Chimoio massacre: The game changer

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NOVEMBER 23 brings with it sad memories of the brutal massacre of not only military personnel, but women and children at Chimoio in Mozambique by Rhodesian forces in 1977.
Forty-one years ago, Ian Douglas Smith’s Rhodesian Air Force raided the ZANLA military headquarters at Chimoio, Mozambique, in an operation code-named ‘Dingo’.
On this day (November 23 1977), Smith’s Rhodesian forces launched an attack on 14 guerilla and refugee camps, killing more than 5 000 people.
It was the mass murder of innocent refugees at Chimoio by the Rhodesian forces on that fateful day that woke the world to the shocking news of the atrocity we now know as the Chimoio Massacre.
When one looks back at the Zimbabwe liberation war, the Chimoio Massacre stands out as the major turning point in the war.
It was a game-changer.
The Rhodesians themselves describe it: “The Rhodesians raid against the ZANLA camp in Chimoio, Mozambique, in the November of 1977 was a milestone in the war.”
Coming as it did after the deadly Nyadzonia conflagration which killed more than 2 000, the Chimoio massacre signified a decisive shift in the way the Rhodesians fought their war – it marked a phase of ‘fighting dirty’ or ‘hitting below the belt’ as it were.
By 1977 Rhodesians were desperate, admitting that the ‘penetration’ and ‘disruption’ by guerilla forces had increased and they were overstretched.
Seeing that Africans were adamant, Smith had to change tack.
Finding that containment in Zimbabwe was not bearing fruit, the defence strategists felt that the cancer had to be cured at the place of origin and in that regard, refugee camps such as Nyadzonia and Chimoio in Mozambique as well as Mkushi, Mulungushi, Nampundwe and Freedom Camp in Zambia, were to be and bombarded with ferocious fire-power.
Rhodesians, likewise, attacked the refugee camps in neighbouring countries in order to sap morale among the cadres.
Mkushi, a ZIPRA camp located 150km north of Lusaka in Zambia, a refugee and training camp for women, was attacked and bombed by Rhodesian forces on October 17 1978.
And 11 days later, 400 others were to be killed at Freedom Camp.
The attack on Mkushi Girls’ Camp was different from previous attacks on Nyadzonia and Chimoio camps because it was a deliberate attack against female combatants.
At Mkushi Girls’ Camp, the Rhodesians began by hitting where everybody congregated for food.
Even at Freedom Camp, the Rhodesians had baptised the eating facilities with bomb-fire.
They knew most cadres gathered there in anticipation of being fed after the earlier part of training exercises and would have been restless because of hunger.
About 1 606 women and 27 men were killed. Those who fled were hunted down like animals.
The Rhodesian army went trench-by-trench killing the girls who were hiding.
On October 28 1978, the Rhodesians, through an air raid, killed over 400 Zimbabweans at Freedom Camp, a farm that former Zambian President Dr Kenneth Kaunda had given to liberation movements including FRELIMO, SWAPO and ZAPU, among others.
However, by 1975, the camp was run by ZAPU’s military wing ZIPRA.
The Rhodesian Air Force was done in about 15 minutes.
People were defenceless and never returned fire. When the Rhodesians attacked, it was no longer a training camp, but a transit camp.
Apparently, many people at the camp on the fateful day had come from Namupundwe and Victory Camps on the west side of Lusaka for medical check-ups before proceeding to Angola for military training.
In retaliation, in February 1979, ZAPU guerillas shot down a second Air Rhodesia Viscount plane, killing all 59 persons aboard.
ZAPU also brought down another Rhodesian passenger plane, resulting in the death of 48 persons.
After the Chimoio Massacre, the comrades were down but not out.
The war was far from over.
From the attacks, the guerilla forces had learnt their lessons such that when the Rhodesians, on September 5 1979, launched an attack at Mapai, situated across the Limpopo border in South Africa, they were shocked by ZANLA’s retaliatory firepower.
Rhodesians wanted to turn the tables at the Lancaster House Conference by weakening the bargaining position of the freedom fighters.
The assault was met with fierce resistance from FRELIMO and ZANLA anti-aircraft batteries.
The heavy fire from ZANLA and FRELIMO forces crippled the ground and air attacks.
This was the first time the Rhodesian forces had failed to overrun the enemy.
Humiliated, defeated, disappointed and battle weary, SAS and RLI forces thus began to retreat from Mapai.
This was no Nyadzonia nor Chimoio!
According to Dr Felix Muchemwa’s Struggle for Land in Zimbabwe (1890-2010), the Rhodesians had clearly underestimated the strength and determination of ZANLA forces and found themselves completely outgunned and outnumbered.
“For the first time in the history of the war, the Rhodesians had been stopped dead in their tracks, it was a first time defeat on the battlefield,” said Dr Muchemwa.
After the humiliation at Mapai, the Rhodesians were desperate to weaken the guerillas’ bargaining power and launched ‘Operation Miracle’ against Mavonde, ZANLA’s headquarters in Mozambique.
The mood at Mavonde was testimony that the time for hide and seek with the Rhodesians was over.
This was, without doubt, the most decisive battle of the liberation struggle.
ZANLA forces had learnt their lessons from Chimoio so there were no children and women at Mavonde.
It was purely for operations.
ZANLA forces were well-equipped and well-prepared.
The whole 64 square-kilometre area, named ‘New Chimoio’, was heavily fortified, with an intricate web of trenches and bunkers protected by heavy weaponry and anti-aircraft guns.
ZANLA and their advisors had chosen a prominent ‘bald’ kopje to site a large force of men and anti-aircraft weapons to defend the camps below from air-strikes by the Rhodesian Air Force.
The Rhodesians were defeated in the four-day battle and suffered heavy causalities.
The ZANLA victory at Mavonde sealed the fate of the Lancaster House peace talks and led directly to the independence of Zimbabwe.
No doubt the Chimoio massacre, among others, remains etched in the Zimbabwean national psyche and as a continuous reminder that Zimbabwe’s independence did not come on a silver platter — it was paid for in full measure and ultimate sacrifice of blood, life and limb.

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