The rigours of ZPRA training

12 Jan, 2020 - 00:01 0 Views
The rigours of ZPRA training Mrs Virginia Nyathi

The Sunday News

Continued from last week

PN: At both Nampundwe and VC you had parade grounds. Did you have one at Mkushi 1?

VN: Yes, we did. This is where instructions were given, if any. From there we would commence the morning exercises which were undertaken between 2am and 3am. At the same time parades were taken advantage of by the enemy who struck at this time when we were most vulnerable. That also happened during attack on Mkushi 1. When we paraded, we were arranged according to our brigades, and there were two at Mkushi 1; companies; (such as Company A, Company B, Company C, etc; platoons (of about 36) and finally sections (of about 12). 

PN: I want to believe that there were other courses that you did in addition to weapons handling. Is that the case?

VN: Yes indeed. We also did courses in map reading where an object was hidden a long distance away and we were given compasses to locate the object. The course was important during reconnaissance, which was another course that we undertook. The commissars came in with political education to boost our morale and stay focused on the struggle. These were our comforters as they justified the struggle and hence the conditions that we had to endure in order to liberate ourselves.

PN: Was a pass-out parade arranged for you upon completion of the course?

VN: After nine months of rigorous training a pass-out parade was arranged. Zapu leader Joshua Nkomo, I seem to recollect, was the officiating officer. This was the time when we got the khaki uniform.

PN: Many of us associate Mkushi 1 with the Rhodesian cross-border attacks. Did you witness the attacks?

VN:  We graduated before the attacks of 19 October 1978. We had already vacated Mkushi 1 to create room for intake 2. We had moved out and established Mkushi 2 in the vicinity of Mkushi 1. On the fateful day, both Mkushi 1 and Mkushi 2 were attacked more or less simultaneously. For two weeks prior to the attack we had gone without food. We survived on milk that we were getting from the kitchen which was close to the bank of the flowing river.

PN: But how do you explain the timing of the attack, that it coincided with a prolonged absence of food?

VN: I am of the conviction that in our training there were agents of the regime, the Selous Scouts. There were beautiful girls that had wrist watches which I suspect told much more than time. They communicated intelligence to enemy forces who I also suspect were involved in the logistics bottlenecks. It was co-ordinated work. A hungry people have less resistance to endure sustained attacks. When food did get to them there was a stampede, a condition that made the occupants of the camp vulnerable. There is no better time to attack than when there is maximum vulnerability.

PN: Please tell me more about the events of the day.

VN: People were packed in the kitchen near the river, all there to receive milk rations. News had just been relayed to the camp and passed on to us that Freedom Camp (FC) had been attacked. I was in the new combat gear. My friends and I moved out towards a swamp. All of a sudden we saw what we envisaged were hawks in splendid flight towards us. There was more splendour when the imagined birds of prey scattered in an ominous formation. 

It dawned on us that these were the angels of doom sent to kill us. Bombs began to rain down on the camp and its environs. The separation that we experienced right in front of us was so that the bombers would attack the two camps simultaneously. It was between 10am and 11am. Night fell at that very moment. The sun’s rays would not penetrate the thick smoke from exploding bombs and flying earth. Our sights were dwarfed and reduced to a very short distance. The sun was shy to face this horrendous act. Even the tall trees were hardly visible.

PN: Were you alone when the bombs rained?

VN: No, there were a number of us that had been moving away from the kitchen. One short Masuku girl shouted, “Let’s not move from here. Whoever has her God, will survive.” Masuku was not alone among those who placed faith in God. They all perished from both the dropping bombs and bullets fired from aboard the advancing fighter bombers. One girl who initially survived was in delirium, thoroughly confused.

PN: Do I understand that you were the sole survivor in your group?

VN: All those who remained behind perished. Alone, I moved on under intense fire to a small ravine. Hell broke loose at that very moment when bombers were strafing the entire area. I was not armed. I clung to roots of trees that had been uprooted through bombardment. I managed to cross the road leading to our camp. The area where I found myself consisted of short bushes beyond which was a swamp. That swamp became the death trap for several comrades, a classic  place of slaughter. Many faced death as they tried to ford the swamp. They were shot dead. More hell was looming. I lurched onto a tree growing on an anthill. The area all around me was strafed by sustained gunfire from above. At that moment, I came face to face with whites in a helicopter from which shots were being fired. Even this time, at very close range, I was lucky not to have been shot.

PN: I am sure you consider yourself lucky to survive through this sort of massacre?

VN:  Yes, and there were more hair-raising experiences to get through: the paratroopers. They too rained bullets in my direction. I was shot on the lower left leg. The bullet went through my leg leaving a big profusely bleeding wound on the opposite side. It’s all perfectly healed now. Despite being shot, I managed to run for dear life.

I was bleeding profusely from the bullet wound. Beyond that point, I came across a fleeing warthog, seemingly confused by what was taking place around its normally safe and tranquil habitat. It was time for me to attend to the bullet wound. I tore a piece of cloth from my uniform and used bark fibre to tie the cloth around my leg.

PN: At that juncture had firing and shelling stopped?

VN: No, firing was still going on. The whole place had turned into smouldering and bloody hell with the injured screaming while noise from the helicopters and bombers added to the cacophony of confused and confusing noise. We had been shown, much earlier during our arrival at Mkushi 1 a pontoon bridge which was to be used as an Assembly Point in the event of an attack and subsequent scattering. Indeed that had just happened and we found ourselves running helter skelter in all directions.

At that point I got to the road leading to our camp. I was feeling parched in the mouth. I asked for water  to slake my thirst. There I met several comrades, some of whom were seriously wounded. The Zambians who witnessed the horrendous spectacle wept uncontrollably. All the same, they continued to render help to us, the number one priority being to give us water. Meanwhile, the guns were still emitting fire from all around.

PN: At that point where did you wish to go to?

VN: I honestly did not know where to go. I went to lie on nearby rock massifs. While there, I saw some school pupils and enquired from them where they had seen other comrades. We were given directions by the school pupils.  We did get to some of them. They were in a sorrowful sight. Some had been napalm-bombed, others nursed fractured bones. There were more, so we learnt later, that had been shot and could not move out from the place of slaughter.

ZPRA trucks came to pick us up. Those among us who could limp their way back to the camp, did so. Returning trucks picked them up too.

PN: Did you figure out what happened to those who had remained behind in the camp when others fled?

VN: The story was told of one man, a short cook who worked in the kitchen. He was among those who sought cover in caves in the nearby mountains. He was referred to as the King Killer, in reference to his being of a mature age. King Killer was making a lot of noise yelling at the commanders who were holed up in the same cave, “Makhomandazi igwani musarende. Kenina netsiba namba yabatho (commanders, get out of here and surrender. It is you who know how many people live at this camp.)” He was suggesting that the commanders surrender to the invading whites who still were occupying the area. The price he got for making the noise and suggestion about surrender were bullets that were packed  into his body. The King Killer was gone, a victim of whites who tried the best they could to stem the tide of independence.

PN: Surely there were others who sought refuge elsewhere. Did you get to know about those?

VN:  There were some that ran into the water in the river which they knew was infested with crocodiles. Some held their breaths for long before emerging above the water surface. It was all a survival technique. There were others who dived into ant hills and stayed there for long periods, in some cases long after the place had been evacuated. Such beleaguered comrades ventured out and harvested the fruits of a tree known, in IsiNdebele, as umkhuna. 

PN: That was the end of the two Mkushis with a heavy toll in human lives?

VN: That was the end of the two Mkushis indeed. From there we the survivors were ferried by trucks to Kafue where we stayed at a guarded place. Among the victims was Jane, our commander.

PN: Was it the Zambians who guarded you?

VN: No, it was ZPRA-trained cadres who provided guard duties. We did not stay long at Kafue. The southern part of Zambia was no longer safe from the Rhodesian attackers. We were then relocated to the extreme north at Solwezi Camp where nearby there was the MTD Camp for men. Our camp was guarded with ZEGU heavy guns manned by Themba from Gwanda and Zwelithini from Plumtree.  The Lancaster House Talks were in progress in London. Once ceasefire had been brokered in December 1979, we moved from Solwezi to VC. We arrived in Harare before proceeding to Bulawayo. I cannot remember whether we travelled by train or by bus.

PN: Where did you stay in Bulawayo?

VN:  We were taken to Old Luveve, behind the Beit Hall where we were assigned to party-supporting  families. Our parents were not allowed to take us back to our homes. I lived with Mongiwa Ngulube from Sankonjana. My father used to pass through the home where we stayed to see me. From there we went to live at Umguza. We were not doing much there. Our final destination was Sierra, an Assembly Point(AP) near Gweru. Some of us were recruited into the new army, the Zimbabwe National Army(ZNA) while others joined the police force.

I was selected to join the police force. Unfortunately, at that time, I was pregnant. Joseph Nyathi from Sankonjana was the father of my first boy child, Mandla. That put paid to my plans to enlist as a trainee police officer within the new police outfit.

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