Chimoio ZANLA commander recounts Rhodesia atrocities Cde Midson Gomba Mupasu, whose Chimurenga name was Cde Norman Bethune.

The Chimoio massacre, which the Rhodesian regime code-named “Operation Dingo”, brought to the public glare the brutal and inhuman conduct of the colonial forces in their fight to preserve ill-gotten minority privileges. Close to 5 000 people perished, mainly defenceless women and children.

It was the regime’s last ditch effort to paralyse freedom fighters who had fought toe-to-toe against the much weaponised Rhodesian forces.

Group Political Editor, Ranga Mataire (RM), tracked down one of the ZANLA commanders, Cde Midson Gomba Mupasu, whose Chimurenga name was Cde Norman Bethune (NB), who was stationed at Chimoio Camp when the attack took place on November 23-25, 1976.

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RM: Cde Bethune, you were the ZANLA commander when Chimoio came under attack from Rhodesian forces. What memories do you have when Zimbabwe finally got independence in 1980?

NB: I feel much pain when I realised that the children that died at Chimoio died for a free Zimbabwe. 

They aspired to see a free and independent Zimbabwe but they could not make it because the white Rhodesians killed them during that raid on November 23, 1977. What pains me most is that most of those who were killed or injured had no weapons as guns were in the hands of just a few people. 

They were in positions of defence of protecting Chimoio camp. The number of people with weapons could not add up to what in military language is called a “company”. 

We are looking at just below 25 people who had guns. We had limitations from the Mozambican government that Chimoio should not have a lot of trained people as these were much wanted on the front. The people who had weapons were those who had been injured from the front and were recovering. These were the people that we were using as defence of the camp.

RM: Cde Bethune can you take us through what happened on the fateful day of the attack?

NB: It was on a Thursday morning on November 23, 1977. Rhodesian forces (airplanes) came towards our camp around 8:45am from the eastern side. The planes started positioning themselves in strategic areas of bombing since they had already done some reconnaissance through a spotter plane written Red Cross. 

They had earlier attempted to send ground forces but these were thwarted because we used to have regular patrols. But on the day in question, these planes dropped paratroopers who took position on the ground in areas that they had earlier mapped. Remember that spotter plane. Yes, it used to pass above our base at around 10am almost daily before the attack. It was only on the day of the attack that the spotter plane was not seen.

RM: I want to get something clear here. Are you saying that as the camp commander you knew about this imminent attack but you failed to have reinforcements to defend the camp?

NB: We already knew about the attack. Even before the regular coming of the spotter plane with a decoy Red Cross inscription, some comrades used to manifest spiritually. Midzimu iyi yaibuda pamacomrades. 

These comrades told me as commander that whites were planning to attack the camp. However, as a trained commander I briefed those comrades that were trained to prepare. Mind you this camp had untrained people, women, children and those who were waiting to be trained. But they also got wind of this attack because I instructed that people move out of some bases to other bases that we had established away from the main base. The majority of those who were killed were actually in the process of moving out. Another huge number comprised of those who were being trained who had no idea of the sound of bombs or airplanes.

I want to go back to my issue of spirit mediums that were manifesting in some comrades had briefed me of the attack. But as a trained person with just a few trained people, we formed our own defence line instead of just vacating the camp. According to our training, it was unacceptable to just abandon the camp.

RM: What about other camps? Did you also inform them about this attack?

NB: There is no base that I didn’t inform. We had about 14 bases and among those bases there were a few that had guns- Takawira 1 and 2. Takawira 2 was further north while Takawira 1 was at the headquarters. 

We sent the information to all those bases that the whites were coming but we did not know the actual day or time. 

We, however, as headquarters we had fighting positions and the anti-air guns. Each gun had three positions- today you might see it on this position but the next day you might not see it at the same position.

RM: Is it true that the bombing took place at a time when people were on parade and least prepared for such an attack?

NB: That is false information. Whoever is saying that Chimoio was attacked when people were on parade is not telling the truth. 

The instruction that was there was that at 6am, everyone should have left the camp going to designated areas that we called “kucover” for orientation. By 6am, the camp mostly would be deserted.

RM: So what did you do when the bombing started as the commander?

NB: Like I said, the airplanes already had hitting targets. 

To anyone else who did not have any knowledge, they did not know what was happening.

Those who were on the ground had paratroopers dropped in front of them and did not immediately exchange fire. 

The ones that started firing were those with anti-aircraft guns. 

The attack happened when I was at the headquarters just after I had questioned the people who were there why they had not vacated the camp. I was hit with a shrapnel of a bomb that hit the headquarters. I still have the fragment on the right side of my body. I fell down but I managed to crawl looking for a way out. 

As someone who had been trained, I did not just run blindly. I was now bleeding profusely. As I was moving, I managed to grab two female comrades but one of them overpowered me and ran amok. 

I managed to go towards a river where I found a ditch with water (mugawa) and plucked my body there together with the female comrade. 

We could hear the footsteps of the Rhodesian forces while hiding in that ditch. I later tore my shirt and managed to wrap my wound. Ironically, the female comrade had no scratch. She was not injured at all. The Rhodesian soldiers did not see us. My small group of fighters gallantly tried to resist but they eventually retreated.

RM: So after the bombing, what was your assessment?

NB: It was a disaster. I felt unimaginable pain for losing so many souls. Unfortunately, I got injured quite early and could not be of much help. I just marvelled at the way our guys tried to repel the attackers. 

The Rhodesians were so cruel. After the bombing, they went about the camp mutilating those who had been injured and were still breathing. It was a ghastly sight. 

I managed to leave that ditch with that female comrade when the bombing subsided and we went to a place called Dhafu where injured comrades were gathered. I was later ferried by an ambulance to Beira for hospitalisation. 

The following day, General Josiah Tongogara came to see me for briefing. He later arranged to have reinforcement of comrades to be deployed to search the whole camp and account for the casualties. Some of the comrades who were part of that reinforcement were  Retired Major General Gibson Mashingaidze together with the late Lieutenant General Amoth Norbert Chingombe and other young cadres. All this happened at a time when I was in hospital.

RM: Cde Bethune, lets come to the present situation. What can you say to the young generation that never experienced the liberation war?

NB: I think the ruling Zanu PF Government must ensure that there is constant education about colonial existence and why the liberation war was necessary. It is important that we must never get tired of educating the masses.

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