blockbuster war movie, but then he lost 28 of his comrades.
In this interview with our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni, Cde Mbedzi concludes his narration by asking why the “absence became the presence” in 1980?
Read on . . .
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 Front Line 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 Front Lines 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 easy 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: Yea, there is this battle in the Kazangarare area. There was this white man called Jim Buck. He had a house with an upstairs. 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 after.
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 last moved to Mashumbi Pools.
MH: As you moved, were 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 Mashumbi 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 front of 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 commandeered the war, but we are now the absentees. If we were not educated, that’s fine but we had all the tricks and strategies to fight the enemy. Otherwise the brave soldier is not one who is educated. Its about how brave and how you fight in a war situation.
MH: When you look at the role that you played during the liberation struggle, do you regret?
Cde Mbedzi: I don’t regret as such because I came back from the struggle and saw my parents. I saw what we fought for – be it good or bad. But there is somebody who died for this country who didn’t even see this. People are now talking about themselves today. Its painful. I was a commander of many people, I know what I am talking about.
There are thousands lying in Mozambique, Zambia, Angola and Tanzania. Have we consulted their parents? What are we doing about them? We seem not worried about them. You know sometimes I meet some comrades I commandeered and they ask me, “Commander, what are you thinking about so and so we left at this and that place?” I have no answers.
Other families just come to me and say our son never came back, we want to know whether he is still alive or not. I know some people may have moved on, but I was a commander and people expect answers from me.
I want to appeal to this new Government to allow comrades who are still alive to visit their areas of operation. They should go and see the people they worked with and thank them formally. There is need to identify the several mass graves out there. The povo should be allowed to speak out regarding the role they played during the liberation struggle.
MH: You travelled a long and winding road during the liberation struggle. What advice would you want to give to Zimbabweans in general and youths in particular?
Cde Mbedzi: The youths of today are becoming wild and the situation needs to be corrected before it goes out of hand. I hope these interviews will go a long way in assisting in that regard. We can’t put all the blame on the youths. We, the former freedom fighters, starved the youths of real details from the war.
We have some fence-sitters in Zanu-PF today who go wherever the wind goes. There is need to go back to the revolutionary principles. There is also need to de-politicise our conversations. Zimbabweans talk too much politics as if that is all that is there to live for.