Reporting Under Fire - a memory, an appeal

2012-09-13 13:18

WHEN I see reports of unrest spreading on the mines in South Africa and relive the memories of my Citizen days in the early 90s and the frightening times I experienced in Thokoza, Alexandra, Sebokeng et al, my mind flies back to similar experiences in my beloved Zimbabwe. Please excuse the self-indulgence...!

Entumbane Township, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, November 1980

THE unmistakeable rat-tat-tat staccato of the AK-47 assault rifles shattered the early Bulawayo morning as ZIPRA, Zimbabwe Independent People’s Republic Army, the armed wing of Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU, Zimbabwe African People’s Union fighters launched a well planned ambush against 15 national army soldiers packed into the back of their camouflaged Bedford troop carrier. Ostensibly the country's armed forces, the soldiers were nothing less than a spin-off of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and its own fighting force left over from the Rhodesian bush war, the basically useless but intimidating Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA).

Confused? Me too, sometimes.

The trooper closest to us jerked backwards as his head dissolved into a pink mist, another next to him dying from multiple wounds to the chest. The remaining soldiers opened up simultaneously, firing a hail of random unaimed shots at the shadows lurking in the roadside ditch. Two of the rebels dropped, killed instantly. Another, wounded in the leg, dragged himself away from the killing ground only to be stopped dead by the impact of at least a dozen rounds.

Five-metres behind the truck, Chris, the black reporter for the newly-established Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation Television service and me, carrying an antiquated Sony video camera and bulky shoulder pack, dived from our beige Renault Five, the doors wildly ajar, as we hit the dirt and rolled into cover.

“Fuck,” I remember thinking spitting out earth, “I didn’t sign on for this.”

The dust, a rain of small pebbles and the screams of the frightened and injured men mingled with the shouts of scattering pedestrians, men, women and children as they fled the carnage. In what seemed hours but which was probably less than a minute, the noise stopped as suddenly as it had started. The ambushers disappeared into the maze of shacks and small houses, tripping over piles of trash in their haste to escape. Army men set off in pursuit, firing wildly at anything that moved.

I saw a young mother, baby on her back, plough face first into the ground as a bullet hit her baby and passed through into her body. Two innocents already dead in what was to become a four-day bloodbath in bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, stronghold of the Matabele people, sworn opponents of Robert Mugabe’s new government. Bulawayo was to be effectively closed down for two working days as the fledgling government frantically battled to restore order and impose its authority.

The previous day I had been filming a routing ZAPU political rally at White City stadium – hordes of Nkomo supporters chanted ZAPU slogans while politicians and ranking youth leaders spewed threats against the government and hatred against the majority Shona people. Stones had been thrown from outside the stadium, hitting nobody but sparking mayhem and chaos inside. The Zimbabwe police came running, teargas cylinders spiralling into the crowds. They chased the stone throwers, not too seriously it seemed, and restored some sort of order.

In a small way, my report on that night’s news bulletin was a world scoop but few realised it was but a mild taste of what was to become Bulawayo’s nightmare. Days of murderous violence were to follow and tiny Bulawayo, for so long Harare’s little sister was to sit astride world news headlines as the carnage continued.

As Chris and I left the ambush site, shaken but with unbelievable footage in the camera, we headed off to Mpilo hospital, the biggest in the city, to try and ascertain casualty figures. A Smiling white policeman, a leftover from the Rhodesian force, greeted us and indicated the mortuary. “It’s full. We reckon there’s at least 40 dead in there – piled on top of each other. Oh,” he added as an afterthought, “If you go in watch out. It stinks to high heaven!”

Full of braggadio and citing my experiences during the bush war I told the cop I’d seen worse. I went in, out of curiosity, I hate to say, because I knew full well any footage I took would never be used.

“Show me how your camera works,” the policeman said as he followed me in.

“What for?”

“In case you pass out,” he laughed, as I scorned the suggestion.

Next thing I knew, I came round lying on the ground outside the mortuary door. The laughing policeman helped me up – “told you so!”

It was about then that I began to think about packing it in – leave for anywhere – anywhere where there was peace and quiet, anywhere where war was more than a recent memory, where hatred and suspicion didn’t exist. Strangely enough I chose South Africa... there are none so blind as those who cannot see etc. The old "frying pan, fire" syndrome perhaps but as a relatively young person I still hadn't learnt to see the woods for the trees. But, I NEVER regretted it and South Africa became my country as much as Rhodesia had once been.

All those pointless years in the bush during the war, reluctantly conscripted, witnessing the killings, the terrified, the mad, the maimings, the brutality, all leading to the new Zimbabwe, coloured my decision to emigrate. To all intents and purposes there was "peace" in Zimbabwe but even then the looming spectres of tribalism, revenge and political opportunism were raising their ugly heads. Until Entumbane I was prepared to give it a go but what I experienced there helped to change my mind.

Long story short, the government "closed down" Bulawayo and announced that nobody should go to work during the shut down. My newly appointed editor, a politico if ever there was one, a certain "Comrade " Tommy Pedsezai told me I had to go back to Entumbane. I refused and said if I did, he would have to come with me. He responded and said if I didn't go I would be fired. "Anyway," he added, "I have meetings in town today and can't go with you,".

Meetings? In a closed-up town? Pull the other one "Comrade". From a sense of duty I went that day - same old, same old - returned to the studio, handed in my tapes and resigned.

The months later I was in South Africa. But to the people of South Africa, from one who has now lived in the UK for three years, I would say this: count your many blessings but please, please, keep a careful eye on the likes of Julius Malema and his cohorts. These future leaders who blithely espouse the cause of widespread nationalisation of banking and mining, among others, will, if not thwarted, lead our beautiful country along the lines of Zimbabwe into chaos and bankruptcy. That may not be their declared policy but it will come about, believe me.

You all, we all, deserve better and so does South Africa.

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