IN our Lest We Forget column we continue our interview with former Zipra regional commander for Hwange, Tsholotsho and Victoria Falls areas and later on Zipra Deputy Chief of Reconnaissance Cde Peter Ndebele whose pseudo name was Cde Todd Mpisi.
In our last issue Cde Ndebele spoke about the training regime he went through, describing it as very tough. When we ended our conservation he was talking about their deployment along the Zambezi River on the Zambian side. Cde Ndebele continues the conversation with our Assistant Editor
Mkhululi Sibanda (MS). Below are excerpts of the interview.
MS: Cde Ndebele, last week we were still talking about your deployment. Can we pick our conversation from there? Tell us more about what you encountered?
Cde Ndebele: Like I said last time we were driven to a base along the Zambezi River and deployed on the Zambian side together with Edward Vambe, Hudson Hugwe and Lucky Munyanyi. We were deployed on what was called the Right Flank-Kalomo River to Kazungula. We found other guerillas there and we were now seven at that base. We were under the command of Cde Chibhoyi who was the regional commander. There were other bases in the region. The commander of our base was Maguswini deputised by Shacky. However, immediately after our arrival there was an incident that led to the death of our two commanders.
MS: What happened?
Cde Ndebele: It was between two or three days after our arrival when a message came through that a Zipra contact on the Rhodesian side wanted to meet the commanders since he had brought some recruits who wanted to be guided to Zambia for training. The person was well known to the commanders and it looks like that is how he communicated with the guerillas whenever there was need. So Cdes Maguswini and Shacky Mpofu left the base to meet the contact and receive those recruits. However, when they got to the Rhodesian side they fell into an ambush that had been set by the Rhodesian forces and they were killed. The person who survived was Vambe who had accompanied them but did not cross the river. Vambe was lucky but he saw the commanders being killed. He came back alone. I think kwaba lobutshapha on the two comrades because when they crossed Shacky left his weapon on the Zambian side, so he was unarmed.
MS: I think as newly trained guerillas that incident could have disturbed and unsettled you.
Cde Ndebele: Not that much as we are the ones who were immediately ordered to go and recover the weapon that was left by Shacky. They said the other had left the gun this side. We were being led by Cde Godfrey Sithole, but he did not go with us to the exact scene as he remained on the way. Our mission was to go there and see if we could get back the gun and establish what had happened. We left at dawn and arrived late in the evening. We then slept at the fishermen’s base. We got the gun and the other things that were left there, as well as the magazine. However, there were some gunshots that were fired but they were not directed at us and when the commander, Cde Sithole heard the firing of those shots he concluded that we had been shot.
He went back and gave a report to Chibhoyi that we had been killed and that was misleading. When we went back they were surprised and we wrote our own report. Cde Sithole was then withdrawn from the front and redeployed to the camps. The commanders were not happy with his conduct.
MS: Then tell us about the operations.
Cde Ndebele: After the withdrawal of Sithole I was left in command of those few who were left there at the base. We were reviving the operations and that was in 1975, remember the numbers in Zipra had been depleted by the internal political problems, the party Zapu faced at the beginning of the 70s. So we were rebuilding the force. So most of our operations were anchored on mine warfare and ambushes. We also started making excursions across the Zambezi River reaching out to the villagers. It was now a two pronged approach, fighting the enemy and mobilising the recruits for training.
We were also opening up operational areas and routes for the forces. On the Zambian side it was the base only where they brought us food but we had to cross and get reports and recruits.
MS: How were you received by the villagers?
Cde Ndebele: Remember when we were deployed in 1975 sasivuselela as our operations had been on a lull because of the internal political problems I have touched above. There had been operations before. So when we were making those excursions in the process reaching out to the masses, some did not understand. At first we concentrated in areas around Sikanda in Jambezi. The people were generally afraid and they would report our presence to the whites. But as time went on they started to trust us. We gained their support by defeating the whites on the battle front. At first they could not believe that the Rhodesian forces could be seen dying after coming into contact with the guerillas. For instance, when their children started supporting us, the parents joined in.
MS: As you were scoring victories on the battle front what was the response of the Rhodesian soldiers?
Cde Ndebele: They vented their frustrations on the masses. They started beating up the villagers, accusing them of harbouring terrorists. Such behaviour by the Rhodesian soldiers was in our favour as it improved the relationship between the masses and us. The masses started realising that we were there to free them from the bad governance and racial discrimination that was perpetrated by the Rhodesian government.
MS: Then there is the issue of villagers who were Rhodesian forces informers. How were you dealing with such people?
Cde Ndebele: The incidents of sell-outs were there but we never killed them. There was an interesting incident of a traitor whom we left alone. What happened was that one day while on patrol and it was towards dusk we saw a man running towards us with a notebook at hand. We were about 30 and I was the commander of that unit. He ran towards where I had stopped with some of the comrades. I think he had realised that I was the commander.
Since it was becoming dark he thought we were Rhodesian soldiers and he started telling us what the whites had assigned him to do. He then took out a notebook in which there were other names of people he was working with. He said he was the one operating with Ncube and Khumalo. He revealed all their activities and we just listened as he rumbled on. Wawumana wawumana umuntu lowana. We did not interject but just listened and when he realised that he was talking to the guerillas he fell on his knees and started crying, asking for forgiveness.
MS: What did you do to him?
Cde Ndebele: As the commander I told him to go back and continue being a traitor. However, some of my comrades were agitated and wanted to punish him but I refused to take him with us and instructed him to go back to his homestead. He struggled to move as he thought we were going to shoot him. We were told later that when he arrived at his homestead he packed a few of his clothes and left for Botswana to join the armed struggle. I met him in Zambia when I had gone there. It was at one of our camps which we were visiting with the then commander, Alfred Nikita Mangena. He walked to me and greeted me. He then told me of his story and I could not believe it. He said he had been trained. Even on his way to Zambia when he got to Francistown in Botswana he did not hide anything.
-We round off our interview with Cde Ndebele next week when he talks about his recall to the rear so that he could be sent for further training in the then Soviet Union, his return to the front after that and his promotion to the rank of Chief of Reconnaissance.