9 JULY 1977, Page 7

Fear and loathing in Rhodesia

Xan Smiley

A year or so ago the Rhodesian government published a booklet entitled Harvest of Fear It contained many gruesome photographs of 'victims of terrorism'. One picture showed a black woman whose lips, upper and lower, had been torn clean away with a pair of pliers. The lacerated and depleted mouth, reduced to a cross between a yawn and a gummy ghostly 'grin', suggested with obvious macabre symbolism that the woman had been punished by guerrillas for informing or 'selling out' on them. But the booklet's caption stressed that she had never had any connection whatsoever with government. At the Geneva conference, the main guerrilla delegation circulated a similar booklet listing 'crimes of the fascist Smith clique against the people of Zimbabwe'. In both booklets there appeared the very same photograph of the lipless woman.

That ancedote is not a prelude to the would-be 'balanced' journalist's War is unpleasant' sort of platitude.' A spurious bias of the centre, is just as likely to be dishonest and misleading as a bias to left or right. Someone mutilated that mouth: who? In that instance, I suppose it was the guerrillas. It was brutal certainly, but probably for a straightforward reason: to discourage informers. But to the white Rhodesian, it is essential that the lers' (terrorists) should be seen to be bestial and devoid of any motive save sadism and power-seeking. Most whites are convinced that guerrilla methods, however much misguided liberals in or out of Ithodesia may rationalise them, invalidate the nationalist cause.

Many whites who have fought the guerrillas still.believe that the docile black rural Populace thinks that majority rule in the words of Rhodesia's inimitable Foreign Minister, Pieter van der Byl is probably something on the menu. White wisdom still holds that the sole concern of the black countryman is `to be left alone' and to have a full stomach a state which he knows can only exist under the tutelage of the white man. Any support the villager may give the guerrilla is due to 'intimidation'. What's more according to many whites most of the guerrillas were themselves 'abducted' by 'hardcore troublemakers' and forced into the 'terrorist' army at gunpoint. So not only the rural blacks who sustain the insurgents, but even the insurgents themselves, are acting under duress. In fact it became clear to me that the vast bulk of the schoolboys (and there are quite a few girls too) who crossed the various borders in thousands over the last few years to become guerrillas went freely. More important, it is just as clear that most of the rural population, despite instances of subjection to terror and coercion, freely support them on their return.

How do I know? I do not speak chi—shona, the language of most of the rual blacks. Nor, amazingly enough, do more than a tiny handful perhaps one per centof the Rhodesian whites, all of whom do of course have an Unshakable grasp of 'the African mentality.' To say that the blacks have every reason to support the guerrillas is not in itself good enough to suppose that they do, although in answer to the 'full stomach' theory it's worth pointing out that any moderately persuasive nationalist can exploit the grievances of the illiterate 'apolitical' peasant: his insecurity of land tenure, his land shortage, his (erroneous) belief that the departing white man will leave a legacy of wealth ready for the picking, above all his latent resentment against the imposition of a hectoring, arrogant, alien European culture. But ultimately as in any similarly complex situation upon which the journalist is expected to pontificate the outside observer simply has to rely on snap judgements on the character and reliability of those sources (in my case, hundreds of them encountered over thousands of rural Rhodesian miles) who have real access to knowledge.

But why, if the guerrillas command such popular support, do they occasionally enforce their will with such brutality? Van der Byl says that it is because they are psychopathic, Communist thugs. Many whites, thanks partly to Rhodesia's outrageously cowardly and dishonest news services, believe that guerrilla killings are either wanton or proof that support for the insurgents is grudging. There have indeed been notably shabby episodes. In December, twenty-seven black tea estate workers were lined up outside their compound and gunned to death by guerrillas. Another eleven were wounded. Their crime: in order to preserve their jobs, they had agreed in defiance of several guerrilla warnings to build a barbed-wire security fence around their compound, effectively cutting off a food supply from the guerrillas. On another occasion, six black bus passengers were machine-gunned, probably for failing to boycott a bus service. Even though guerrillas often warn bus drivers of landmines, over a hundred blacks have been fatally blown up on one occasion, seventeen died in a single blast, another time fourteen. But most killings are straightforwardly motivated. One key administrator told me that over 90 per cent were inspired by easily identifiable motives, Most victims are informers or people connected with gov

ernment. But the administrator also reckoned that there are arbitrary killings carried out simply to show who's boss, and that other groups, driven crazy by months of living the life of hunted animals in the bush, have gone berserk. Guerrilla units usually of ten to twenty each vary greatly in their tactics and toughness and ideological leanings. Their chief influence is the political commissar, sometimes a young university graduate who accompanies every unit. Most groups are cautious and respectful in their dealings with the villagers. Some are indisciplined bullies, carry off drink and women, and are poor fighters.

Some killings reflect aspects of social life that have little to do with politics but stem from traditional clan/tribal/personal rivalries. The Shona succession of chiefs is incredibly complex (the chiefship moves sideways among several eligible 'houses': it can take seven years to settle a claim to the chiefship). Hence guerrillas have often made easy headway in clans bypassed for the chieftship. A successful family's claim may have been heavily backed by government, making all its members 'fair game' to the guerrillas. The African concept of corporate family responsibility has sometimes meant that any relation of a black serving in the colonial administration or security forces is vunerable. Similarly, there is no view that women or children should be exempted from violence. As one African sage put it: If you are exterminating rats, do you spare any on account of their sex or size?' Some tribes reckon that outsiders are technically 'non-persons' and thus do not merit compassion because they are 'not really human beings'.

That typically African sense of corporate responsibility extends also to the realms of decision-making. Policy js generally shaped by consensus: the right of the individual to dissent, the concept of loyal oppositions or of multi-party democracies are utterly foreign. So guerrillas bear no sympathy for those who do not wholeheartedly give themselves up to the prevalent mood of the group. The line between coercion and consensus becomes blurred.

The case of the Manama Mission 'abduction' is apt. Nearly 400 students ranging from ten to over twenty years old absconded one night from a Lutheran school, apparently to join Nkomo's trainee guerrilla army outside Rhodesia. Four armed men accompanied them across the Botswanan border proof, to Rhodesians, that the truants went under duress. But it was hardly likely that nearly 400 children could be shepherded against their wishes by four men at night. Under Red Cross auspices, many parents travelled to Botswana where government officials made it hard for them to persuade their children to return. Nevertheless, fifty-one did so rather denting the Rhodesian contention that the whole school had been 'kidnapped'. But why did the fifty-one set off in the first place? Coercion or consensus? Other cases of school abscondments have been clearer, with students each taking their own decisions whether to stay or leave.

Among Black villagers, almost all of whom are now directly affected by the guerrilla war, there is a strange conjunction of emotions. Whatever the degree of con-' sensus, many villagers must fear and dread. the guerrillas' advent while simultaneously sympathising with them and wishing them victory. That is a common paradox in guerrilla warfare. The civilian populace, whose allegiance the guerrilla needs, fears the weight of guerrilla demands. After all, assisting a guerrilla can win you a death sentence at the army's hands. When the demands become too dangerous, the tactics too bloody, the rewards too distant, then villagers may actually welcome the move into the 'protected village', the generally hated barbed-wire encampments inside which about 400,000 sullen black Rhodesians are now locked up every night, to sever the lifeline between the guerrilla and the food-providing civilian. It is then that the guerrillas may resort to terror to bend the

civilian to their desires. Terror, it is .said, is the ultimate weapon of the weak (and it must be said, the unpopular) who have

nothing to lose when faced with the machinery of a better-equipped opponent.

But terror is not a prerequisite of the Rhodesian guerrilla. Nor has it been his prerogative. As the rewards (perhaps illusory) appear to come within the nationalist grasp, the villagers' reluctance to assist the guerrilla is evaporating.

More relevant is the fact that as the guerrillas' need to use terror subsides, so the Rhodesian soldiers' temptation to use it increases. However merciless the tactics of the guerrillas, again and again I was told by missionaries (whose intelligence system seemed superior to the army's) that it was now the security forces who are hated and feared by the villagers. It is largely a propaganda war, and the villagers want to hate and fear them but there are tangible reasons as well.

However gentlemanly the Rhodesian army may try to remain, it is the arm of an imposing government machine which has enacted racial legislation over the last fifteen years and which has now herded villagers into Protected Villages, making them abandon their old homes; which imposes collective fines for assisting the vakomana, the 'boys', as the guerrillas are known; which holds nearly 3000 black Rhodesians in prison or detention for political reasons; which now uses napalm despite the Geneva Convention against the guerrillas; which, in enforcing a dusk-to-dawn curfew in many areas, cannot prevent triggerhappy or nervous soldiers from killing,

As in any war, it is militarily desirable to dehumanise the enemy, the easier to kill him. In Rhodesia, dehumanising inevitably means exploiting racism. The white troopie goes 'slotting floppies' (killing black men) or 'slaying houtes' (the jocular Afrikaans word, meaning `woodenhead'). With the influx of Vietnam veterans, 'gook' has

entered the vocabulary. On their side, the guerrillas no doubt dehumanise their white enemy into 'fascist pigs' and so on. There was much speculation over the Musami Mission massacre, when seven white nuns and priests were killed by gunmen one February night. Guerrilla motives seemed obscure. If government agents provocateurs had engineered the act, it would have been a masterly stroke of propaganda for the white cause. But whatever the government's basic venality, it would simply have been out of character for it to have concocted so cunningly devilish a scheme. Most guerrilla sympathisers discounting the inevitable nationalist smear that Smith's black-andwhite tracker unit were responsible argued that 'a maverick guerrilla group' or 'out of control guerrillas' or even 'guerrillas who had failed to analyse the situation correctly' were responsible. Many missionaries, refusing to believe that guerrillas could wish them ill, pushed the `Selousie' hypothesis, while government pundits laboriously contended that it was a classic Marxist tactic to destroy humanitarian bridge building sectors of the population, in order to 'polarise society'. I suspect the answer is much simpler: some Africans and certainly many guerrillas hate both missionaries and whites, and want to see them dead.

Whatever the good intentions of some white or black leaders, the cumbersome white war-machine relentlessly erodes what is left of the much-vaunted (always by whites, never by blacks) goodwill between the races. The deported Bishop Lamont graphically describes his disenchantment with the forces of law and order. A loyal headman, visited by guerrillas demanding food, instructed his wife to cook a large meal while he bicycled off to report them, as the law required. The helicopters went in and duly wiped out the guerrilla unit but when the headman returned he discovered that they had also killed his wife and other members of his family. He hanged himself.

In another incident in May, Rhodesian soldiers opened up the official communique was at pains to note that it was after dark but before the moon was up on a group of guerrillas addressing a village. Thirty-six villagers were killed and thirty-one wounded, along with one dead guerrilla. No reporter saw the bodies or was able to verify whose bullets had done the killing. Africans studiously brush aside apologies that the event was a 'mishap'. To them, it is Smith's war-machine massacring civilians.

Warped as the process may sound, the guerrillas' greatest military achievement is that by mingling with the civilian population they have inevitably provoked the army unwittingly, perhaps into hitting at the rural black villager. That means that now the battle for hearts and minds can never be won as long as Smith and his government hold power. Hearts and minds, as a Spanish Civil War correspondent once remarked, do live in bodies.