SECRETS OF THE RHODESIAN WAR
James MacManus details new evidence
of the part played by the Selous Scouts in the war against the guerrillas
TEN years ago this month the war in Rhodesia was reaching a climax while in London the Lancaster House 'conference stumbled towards deadlock. The national- ist leaders, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, were making impossible demands while Ian Smith's delegation, led by his surrogate, Bishop Muzorewa, baulked at any suggestion of fresh elections. To those of us who had flown from Rhodesia to cover the conference it seemed only a matter of time before we returned tb a country that had become a battlefield.
We mocked the optimism of Lord Car- rington, the Foreign Secretary, but marvel- led at his patience as he chivvied the delegations in round after round of stultify- ing negotiations. Unknown to us, of course, Carrington had good reason to be cheerful.
British Intelligence had a brilliant record in Rhodesia. The MI6 reports crossing Carrington's desk that autumn told him what Ian Smith also knew, but could never accept: the war had been lost and South Africa, distracted by the conflict of Ango- la, was not about to step in and pick up the pieces. The rival guerrilla forces of Nkomo and Mugabe were gathering men and material along Rhodesia's borders for a final offensive during the 1979-80, Novem- ber to March, rainy season. For the first time large-scale urban terrorism in Salis- bury was being planned. Many areas of the countryside had fallen under nationalist control, allowing guerrillas to move large numbers of men by daylight.
On the other hand morale within the Rhodesian security forces was plummet- ing. Movement through rural areas was confined to mine-protected vehicles 'So she's only going on and on rather than on and on and on.' travelling in heavily armed convoys. Base camps in the bush came under routine attacks by mortars, rockets and small-arms fire. Disheartened by the loss of over 1,000 dead, the white community was further demoralised by the failure of the internal settlement to attract any international sup- port.
It was against this fearful background that Ian Smith played for time at Lancaster House, hoping for a nationalist walk-out But Carrington kept Nkomo and Mugabe in play. As the conference dragged into December, Smith was forced to accept a return to legality under British rule and new elections. The white minority avoided the indignity of outright military defeat but it was the imminence of a guerrilla victory in the field that allowed the British to negotiate the transfer of power.
A new book about the Rhodesian war (The Rhodesian Front War by Henry Ellert, Mambo Press, PO Box UA 320, Harare, Zimbabwe) describes the desper- ate plight of the white regime in the autumn of 1980 and offers a startling insight into the way the war was fought and lost by the Smith government. The author, Henry Ellert, is a former Rhodesian Spe- cial Branch officer well known to the Salisbury press corps during the Seventies.
The Special Branch had a number of desks, or departments, and Mr Ellert rose to run E (European) desk which monitored both extremes of the white political spec- trum, kept a close eye on the foreign press and attempted to uncover the MI6 network in the country. After independence he stayed on, aligned himself with the ruling party, Zanu, started a business and began to write local history. Unlike other white Rhodesians who have undergone this con- version, Mr Ellert has neither become a reverse racist nor does he discount the huge contribution made by the white com- munity to the development of the country. His book is written in the leaden prose of a policeman but it is the first honest attempt by a member of the Rhodesian security forces to explain how the war was fought.
Predictably the most hair-raising chapter deals with the Selous Scouts. Formed in 1973 as a pseudo-terrorist and tracking unit, the Scouts grew to battalion strength and assumed mythical status in nationalist demonology.
There were no racial barriers in the unit, which always included a large percentage of Africans. The first surprise was that the Scouts were funded by the Rhodesian Intelligence service, CIO, and, more lavishly, by South African Military Intelli- gence. Thus the unit enjoyed complete autonomy within the military which was a source of constant aggravation to the army command.
The South African military had good reason to spend heavily on the Scouts. They gave them direct access to the latest counter-insurgency methods and provided, a far better picture of the war on the ground than that obtained by South Afri- can Intelligence officers posted to Salis- bury. The South African paymasters were nothing if not generous. To the envy of other units, Scouts would often wander around military bases with green canvas holdalls bulging with cash. With huge funds and little accountabil- ity, the Selous Scouts virtually fought a war of their own against the guerrillas. Along- side the duties of tracking and infiltrating guerrilla groups they indulged in chemical warfare, assassination, abduction, and psychological warfare. Although the Spe- cial Branch provided much of their oper- ational intelligence the Scouts ran their own informers within and beyond Rhodesia's borders. They also won exclu- sive rights to rural areas which would be 'frozen' and placed out of bounds to the regular army for the length of a given Selous Scouts operation.
This unorthodox arrangement arose in the early days of the war after several Scouts in pseudo-gangs had been killed by regular forces. The first Scouts' comman- der, Andr6 Rabie, died in this way although the incident was hushed up and he was portrayed as a martyr to terrorism. The real result of the 'frozen area' policy was that it gave the wild men of the Selous Scouts — and they were all pretty wild unfettered power to wage war as they wished.
The results were predictable. Operation- al ideas that had been dismissed as imprac- tical by the army command were im- mediately taken up by the Scouts. An example was the plan to poison guerrilla clothing. Rejected by the military, it be- came a classic Selous Scouts operation. The idea -was to impregnate the denim jackets and jeans favoured by the guerrillas with toxins and distribute the garments to the insurgents via double agents.
According to Mr Ellert there is strong evidence that the Scouts used human guinea pigs to test the toxicity of the clothing. In late 1975 a group of young African men were arrested in a Salisbury township as suspected guerrilla recruits and taken to police headquarters to be questioned. After a brief period of deten-
tion they were released into the custody of the Scouts 'for further questioning' and taken to a camp at Mount Darwin in the north east of the country which had been mothballed for months.
The camp was opened to accommodate several Scouts, a team of army doctors and the unfortunate Africans. Some days later the local police were asked to supply vehicles to remove bodies from the camp for disposal in a local mineshaft. Unusually the Scouts performed the disposal them- selves.
Whatever the truth about that episode, the Scouts distributed poisoned clothing to guerrillas in a number of eastern districts in 1976, causing hundreds of deaths. It took about six days for the poison to be absorbed. The death throes that followed were akin to extreme symptoms of malaria so that it took the guerrillas some time to uncover the deadly deception. The oper- tion was finally called off when the regular police began investigating the widespread deaths of innocent villagers who had some- how got their hands on the toxic clothing.
The operation was deemed a success and it fuelled the Scouts' fascination with che- mical warfare. In 1976 the Ruya river near the Mozambique border was poisoned with bacteriological cultures which caused a deadly epidemic downstream in Mozambi- que. At the time cholera was blamed for fatalities among villagers . and guerrillas who used the river.
Similar tactics were used to attack a base camp of the Mozambique national army in Tete province. The local reservoir was poisoned and radio intercepts showed that 200 people had died sudden and painful deaths in the camp. Such operations were initially kept secret from the army com- mand although inevitably word got round and the operations were cancelled.
The Scouts' taste and talent for dirty tricks were endless. Cassette-players were booby-trapped and distributed to guerrillas hungry for pop music; radios were equip- ped with homing devices and likewise channelled to the enemy. Perhaps the most Of course, poll tax-wise, you're laughing.' effective of the covert operations was the elaborate forging of letters which often lured guerrilla groups to a false rendez- vous.
It is easy of course to blame the Selous Scouts for every atrocity on the govern- ment side just as it is to forget, as Ellert reminds us, that the insurgents were guilty of barbaric behaviour to their own people, routinely cutting off lips, ears, noses and limbs to inculcate terror and punish sup- posed informers.
But the author breaks new ground in charting the level to which the Scouts sank in their efforts to gain information. Scouts specialised in 'turning' captured guerrillas and went to gruesome lengths to conceal the identity of such agents. Insurgents who fell into the Scouts' hands during an operation were immediately hooded and flown out of the area. African villagers unlucky enough to have witnessed the capture of a guerrilla were also flown out in helicopters — never to be seen alive again. Ellert says the Scouts often 'removed' entire villages for this reason.
Captured guerrillas provided vital in- formation but their most vulnerable role was to work with, and authenticate, the pseudo-gangs. With such turncoats in their ranks the Scouts were given all the in- formation they needed to unearth arths dumps and guerrilla hide-outs. The success of the most spectacular pseudo-operation mounted by the Scouts was largely due to a captured guerrilla named Morrison Nyathi. He rode in the lead vehicle when the Scouts drove into the Nyadzonia camp near the Pungwe river in Mozambique dressed as Frelimo soldiers. The camp contained several thousand Zimbabweans who had fled to join the nationalist cause. They were unarmed and about 1,000 died in the raid.
Mr Ellert is also able to throw new light on one of the worst atrocities of the war, the Elim mission massacre in the Eastern Highlands in June 1978. On a cold winter's night six armed men wearing balaclavas entered the students' dormitory at the mission which lies high up in the Vumba mountains on the Mozambique border. They identified themselves as guerrillas loyal to Robert Mugabe and told the students that the school was closed. They then woke the nine British missionaries and their four children, bound them, and herded them into the freezing night. The women were raped, the men beaten and all were finally hacked to death and chopped into pieces. No single incident during a 15-year war led to such international con- demnation of the guerrillas. The white community was revolted and the internal settlement involving Bishop Muzorewa given fresh impetus.
Several weeks lati a guerrilla named Luke Madjurnbo was killed by security forces and a notebook was found implicat- ing him in the massacre. Two visiting British MPs who viewed the body and the notebook were convinced of his guilt. Wild talk that the Selous Scouts had been involved in yet another black propaganda exercise was forgotten.
Not everyone in the Rhodesian Intelli- gence community was entirely happy about the affair. Ellert cites a special branch colleague at the nearby Grand Reef air- base who was sceptical. He knew that the government was finalising plans for a secret propaganda exercise, named Opera- tion Favour, designed to win international and domestic support for an internal settle- ment.
He uncovered the fact that some 30 government auxiliaries loyal to the discre- dited nationalist Ndabaningi Sithole had been deployed in the area. These men had already committed vile atrocities against African villagers. He also knew the skill with which the Scouts forged documents. The case is unproven although it is clear where Ellert's suspicions lie.
There are plenty of other surprises in the book. At the height of the war in 1978, 1,500 foreigners were fighting with the Rhodesian army, including a force of 200 French Foreign Legionnaires; the air force began the final stage of the war in 1972 with just 22 ancient Alouette helicopters. The Sultanate of Oman boosted this figure, arranging a sanctions-busting deal which gave Rhodesia 11 helicopters in 1978. The Omanis went further and provided $5 million to support the amnesty campaign which was supposed to underpin the Muzorewa election in 1979. A final irony is Ellert's revelation that the Special Branch spent £4 million in a covert operation to `buy' the British-supervised election for Muzorewa in 1980. There were plenty of Africans to take the money but very few to vote for the Bishop on the day. As with the Scout activities, Ellert concludes that such covert operations had little impact on the conflict and no chance of changing its inevitable outcome.
It will be argued that Mr Ellert has a considerable axe to grind because he was dismissed from the police in the dying days of white rule when his superiors realised that he intended to publish this book. But the late Ken Flower, who was head of Rhodesian Intelligence, told me just be- fore he died in 1987 that the Scouts `had got completely out of control' during the war.
So what purpose is served by dragging up gruesome details of a distant war? The answer, I think, is that the Rhodesian conflict awaits a historian of the calibre of
Alistair Home, whose Savage War of Peace provided the definitive history of the Algerian civil war. In the meantime books such as this make a valuable contribution to understanding what really happened in the final, convulsive decade of white rule in Rhodesia.
James MacManus was correspondent of the Guardian in Salisbury from 1974-80.