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Inside the Rhodesian ‘Keep’ . . . Lest we forget

28 Mar, 2020 - 00:03 0 Views
Inside the Rhodesian  ‘Keep’ . . . Lest we forget Protective villages were meant to kill the spirit of resolve among freedom fighters and the peasants

The Herald

Isdore Guvamombe Saturday Lounge

The liberation struggle had reached a decisive phase and the skies had not been very generous.

The year was 1977, and the war had spread throughout Rhodesia. One wintry morning an operation started to round off villagers and close them in protective fences called “keeps”.

Shinje Business Centre, the local administrative centre for Guruve, was fenced with pig wire and guarded 24 hours by armed auxiliary forces, called Makofi by villagers because of their brown uniform.

Villagers were allocated small stands where they built small mud-and-pole huts. It was a tale from the village to squalor.

There was a head count of villagers in the mornings and evenings, like cattle.

The Rhodesians wanted to stop villagers from feeding, clothing and associating with freedom fighters.  They wanted to stop them from aiding the liberation movement.

Each time villagers came into the keep, Rhodesian forces devised new search methods to ensure no one carried food and clothes for the freedom fighters.

They also searched for guns, bullets and grenades. One soldier could search both male and female villagers. Sex and sexuality were no longer issues.

This other morning, the gate was about to be closed for those going out and a woman known as Chihera was among the last. She was just seconds from closing time.

Other villagers waited for her outside the gate, for, it was better to travel in groups during the war, especially to distant villages.

There she was, typical of the Chihera women known by many, running to the gate, a wrapping cloth around her waist.

Unbeknown to her, this day the soldiers had put a huge log and were ordering everyone to jump over it as part of the search. The instruction was to jump with your hands high up. If you had anything, it dropped.

The soldiers did not allow head cloth or strong shoes in case one would donate to the freedom fighters.

Chihera jumped and lo and behold, the wrap around cloth dropped. She had nothing like an undergarment. No petticoat, even. There were no tights then. There was silence, then laughter. There she stood, not even trying to pick up the cloth.

“Woman pick up your cloth! You are under arrest, you wanted to go and sleep with the guerrillas?” shouted the soldier.

“Listen, I am the age of your mother. You don’t use that language on me. I did not complete my dressing because I was late and wanted to beat your gate closing time. I . . .”

The soldier could not partake. He shouted back.

Another soldier dragged Chihera who kicked, punched and shouted as they dragged her to the base. She still refused to dress up. If the soldier pulled up the cloth, she pulled it down. The drama continued for a while attracting the old and the young alike. Boys stopped playing home-made plastic ball and joined in.

Everyone gathered by the base and Chihera continued to protest until they changed their tactic and started pleading with her to dress up. Eventually she did. Since that day, they stopped searching women. What promoted the keep system was that Zanla combatants had continued to operate from Mozambique and remained dominant among people in eastern and central Rhodesia.

It was fast spreading to the western parts of the country.

No longer were the guerrillas the disorganised force they had been deemed in the late 1960s and were now more sophisticated, which took the Rhodesians by surprise.

Despite escalating brutality, the Rhodesians were losing the war.

Village boys marvelled at knowing the type of guns carried by Cdes Mcduff Mandebvu, Farai Kapfupi, Mabhunu Muchapera, Rovai Hondo, Disaster Bazooka, Menemene Disaster and others.

The Rhodesian soldiers were especially afraid of going close to Dande River. Its riverine vegetation provided much shelter for freedom fighters.

Dande River was a silent observer of the war. It never told the secrets. On its banks, riverine vegetation had witnessed budding romances blossom into weddings, women gossip and people, including liberation war fighters’ bath in the nude or half dressed.

It had listened to many quarrels between washing and bathing women, good and bad gossip. Scandals too! The war, the war and the war. Yes, the war! Except for a few ripples caused by a falling tree leaf or flirting dragon fly or diving frog, the river flowed quietly.

The boys, our boys, or “Vanamukoma” were winning, gaining confidence and becoming visible.

Intermittently, there was the presence of the masters of disguise, the evil Selous Scouts, where it was uncommon to find a white man painted black only to be sold out by the lips. White soldiers also wore black ski masks.

So many people were beaten silly or killed after failing to differentiate between the scouts and genuine freedom fighters. Livestock were also being affected severely by the drought and the war. Cattle and goats were so thin and hungry that they could be seen nibbling at anything that had a semblance of green, including papers.

That year, Dande River was at its lowest, but not dry.

Villagers saw, for the first time, the gleaming stones, polished smooth by ages of running water. Footpaths from various homesteads converged on the riverbanks, like the arms of an octopus. The river continued to flow lowly, oblivious of the passage of time or change of visitors.

One morning, the camp was infiltrated by liberation war fighters and the soldiers found themselves overwhelmed.

A gun battle ensued and many lives were lost. Some soldiers tried to seek refugee among the villagers who manhandled them and handed them over.

For moments, the liberation fighters had taken over the keep. Hours later, helicopters hovered over Shinje and jam-packed lorries moved in with soldiers. But the “boys” as the freedom fighters were known, had retreated, having killed 23 soldiers.

Chihera was arrested and that was the last she was seen.

Today, 40 years after independence, no one knows where Chihera went. Many stories abound. Many theories abound too, But she played her part and was accused of planning the invasion.

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