June 7, 1977 and Rhodesia’s Keep
Isdore Guvamombe Reflections
Back in the village, I was an eight-year-old, spike-haired boy. The year was 1977, and the moon was June. The day was the 7th.
The war of liberation had closed our school. Many other schools had also been closed and we spent most of our time shooting birds for relish or hunting along the Dande River.
The river was at its unusually lowest, but not dry. Villagers saw, for the first time, gleaming stones on the floor, polished smooth by ages of running water.
Footpaths from various homesteads converged on the river’s bank, like the arms of an octopus.
But the river continued to flow lowly, oblivious of the passage of time and change of visitors.
This day I had lost touch with my colleagues.
After doing some domestic chores at home, I followed hoping to catch up with them by the river.
Somehow I missed them and sat on a stone on the riverbank, serenaded by chirping birds and watching a school of small fish.
There was also the fear of war that stopped me from wandering far and wide in search of my colleagues.
It crossed my mind that Dande River was a silent observer of the war.
It never told the secrets. Its banks and riverine vegetation had witnessed budding romances blossom into weddings, women gossip and people, including liberation fighters’ bath in the nude or half-dressed.
Its lush riverine vegetation provided the much-needed cover for liberation fighters against Rhodesian war planes.
Dande River had listened to many quarrels between washing and bathing women, good and bad gossip. Scandals too! Gunshots and the sounds of death.
The war, the war and the war. Yes, the war! I wondered the guns that had crossed this river, yet it kept mum.
The weapons included AK47s and SKS assault rifles, RPD and RPK light machine guns, as well as RPG-2 and RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
And so where mortars, 12,7mm and 14,5mm heavy machine guns and even heavier calibre weapons such as 122mm multiple rocket launchers. It kept secrets.
Back to my mind, I also noticed that except for a few ripples caused by a falling tree leaf or flirting dragon fly or diving frog, the river flowed quietly. Calm!
Lonely, I walked back home and found mother preparing grain for the grinding mill.
She was winnowing, deftly holding the winnowing tray full of grain at an angle and agitating in such a way that the clear grain dropped down on the reed mat, while the chaff was blown off by the wind.
The chaff, looking like straw-coloured dust, spread thick on everything within reach. I tried to scare away the goats that always tried to gambol on the chaff.
Suddenly, we heard groggy voices of the diesel engines of the military trucks. They started as distant echoes, but soon then scrabbled the village paths, grinding to a rattling halt at strategic points.
The village became awash with huge green-grey military lorries and Rhodesian soldiers were forcing every family to pack its belongings and go to a fenced area at Shinje Business Centre.
Those who tried to resist were kicked, kneed, shoved, battered and butchered.
It was a forceful operation. Gun buts and bayonets were used.
My mother abandoned the winnowing, packed all she could in a haste and off we were loaded for the Keep. Others came back home later in the day to find the village deserted.
Soon the lorries made several trips to Shinje Business Centre where a perimeter fence had been erected to close in the villagers and “keep” them out of touch with the liberation fighters.
The village remained in shells and ruins. A ghostly figure of itself. Livestock loitered as if awestruck by the mishap.
On April 3, 1977, Rhodesian army Commander General Peter Walls had announced the Rhodesian government would launch a campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of Rhodesia’s black citizens by protecting them from freedom fighters.
There, the villagers would be detained to avoid contact with the liberation fighters.
It was a sanction against the guerrillas who were supposed to starve.
Without the villagers, the Rhodesians knew there would be no one to feed the freedom fighters.
The Smith regime hoped to drop from helicopters poisoned food, which the starving freedom fighters would pick, eat and die.
They also hoped to drop poisoned clothes and shoes. They would put anthrax virus to poison shoes and throw them around for freedom fighters.
By end of the day on June 7, villagers who had been used to their homes, were closed in and kept as squatters in the place that was then called Keep. The village was deserted.
In the morning, the Rhodesian soldiers addressed the villagers and gave the rules that made it difficult for villagers to go back to their homes.
To get out of the Keep or protected area at Shinje, one needed some skill in deception.
Makeshift mud-and-pole huts were built huddled within a spitting distance of each other, a thing that was too dehumanising for villagers used to their space and free style. The fear of losing livestock gripped all and sundry.
The perimeter fence of pig wire was well erected and there were two main gates, one towards Sipolilo (Guruve) Police Station and another towards Sinoia (Chinhoyi).
The gates at the Keep were manned and each person was recorded in or out. 4pm was the cut off time for any movement.
Every morning, a roll call was held and you needed to be present to make sure that you did not sneak out to meet the comrades. But men and women still somehow did sneak in and out, unnoticed.
More often than not, the fence was found cut with a bolt cutter despite being patrolled by auxiliary forces, aptly named Makofi, because of their ugly coffee coloured uniforms. To go out to the fields and to tend to cattle and goats, you needed to be cleared and the register would be marked to make sure you come back.
There was no place for livestock at the Keep. The livestock was left behind. Each, day people sneaked back to look after their livestock.
Back in the village, goats were started being tethered early and cattle closed in early too to enable the owner to walk the long distance and sneak back to the Keep before roll call.
Unbeknown to the Rhodesian regime, the Keep rallied the people against them instead of the opposite.
There was crowding, disease and hunger. There was this lack of personal freedom. There was the roll call, like a boarding school. There was this ill-treatment by the Kofi guys.
There was cramming in one or two mud-and-pole huts. Child deaths and the inhuman cemetery along Mukuva Stream and Shinje River were other factors.
Then came the outbreak of scabies. Everyone in the Keep scratched their hands like a fervent guitarist.
We all played the scabies guitar, unwillingly. Scabies spread very fast. But the war did not stop.
It intensified. Smith was determined to close out black majority rule.
In many tribal trust lands, the Keeps were erected. Most white Rhodesians carried personal weapons, and it was not unusual to see white housewives carrying sub-machine guns.
The Rhodesian government divided the country into eight geographical operational areas: North West Border (Operation Ranger), Eastern Border (Operation Thrasher), North East Border (Operation Hurricane), South East Border (Operation Repulse), Midlands (Operation Grapple), Kariba (Operation Splinter), Matabeleland (Operation Tangent), Salisbury and Local District (SALOPS).
The war raged on and at the end, one morning in 1979, the Kofis were shocked to find the Keep under the control of the guerrillas and villagers exploded into song and dance.
The slogans sent everyone into a frenzy and Zimbabwe was about to born.
Soon a ceasefire was announced. It was the dawn of a new era!
When the election eventually came, the villagers voted for their freedom, for their land, for their humanism, for their dignity and for the future.
They voted for empowerment and indigenisation.
When voting came, the villagers voted to appease the thousands of gallant sons and daughters who perished and lay unburied or buried in shallow graves in the bushes, mountains and valleys.
Indeed, now they were well-equipped with modern weaponry. An increasing number had received training in the Communist bloc and other sympathetic countries.
Weapons fielded included AK47 and SKS assault rifles, RPD and RPK light machine guns, as well as RPG-2 and RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The Rhodesians only discovered how well-equipped the nationalists had become when raids on guerrilla bases towards the end of the war revealed mortars, 12,7mm and 14,5mm heavy machine guns and even heavier calibre weapons such as 122mm multiple rocket launchers.
We were to stay in the Keep until way after the Ceasefire and the Lancaster House Conference in 1979. June 7 remains a talking point up to today.