The Sunday Mail
MR JOHN Nyamakawo, born 6 June 1951 in Karoi, was a prison guard under the Ian Smith regime from 1972 up to 1976. He has a heart-rending and draining horror story to tell. After finishing his Form 2 in Mabvuku in 1970, his brother, Farasi Nyamakawo, who had called him to Salisbury (now Harare) decided that he was no longer able to continue paying his school fees. So in 1972, with assistance from the brother who was working at Chikurubi Training Depot, Mr Nyamakawo joined the prison services.
With his own eyes, Mr Nyakakawo saw Ian Smith slaughtering freedom fighters like flies. We never thought that one day we would write this in a newspaper but this narration has left us with no option: THOSE OF A NERVOUS DISPOSITION SHOULD NOT READ THE NARRATION BELOW! Describing in gory and graphic details, to our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni (MH), how the freedom fighters were killed, Mr Nyamakawo says:
“So paiva nechimushini, chainzi Hangman’s Noose which had a rope. Saka musungwa aiiswa tambo around the neck nahangman. Musungwa aimiswa pakati pemasimbi maviri with the rope around his neck. Like I said, pasi pesimbi apa, there would be a hole that went down to the ground floor.
So the hangman would press some button and pakatsika musungwa paya pasimbi paivhurika nemagetsi then musungwa would plunge down to the ground floor with the rope chocking him to death. Aisvikoti bhii pasi! Oti gwiii, gwiii, gwiii. . .then ziiii!”
Read on . . .
MH: Can you tell us what led you to join the prison service in 1972, a time when other black people were joining the liberation struggle?
Mr Nyamakawo: When I came to Mabvuku that was the time of the Pearce Commission that was asking people kuti muri kuda kuti tirambwe tichikutongai here or muri kuda kuzvitonga mega. So during those days, one of our teachers would bring to class a small book called “Animal Farm.” After reading that book that’s when I became politically conscious. I was chosen as the leader of the youth at Chikurubi under Muzorewa’s ANC.
When I finished Form Two, my brother had married three wives and he said he could not continue paying my school fees. That’s how I joined the prison services in 1972 at Chikurubi Training Depot.
MH: When you joined the prison services, how was the training during these colonial days?
Mr Nyamakawo: Before I joined the prison services in 1972, the authorities were recruiting prison guards not because of their level of education but it was according to one’s height and weight. The height was supposed to be above 5ft 8 inches while the weight was supposed to be 150 pounds. When I joined the prison services, they were now training us so that we could understand the provisions of the Prison Act and the Prison Regulations. By this time, they were looking at those blacks who had some level of education. They were now recruiting according to the level of education because some of the guards, the ones who had no education, vaitizwa nevasunga after being tricked very easily. These guards didn’t know how to handle prisoners and the authorities discovered that this was costing the government a lot.
So when we joined, we were taught how to look after prisoners. These prisoners were in different classes. White prisoners were in Class One, coloureds in Class Two while blacks were in Class Three. Those in Class One vaidya chikafu chechirungu – meaning they would eat beacon, eggs, bread and tea with milk. Those in Class Two, would have bread with butter with tea and milk while those in Class Three would be given black coffee nechisadza chakaiswa salt for breakfast.
MH: You said you were the leader of the youth for Muzorewa’s ANC. Now on seeing these differences in the treatment of prisoners, what did you think?
Mr Nyamakawo: I could see this was really unfair. You now white prisoners would have their clothes washed by black prisoners? These black prisoners would even cook for these white prisoners and clean their prison cells. The white prisoners would even give orders kwatiri isu. They would tell us what to do even though they were prisoners.
The white prisoners were given a bed, blankets and sheets but we would sleep on the floor in barracks that had no windows. Taipihwa tumagumbeze tumwe twaivava so.
MH: This is really surprising – a prisoner giving a prison guard instructions? How did you take this?
Mr Nyamakawo: As black prison guards, we would talk a lot about this treatment but there was nothing we could do about it because we had been taught strict prison regulations. It was in the Prison Act and the Prison Regulations that the treatment of prisoners would be as I have just told you.
MH: During these days you are talking about, some freedom fighters had gone for military training and some were being deployed into the country. Quite a number of them were arrested. How would these political prisoners be treated?
Mr Nyamakawo: When I finished training, I was posted at the Harare Central Prison, (now Remand Prison along Enterprise Road). My main duty was to accompany political prisoners to court. Ndakaona zvakawanda zvandisinga kwanisi kupedza kutsanangura. I am currently writing a book were I will narrate everything that I saw. What pained me a lot about what I saw is that these political prisoners who were charged of high treason, especially the freedom fighters who had gone for military training outside the country and were found in possession of guns, these comrades were sentenced to death. My first encounter with these comrades after I finished trained was when 19 freedom fighters were sentenced to death. Ndakapihwa mabhanditi five zvikanzi cherai makuva maviri akanyura 9ft kuenda pasi. Ndakasupervisor mabhanditi aichera makuva iwayo. These freedom fighters who had been charged under high treason were killed takatarisa nekuti as prison guards we were allowed to see vachiwuraiwa. Vakauraiwa vakakandwa mumakomba aya two umu ten umu nine. There were no coffins. They were being thrown on top of each other semasaga. After this takavhara pamusoro nevhu tikanzi tidyare maroses and lawn tichibva takudiridza as if nothing had happened.
MH: Where are these graves?
Mr Nyamakawo: Tichingopinda muHarare Central Prison, there is an open space on the left that’s where we buried these comrades. I later asked some of the comrades and they told me that since 1965 when some comrades were arrested, that area was used to bury these comrades who would have been killed. Many of the freedom fighters who were killed during these days were not buried outside the prison premises because the prison authorities said this would cause an outcry among the people. So most of them were buried in theses mass graves inside the prison premises.
MH: You said as a prison guard you were allowed to see these freedom fighters being killed. Take us through how they would be killed.
Mr Nyamakawo: About 24 hours before their death, a priest from the Roman Catholic would come and ask them kuti what would you want to eat as your last meal? The priest would say taura zvaunoda kudya uchiri mupenyu kekupedzesera, taura chinonyatsokunakira government will buy it for you as your last meal. The priest would pray for the prisoner kuti iyezvino wava kuenda kunourawa nezvitadzo zvako zvawakapara pasi pano. So we are now praying for you so that zvitadzo zvako zvisare pasi pano iwe ugokwanisa kuenda kudenga. After saying whatever they wanted to eat as their last meal, vaichinjwa hembe. Normally mabhanditi vanopfeka hembe chena, kana abvunzwa kuti unoda kudya chii, aibva apfekedzwa hembe dzered. That food would be brought and the prisoner would eat.
After eating this last meal, which was served around 6pm, the next morning around 8am, the hangman would come with his face covered. We never knew who he was. Zvekuuraya macomrades zvaiitirwa kwainzi kuCondemned Section pajeri ipapo. The comrades were taken to this section one by one. This was done pamusoro, I think pa4th Floor. There was a small room that was big enough to accommodate not more than three people. From that 4th floor, there was a hole that went down to the ground floor. So paiva nechimushini, chainzi hangman’s noose which had a rope. Saka musungwa aiiswa tambo around the neck nahangman. Musungwa aimiswa pakati pemasimbi maviri with the rope around his neck. Like I said, pasi pesimbi apa, there would be a hole that went down to the ground floor.
So the hangman would press some button and pakatsika musungwa paya pasimbi paivhurika nemagetsi then musungwa would plunge down to the ground floor with the rope now chocking him to death. Aisvikoti bhii pasi! Pasi ipapo there would be a doctor whose job was to certify kuti munhu afa here or not. If the doctor certified the person as dead, vaidimbura tambo, then that noose goes up again to wait for the next person. They would do this kusvika vese vanenge vachiurayiwa vapera. (long silence)
MH: I can’t believe this. This is too horrific. So, so inhuman. Were there times when a prisoner would plunge down this hole, only for the doctor to say the prisoner was still alive?
Mr Nyamakawo: Yes. It happened.
MH: So what would happen in this case?
Mr Nyamakawo: That hangman’s noose like I told you was controlled nemagetsi so in this case, this prisoner would be taken up the hole again to the 4th floor akasungwa muhuro muya. Again the prisoner would be plunged from the 4th floor to the ground floor until the doctor pronounced him dead.
MH: How often would this happen?
Mr Nyamakawo: It would not happen often because just plunging from the 4th floor was enough to kill a person. Vazhinji vakanga vasinga rarame.
MH: We are talking about freedom fighters here, some who had received military training. Before going to meet their death, are there any comrades who protested or said anything that you remember?
Mr Nyamakawo: They were given papers kuti nyorai your last wish to your relatives. Zvaunoda kuti zviitwe kumusha kwako iwe. Tava kukuwuraya nekuti mhosva dzako dzanyanya. So the prisoners vaisiya vanyora tsamba, but I don’t know kuti tsamba idzi dzaizotumirwa here kuhama dzavo.
MH: Were the relatives of these prisoners informed about these hangings?
Mr Nyamakawo: These hangings were done secretly. Zvakanga zvisingabude even mumapepa. After wairaiwa waibva wangochengeterwa muprison imomo zvatopera.
If you get to Harare Central Prison, there is that main gate and if you walk past the reception area going towards the cells, there is an open space on the left. Ndiyo nzvimbo yaishandiswa kuviga vanhu vanenge vaurayiwa since 1965 until around 1976. The open space was quite big.
MH: From your recollection, how many freedom fighters were killed this way and were buried at this open space you spoke about?
Mr Nyamakawo: Like I said my first encounter I saw 19 freedom fighters being hanged. Then came another group of 25. That’s when I was transferred to Khami Maximum Prison. One of the white officers would boast saying these dead comrades were going to be good manure for my roses.
MH: Now, these were blacks who were being killed and you as a black person seeing this, what was going through your mind?
Mr Nyamakawo: I saw all the hangings with my own eyes. Ndaichemera mukati ndisinga bude hangu misodzi asi zvaindirwadza zvikuru. Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole was in prison during this time. After seeing this, one day I went to him ndikati ko baba, ndimi vakuru vakuru, vanhu vachiwurayiwa so is there anything that you are doing to speed up the journey to independence? He was a prisoner in D Hall after he had been charged of plotting kuuraya vakuru vakuru veRhodesia Front.
MH: What was your rank and what was the ranking system like during these days?
Mr Nyamakawo: Your first rank would be a warder. After two years you would write a test on Prison Regulations and Prison Act. Those who passed this test would be promoted to the rank of corporal. After another two years you would write another test to become a sergeant. The highest rank for black prison guards was chief warder. I rose until I became a sergeant.
MH: You said to me you were politically conscious and seeing all this injustice and the killing of fellow blacks who were fighting to free the country, didn’t you think of leaving the prison service to join the liberation struggle?
Mr Nyamakawo: At some point I thought of leaving and that’s why left the prison service in 1976. However, I couldn’t go and join the liberation struggle because one of the political prisoners, Cde John Makwasha, you interviewed him a few months ago, he told me that if you go to Mozambique you will be accused of being a quisling. He told me that I would be thoroughly interrogated and some comrades could actually kill me because of lack of trust. That discouraged me from joining the liberation struggle and after leaving the prison service, I was working closely with Crispen Mandizvidza from Masvingo to recruit people to go for military training. We would say endai kuzvikoro zviri kumhiri and on your return you will become the leaders of the new black government. Of course, we knew these recruits would be going for military training.
MH: Do you think the authorities in Government at the moment know about these mass graves at Harare Central Prison?
Mr Nyamakawo: I was really surprised that vaLangton Chigwida who was one of the first directors in the prison service after independence didn’t tell the Government but he knew all about this. I don’t even know whether up to this day anyone has revealed this. I don’t know whether those who know about this and who are in Government went into some secret pact with Smith not to reveal this. What really pains me about this is that these freedom fighters died in the hands of mabhunu and I want to tell you this, kuwuraiwa nepfuti was actually better than kutambura kwakaita these comrades vakaita zvekusungirwa tambo muhuro wodonhedzwa kubva mudenga umo wosvika pasi woti gwiii, gwiii, gwiii. Wafa then wovigwa imomo mujeri. Ko ava vakuru vehurumende varikuti kovakaurayiwa mumajere varikupi? Have they bothered to ask even their relatives or anyone?
At least vakaiswawo paya panonzi the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier kuNational Heroes Acre zvinotori nani pane kuvarega vari mukati mutorongo. Voita sekunge even nemweya yavo iri kupika jerewo futi.
MH: You sound like this is something that really pains you. What have you done to alert the authorities or is there anything that you have done to ensure that this matter is attended to?
Mr Nyamakawo: I thought vaLangton Chigwida as someone who had a higher rank during the Smith regime would reveal this to make sure something was done. We worked with vaChigwida at Salisbury Prison and even at Khami. He knew that some political prisoners had been hanged and buried at this place. I am talking about this prison along the road to Newlands. I think its now the Remand Prison. Why didn’t he speak about it when he became director of prisons? He saw some mass graves being unearthed in Mt Darwin and some comrades being accorded decent burials, ko ava vakanga vachiwuraiwa in prison vakanganikwa here? I am sure the records at the prison service should have the names of these comrades who were hanged during these years. If you go and ask kuti muna August 1972, kwakawuraiwa vasungwa 19, there should be records to show this.
MH: You said after seeing these comrades being hanged, you would cry inwards and not shed tears. Why?
Mr Nyamakawo: Ukachema zvinowoneka vakuru vedu vakanga vari varungu vaizokutora semunhu who is sympathising nezvaiitwa nevanhu vawuraiwa. We would see the hangings and pretend to be strong but inwardly I can tell you some of us were in deep pain. These freedom fighters were fighting to liberate us and that’s why they were being killed like flies. Even the way we were being treated as black prison guards, it was just unfair. There was Class One for white officers, then Class Two officers for coloureds and Asians and then Class Three for black prison guards. This pained me a lot because we had attained the same level of education with some of the white officers. Even the training was the same but in terms of ranks, we were not treated the same. Our salaries were also different.
For example, after finishing training, blacks were given night duties and this was a painful experience. Taikwidzwa paiva nekatower kaiva mudenga at the prison and you would spend about eight hours uri kudenga ikoko nepfuti. Some white prison guards we would have trained with would come in the evening vachihwandira vodeedzera nezwi riri pasi kuti uriko here uko. Ukanonoka kudaira aibva akwira netuma steps and asvika padenga akakuona wakarara aikutorera hat yako yebasa oenda nayo. The next day you would be called to the superintendent’s office and you would be charged for sleeping on duty. Ukarara katatu in three months, basa raibva rapera. These white prison guards would sleep in the comfort of their homes.
MH: Were you physically abused, like being beaten by these white prison guards?
Mr Nyamakawo: Not exactly but what was painful was the fact that it was easy to lose our jobs. The food we ate was also different. After training, our salary as black prison guards was 39 dollars while white prison guards at our level would be getting 250 dollars per month. So that 39 dollars would prescribe to you the type of food you were supposed to eat for the whole month.
MH: I keep asking you – seeing all this why did you wait until 1976 to leave this racist prison service?
Mr Nyamakawo: I had been given a task by Rev Ndabaningi Sithole. He was using me to smuggle notes out of prison for one of his first books, “The Polygamist.” He would write the notes on a toilet tissue paper and give me to go and give his wife who was staying in Houghton Park during those days.
I did this until the book was printed and the prison authorities were surprised how he wrote the book. We actually held a meeting in Mabvuku and it was resolved that I should remain a prison guard to assist these political prisoners. Sometimes when some freedom fighters were arrested, I would go to Rev Sithole’s wife and tell her of the arrested freedom fighters. She would run around to organise lawyers and the authorities would be surprised to the lawyers coming to court to represent these comrades. This is how most of the comrades got legal representation.
MH: During interviews with some of these ccomrades who were detained by the Smith regime, they mention that there were some prison guards who assisted in smuggling information out of prison?
Mr Nyamakawo: Yeah, it’s me. Cde Makwasha actually knows me. If you ask him about me he will tell you.
MH: Did you meet Cde Makwasha after the liberation struggle?
Mr Nyamakawo: No we haven’t met, but he knows me very well from Khami prison. We became best friends because I would buy him colgate and many other things while he was in prison. Mari yemuprison yakanga iri fodya so I would buy him fodya otenga zvaaida in prison.
MH: Who are some of the black prison guards you worked with that you still remember?
Mr Nyamakawo: Like I said vaLangton Chigwida, then another one who was called Mutasa. I think he ended up being a chief superintendent. There are many of them I cant even finish mentioning them by their names.
MH: Who are some of the national leaders besides Rev Sithole that you looked after as a prison guard?
Mr Nyamakawo: I remember comrades Edgar Tekere and Morris Nyagumbo. There were quite a number of them but some I cant remember. Rev Sithole was deemed a dangerous prisoner that’s why he was in the D Hall. He spent most of his time in solitary confinement. He would be allowed outside the cell for only 30 minutes to exercise.
As a prison guard, my duty was to keep a close eye on these comrades and I got close to Rev Sithole. Most of the time the white prison officers would be in their offices and they left us blacks to monitor these political prisoners. So we had the chance to talk to these political prisoners and I would go and stand next to Rev Sithole’s cell and talk to him. I would ask him kuti do you think you will be released? I also asked him kuti imimi kana mava kutonga muchaita sei nevanhu vakaita sesu who are working for Smith’s government? Let me actually write down what he said. (takes pen and start writing the following: All black people must heed the call for national resistance against the racist rule. Our national pride should come first over the joy to make dirty money. All the quislings will be targeted as enemies of the revolution just as their white masters. We will not spare their lives at all. It is better to be poor and free other than being rich but live in bondage).
MH: When he told you think, what did you think or do?
Mr Nyamakawo: That’s the reason why I left the prison service in 1976. If I had remained as a prison guard, my prospects of being promoted were very high. I was among blacks who were educated because I had gone up to Form 2. I could have risen up the ranks but all these things kept tormenting me and I left in 1976. The words by Rev Sithole kept ringing in my mind.
Despite him saying this to me, I still went to him and I am the one who asked him kuti hapana here zvamungade kuti ndikuitirei while you in prison? He responded saying ndikakutuma kuenda kumba kwangu unosvika here? I said yes and that’s how I started smuggling his notes out of prison.
As prison guards, we used to put on those long jackets with big pockets. While the white prison guards were relaxing in their offices, Rev Sithole would write his notes on the tissue paper, give it to me and I would smuggle the notes out of prison. As prison guards, we were not searched so I would just walk out and go to his home to deliver the notes to his wife.
MH: But this was very risky?
Mr Nyamakawo: Yes, it was. If I had been caught, I was going to be arrested and sentenced to many years in jail. Our training was very clear that a prison guard must have no relations with a prisoner or the relatives of a prisoner. A prison guard was not supposed to be friendly to an ex-prisoner or many a relative of a known ex-prisoner. I can’t remember how many years one would serve for breaking these laws. Some prison guards were actually caught trying to smuggle information out of prison. I am sure Cde Makwasha told you about one such incident when he was caught writing a letter to his girlfriend who was I think it’s in Britain. The prison guard who was smuggling these letters was caught and fired.
MH: So why did you risk your job assisting Rev Sithole?
Mr Nyamakawo: These comrades were fighting to free even me and the political consciousness I had gotten from that little book “Animal Farm,” gave me the courage to assist the comrades. Also the fact that he had called me a quisling, meaning a black person who assists whites to suppress blacks, that haunted me and so I decided that I was going to help these comrades.
I actually tried to explain to Rev Sithole why I had joined the prison service and he kept on telling me that, “Our national pride should come first over the joy to make dirty money.”
However, our relationship continued and he would send me even to organisations like Christian Care to source books for him to read. The authorities would be surprised to see Christian Care bringing books and they would wonder how the organisation knew the exact books that Rev Sithole wanted.
Next week, Mr Nyamakawo will continue this heart-rending narration revealing how after being transferred to Khami Prison he was given the responsibility to read all the letters that were written by political prisoners to see if they were not inciting other people to revolt against the Smith regime.He will narrate the story when vaLangton Chigwida shot and killed one of the political prisoners to impress the white prison officers after food riots at Khami Prison. He will confirm that indeed there was a time when political prisoners spent years living completely naked and will explain why the Smith regime took this barbaric decision. He will conclude by narrating how after the attainment of independence, he joined the Air Force of Zimbabwe and was present when a group of white officers hatched the plan to set alight about 40 air-force planes. This is top secret information that will change the history books. Don’t miss your copy of The Sunday Mail next week.