‘That Special Place’

The light arrived like a sharp nail striking my left eye, after three days of not having seen the African sun or felt its mother warmth. I had just woken from a short sleep, after spending the whole night awake and singing to my soul. I remembered how I had arrived where I was, but not why I was there. I heard groans, coughs, sneezes, yawns – what felt like competing huffing and puffing from all directions. But nobody spoke except for the two people who were sitting outside guarding us.

Freedom Nyamubaya
Freedom Nyamubaya

I had only realised that we were being guarded some six hours earlier when I had wanted to go to the toilet. It felt like days since I had had this relief, but fortunately we’d been given nothing to eat or drink. Getting up and crossing the floor, even in the darkness, I did not want to be seen by the other comrades. My Afro hair had turned white, my face felt like a monkey’s in a dusty field. My eyes were swollen. I had to struggle to force one open so that I could see where I was going. My java-print dress, which I had once been proud of, my face, arms and legs, were also covered in dust and grime. However, I rose and picked my way through the bodies. Why should I worry what people thought of me, they were asleep. But I did mind and only moved because it would have been worse to sit in my own urine in a hut.

‘You are supposed to seek permission before you go anywhere!’ shouted one of the guards. ‘This way,’ said another whose name, Muchapera, literally means ‘you will be finished off ‘. He took his wooden imitation AK rifle and escorted me to the toilet.

There were always people hanging around the toilet, even in the darkness, sometimes for reasons other than relieving themselves. Free discussion was not tolerated in public, and one of the few places that provided some privacy was the toilet. On other occasions, it provided a mildly safe haven from work or training if you wanted a break. So the toilet was actually an area where the only semi-liberated discussion took place. Nobody could stop you from going there, but sometimes this would only be permitted with the caution, ‘Do your thing fast, I want you out in two minutes.’

I didn’t know any of this then. However, the guard was hovering outside, and in that moment of comparative freedom, he told me that I was in prison. He said he felt badly about this as he came from my district, and pleaded with me to tell them that I was an enemy agent, or else they would make mince-meat of my buttocks.

‘Nobody leaves this place without confessing,’ he said. ‘But whatever you do, don’t say anything to anyone! You never saw me.’ And that, indeed, was the last I saw of him. He had disappeared before I could respond to his statement.

When I finally opened my left eye in the watery daylight, I saw I was in the company of four men looking as dusty as I did. One of them later told me that when he arrived I was unconscious, and had been for hours. I did not remember anything, but I realised that I was a day behind in my counting.

It was about seven o’clock in the morning and the two guards were chatting away five metres from the entrance. A few sunrays filtered through the cracks in the grass walls of the hut. The door was a khaki sack that would have contained maize grain in normal circumstances. There was a four-inch gap between the ground and the sack, which swung to and fro as the wind blew in different directions. September, like August, was hot and windy at Tembwe Training Camp, in the remote areas of Tete Province in Mozambique.

The smell of dry sand swept through the makeshift, loosely thatched hut. The faces of the four men were not wholly visible in the partial darkness, but I could see the misery on their faces. I tried to grin at each of them, but no one responded. I tried to examine them more closely – there was nothing else to do – but they quickly turned their faces away. They looked ghostly and frightening with their disfigured cheeks, lips, eyes and noses covered in grey dust.

One of them had a thick swollen sagging lower lip and a large swollen forehead that seemed to hang over his eyes, making him look like one of those long distance cargo trucks with a raised sleeping cab. Another, who appeared to be the youngest, had eyes which, like mine, were heavily swollen. I could not tell whether he could see or not. He resembled one of those bullfrogs often found perching on rocks during the long summer months. I touched my own eyes, imagining that I must look like him, and then burst out laughing; we were two frogs, but I was sure I was the more beautiful.

My laughter seemed to break the ice for, after a moment, everybody joined in, then the silence fell again. The third man was the handsome one. He still looked good even with a nose like JoJo the Clown, the result of a one-sided boxing match with the security guard. The other prisoner kept his face turned from me: he seemed ready to pounce on anybody given the chance.

It was after nine when the Camp Security Commander came to visit us. He had a loud mouth, and never once do I remember him saying anything constructive or interesting. He used torturous language, and made vulgar jokes about the inmates. Vicious and cruel, he had not even completed his primary education when he was recruited into the liberation struggle. With nothing in terms of brain, he thrived on sadism and intimidation. Interrogation had to be accompanied by a slash on the buttocks with a whip or a slap on the face, but still he was called the Camp Security Commander. It was he who had to prove the innocence of every new arrival. Though it depended on his moods, which were erratic, you were deemed innocent if you were a man, and of his educational level or lower. If you were a woman, even if his intention was to sleep with you, he first had to fill you with fear; but if you were just a tiny bit more educated than he was, then you had to be thoroughly beaten.

This made it easier for him to sexually assault you later, as he would say that he would throw you back in prison if you resisted. Since he was the man in charge nobody, not even the Camp Commander, could challenge him.

It was the same man, Nyathi, who was later demoted from the front line, after several brave rural farmers complained that their women and children were being sexually abused in the base camps back at home. He took his revenge by defecting, and he later led a battalion of Rhodesian soldiers with armoured cars to massacre refugees at Nyadzonia, the unguarded refugee camp where he was known as a Commander.On his arrival at the camp he blew the emergency whistle, which meant that everybody had to go immediately to the assembly point.

Seeing the military trucks, most of them thought that at last Frelimo had provided transport to transfer them from the camp, in which they were bored, ill and starving, to another camp for military training. Nyathi waited until most people had made their way from the water points, the barrack construction area, cooking and cleaning tasks. An emergency whistle meant that even the sick had to get themselves to the parade ground.

Nyathi stood at the front, sloganeering and having some of the refugees sing revolutionary songs while waiting for everyone to arrive. Two late-comers ran straight past the armoured cars and immediately noticed that the men behind the wheels were whites who’d painted up, but forgotten the backs of their ears, which still showed a startling white. Bravely they ran on, right through the crowd shouting over Nyathi’s voice. ‘Run, run, run away, comrades! It’s not Frelimo! It’s the Rhodesians! Run away! Run away!’

Nyathi’s response was to jump off the platform on which he was standing and instruct the Rhodesians to fire. People, en masse, were simply mown down, blood gushing from them like so many burst pipes. Among the strewn and bleeding bodies Nyathi observed a few who had begun to wriggle away from the mayhem on their bellies, and sadist that he was, he instructed the Rhodesians to drive their cars over the bodies so as to crush the survivors. The battalion moved in tandem, as if they were ploughing a field, crushing the dead and the living. Anyone who tried to run away got a bullet in his back. A woman who survived said she had rolled herself back to lie amongst those who’d been crushed, and covering herself with blood, lay and watched Nyathi and his Rhodesians complete their mission.

Of course the lucky ones ran into the bush as fast as they could. Many of them never returned to see what had happened. Those who survived often did so surrounded by the dead and wounded, terrified that if they were to stand up, they would be shot down. The woman I knew shouted for help the following day, after Frelimo had arrived.

Hearing Nyathi’s voice, loud and strident, I recalled immediately how I had come to be in prison. When they arrived at a military camp, recruits were required to write a brief synopsis of their lives; if they couldn’t write, they had to tell someone who would write it down for them.

If you had made your own way, you had to explain why you had decided to join the struggle; if you had been recruited by the comrades and brought across the border into Mozambique, you generally escaped interrogation. The process was called ‘three check up’, but I have never known what it meant. If the security commander was satisfied with your biography and explanation you would go free, but if not, or should he want you for other reasons, you found yourself in prison.

Nyathi had asked me to write my autobiography and give my reasons for deciding to joint the liberation war. I asked him whether I should do this in English or Shona.

‘Whatever,’ he said. ‘I am trained to read all kinds of languages through the word.’

I wrote down the story of my life, in Shona, innocent and excited. I was one of three: there were two women with me who had been assisted across the Zambezi by a comrade. Without even looking at their papers, he told them that they were free to go and join the others at the barracks.

When it came to my turn he snatched my piece of paper from me, pretended to read it, and asked what grade I had done at school. I told him that I’d left in Form 3, a year before writing my O-levels, and he went crazy.

‘You haven’t written the truth,’ he shouted, and knocked me onto his grass double bed. I saw stars in broad daylight. I was so shocked that I did not shed a tear but stared at him, my eyes wide like a zombie. ‘Why would you leave school and all that comfort to come to a place of suffering and dying?’ He gave me no chance to answer, but slapped me eight times, first on one cheek then the other. Then he told me he was going to take me to Mbuya Nehanda, where the spirit medium would learn the truth. I knew all about Mbuya Nehanda, the spirit medium who was executed in Salisbury in 1893 for fighting against the colonisers. I was relieved ñ I felt frightened and hurt by Nyathi’s anger and blows, which had come as such a shock. Little did I know that there was no spirit -medium, just a prison.

About the Author

Freedom Nyamubaya is a rural development activist, farmer, dancer and writer who was born in Uzumba. Cutting short her secondary school education in 1975, she left to join the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army in Mozambique where she achieved the rank of Female Field Operation Commander, later being elected Secretary for Education in the first ZANU Women’s League conference in 1979.

After Independence, she founded MOTSRUD, an NGO that provides agro-services to rural farmers, and she has worked on attachment with the United Nations in Mozambique.

Her first volume of poetry, On the Road Again (Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1985) was followed by Dusk of Dawn (College Press, 1995), both being attempts to grapple with a brutal world using powerful images and disconcerting rhythms.

Post published in: Arts

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