Memories of sobbing shadows at Heroes’ Acre

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SEVERAL times each year, thousands of people gather at the National Heroes Acre to remember those who shed their blood for the liberation of the country.
Here, we laid to rest Hebert Chitepo.
There, we laid to rest Jason Moyo.
And over there, Amai Sally Mugabe.
And there, mounted on a granite plinth, is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
We might no longer have any flowers left, but let us spare a moment and pause.
At Nyadzonia, on that day in 1976, it took us over a week to bury the nearly
2 000 people who died in the Rhodesian massacre.
And as we walked away from the horrible place, I was afraid to turn back and see a thousand or more sobbing shadows, following us, refusing to be left behind and be forgotten.
The shadows are still sobbing at Nyadzonia.
I was not at Nyadzonia when the Rhodesians attacked it.
I was at Chimoio.
But I was among the platoon of 30 that was dispatched to the camp soon after the attack.
Thus, I will tell the story of the massacre not as a survivor, but as one of the first people who got to the scene immediately after the massacre.
It can only be a survivor who will be able to capture and translate into words the
horror, the agony and the hopelessness of that gigantic historical misfortune.
Nyadzonia was attacked on the morning of August 9 1976, but the news only reached Chimoio in the afternoon because the Rhodesians had blown up the bridge over the Pungwe River, which was the link with Chimoio.
We raced to Nyadzonia armed with AKs, light machine-guns and bazookas in four Land Rovers.
At the devastated bridge, we met the first survivors.
There was no need to ask him any questions because the tragic story was written everywhere for everyone to see: their torn clothes and lacerated bodies, the terror in their eyes and the ghosts that their faces had become.
We abandoned the vehicles and searched for a place to cross the angry and roaring river.
It took us over an hour to cross and unfortunately during the process, Cde Nyika was swept down the treacherous river.
We watched helplessly as his desperate and muted cry finally drowned and suffocated in the cascading fury.
No one among us knew his home name or the part of the country where he came from.
He could be anyone’s son or brother.
At the National Heroes’ Acre, his memory is embodied in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
We proceeded to Nyadzonia.
As we came closer, we
came upon the first dead bodies.
They increased dramatically as we got closer and closer to the camp.
And then at last, we were confronted with an endless sea of dead bodies stretching in all directions.
There were corpses everywhere.
There were corpses of babies strapped on their dead mothers’ backs, there were corpses of small boys and girls.
There were corpses of young men and women.
And the corpses had all sorts of mutilations; decapitated heads, shattered jaws, crushed or missing limbs, disembowelled entrails, scattered brains, gouged eyes, everything.
The highest concentration of the corpses was around the open space they used for their morning assembly.
We would later learn from the survivors that the Rhodesians had come with their faces painted black and with camouflage, weapons and vehicles similar to those used by FRELIMO, the Mozambican army.
That was how the 15 000 or so refugees at Nyadzonia had mistaken them for FRELIMO.
And so when one of the Rhodesians stood on the pedestal at the centre of the square and blew the emergency whistle, everyone had stampeded to the square, anxious for any good news.
And with everyone around the pedestal still gasping for breath, (Morrison) Nyathi, a recently
defected guerilla commander, gave the orders to shoot.
There was nothing to understand.
Then there were the flies.
Swarms of heavy, green bombers.
They hovered from copse to corpse, their laden stomachs bulging to bursting point.
In two days’ time, the worms would begin to appear on the corpses decomposing in the sun, but for now, it was the green flies.
Yes in two days’ time, the fat, wriggling worms would begin to appear.
And then there was the stench of the decomposing corpses that filled the air.
The stench would slowly disappear from our noses and by the third day, it would have completely disappeared. And it would be left to the new arrivals to tell us that our eyes looked unfocused and that we also looked frightening and that the smell of death followed us wherever we went.
Of course, that was before they too, became like everyone of us.
There was fire and smoke everywhere.
Virtually every building in the camp had been gutted and only the charred hulks remained.
The shell of a makeshift clinic run by the Red Cross across the drift looked up into the sky like an old woman wailing at a funeral.
And a short distance away to the east, the Nyadzonia River meandered, heaving under the weight of hundreds of bloated, floating bodies.
And then there were the injured; hundreds of them; writhing and crying like the river.
Some had been shot and left for dead.
Others had their limbs crushed by the rumbling steel-belted wheels of the pursuing armoured vehicle.
The most difficult thing was to provide hope to these people.
A small girl of not more than eight whose chest had been ripped open by a machine gun with part of her lung now exposed asked me as she calmly sat in a donga:
“Do you think I will survive, comrade?”
Strangely, all through that nightmare, I had not cried, not a single tear. I stood up, looked away and wept for something that was much more than the tragedy of the little girl.
Why had I ever joined this war?
Why, why, why, I kept asking myself.
When I at last turned, the little girl had died.
It was as if she was waiting for me to die.
And not far way, the river continued to wail.
Because the bridge over Pungwe River had been blown up, the injured could only be ferried by helicopter to hospital in Chimoio and Beira.
For four days, we battled to bury the dead in mass graves that a caterpillar that had been brought in from Tete was digging.
When the skins of the decomposing corpses began to peel in our bare hands, we had no choice, but to leave the work to the bulldozer.
For nearly a month, people everywhere we went told us our eyes were unfocused and frightening and that we carried the stench of dead bodies.
In the new camp outside Chimoio, the survivors sang and danced, stamping the ground; “Zimbabwe ndeye ropa, baba; Zimbabwe ndeye ropa redu nemadzibaba,” and then the anger and determination: “Ndati ndiudzei, baba, mamboaona kupi mabhunu tinobayana?”
We should pause at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and let the tears from our eyes collect around the pedestal.
They are to the memory of the small girl who I failed to give any hope at Nyadzonia.
She is our heroine.
And there are thousands others like her whose places of death are not known.
We have painful memories, rolling out with the tears from our eyes.
They are memories of the sobbing shadows at Nyadzonia and many more others who failed to come back.

This is an abridged version of an article published in The Patriot of April 26 – May 2 2013.

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