Choosing Life 5

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Wenlock Tribal Trust Land, Rhodesia, 1978

One dusty hot afternoon I am driving a leopard, an innovative locally made armoured vehicle, along a track in the Wenlock Tribal Trust Land south of Gwanda. The other four members of my team, or stick as it is known, are in spite of the mandatory seat belts clinging to anything they can to stay fixed to their seats. I am nursing a cracked bone in my right hand which had taken a walloping from the steering wheel.  Driving is agonising but I am gritting my teeth and trying not to let the pain show in my face.  On the left side of the road is scrubby bush veldt, dominated by Colophospermum mopane, commonly known as mopane scrub. Behind that is a ridge of low brush covered hills. On the right is a maize land, the plants characteristically small and stunted, tasseling too early due to lack of rain and fertilizer. In front of us a plume of blue-black smoke is lazily curling into the afternoon sky.  It is to the source of that smoke that we are heading.

Around the next bend a village appears.  There are several huts and the usual granary huts set slightly above ground to store last season’s grain. Several goats rush across the track in front of us, their bells clanging in alarm as they flee the unfamiliar vehicle. Some small emaciated dogs appear near the edge of the road, yapping unenthusiastically at us. As we draw parallel to the village, we see the cause of the smoke.  One hut has burned out, its thatched roof collapsed into its interior, the fire now out.  There are a surprising number of people, men women and children standing around, staring helplessly at the ruined hut.  As we spring from the vehicle, rifles ready for action, we hear that terrible sound that comes only from rural Africa.  It is the women, ululating and crying, vocalising their sorrow in a crescendo of sound.  It is the noise of death.

We spread out and I post members of the team at strategic places. It is obvious that the enemy has been active here.  Although the fire is no longer burning, the heat haze from its ashes in the hut is rising mirage-like in to the hot African afternoon. I move into the village to get a better look, expecting anytime a burst of automatic fire. It does not come. The guerrillas have done their deadly work and vanished. I speak to the amaduna, the village head.  He speaks perfect English, as does his son, a man in his early thirties. Everyone tries to talk at once, even the crying mamas stop their ululating to shout and gesticulate to us.  It is clear that we are too late though to help.  I manage to silence the group. The old man and his son start to talk.

They, like many others in the area are Ndebele, members of the Matabele tribe, an offshoot of the famous Zulu nation led here by Mzilikaze, the nephew of the great Zulu King, Chaka, in the nineteenth century. Like so many rural people of Rhodesia, these villagers are not interested in the war.  They see no benefit to a change in political power that is unlikely to hasten any improvement to the lifestyle that they have lived here from living memory. But today, the war has come to them.  A group of five Shona speaking members of ZANLA entered their village about an hour earlier.  What happened next almost defies description.

The guerrilla leader had summoned the amaduna and all the people. 

“Where are the marungus?” (white people, referring to the security forces) he asks them. But they do not know.  The nearest military presence is at what used in more peaceful times to be the local district commissioner’s station; now a fort with sandbagged blast walls and mounted Browning .303 machine guns that once fired from the wings of Spitfires and Hurricanes in World War II.  The only contact that these people had with our forces was the occasional patrol that very infrequently passed their village.  Until today, they had felt no need to speak to us. 

But the visitors were not satisfied.  They had insisted that someone in the village was a sell-out.  Someone was reporting their presence to the security forces and there would be retribution. The fact that this was nonsense, pure invention, was not the point. The decision had been made to step up the guerrilla war and these people had evidently to learn the cost of collaboration, just in case they might contemplate it.

So the oldest couple in the village were roughly seized and bound together by their arms, back to back, with rusty wire.  Then, with everyone else forced to watch, the leader and one other member of the group started to bayonet them.  As he talks, the amaduna demonstrates the stabbing motions as if he were holding a bayonet-fixed AK rifle. They had worked with care since they did not want to kill the old folk . . . not yet anyway.  Death would eventually bring its merciful release and end this unspeakably wicked ordeal, but only in time.  To begin with, they selected their frail, arms, already tortured by the mercilessly tight wire bindings.  Then the stabbing moved to their legs; in due course to their abdomens, but not too deeply so as to sever an artery, prematurely ending the torture. And all the while these sons of freedom screamed abuse at these old people, demanding to know why they had reported to the security forces. And the old people-in hideous agony-screamed back their desperate denials.

The amaduna’s son told us that all the while that this was happening, one of these sons of freedom, a youngster of about eighteen, had giggled and snickered with satisfaction in bursts between taking part in the accusatory chants.  It was not until the old people showed signs of passing out due to blood loss that the guerillas, not wanting them unconscious for the planned finale, pushed them into the nearest hut, closed the door and set fire to the thatch.  And so these harmless old people instead of living out their days in the sunshine were reduced to blackened corpses, but not before their tired old lungs had given vent to the final searing agony of their pyrogenous epiphany. And then, in an instant, the hellish demoniacs were gone, vanished into the thin air from which they had appeared, aware that the smoke might draw the unwelcome attention.

As the old man and his son finish telling us of these gruesome things, I walk to the hut’s entrance.  The door that barred the old couple’s exit has burned away.  I can see into the blackened interior.  They sit there, back-to-back, the blackened wire binding their charred humorous bones clearly visible, all the flesh of their upper arms burned away. Their eye sockets seem to stare accusingly in opposite directions from their scorched fleshless skulls.  Blackened ribs stand out against the unburned dark crimson flesh of their torsos. The sight is hideous, the smell, remotely reminiscent of a barbeque, adds to the sense of horror.

Two of us gingerly enter the hut.  Using bits of old rag that one of the mamas find, we lift out the corpses. Someone finds wire cutters and we separate them−with difficulty−the fire has fused them together. The villagers are pathetically grateful for the help. They are still in a state of shock.  A year earlier I would have been on the radio to the HQ at Gwanda, requesting that the local magistrate be contacted for authority to waive a post mortem.  The cause of death is beyond question. Some of the bayonet wounds are still visible, the heat has caused them to gape open. Now it is no longer necessary.  Death is everywhere in war time.

The culprits are gone, their identities unknown; their tracks obliterated by the spoor of cattle and goats. 

Something in me changed that day.  In a sense it was a bit like it must have been in Eden when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit.  I had seen the face of evil, the abomination of desolation. The baneful creatures who stooped to this act had no motive other than evil itself.  It was then that I understood the awful truth: a pernicious streak pulsates beneath the veneer of civilized urbanity in all mankind.  Had we encountered those sons of freedom that day, they would not have survived.  Even if they’d surrendered, our rifles would have ceased firing only once the last one of them had stopped moving and so too, we would have become victims of our own potential for violence. Doubtless, behaviourists would argue that we would have been responding to the circumstances in which we found ourselves, but that would not have been the whole truth.

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