Sexual abuse: The untold story of the liberation war

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Zimbabwe People First leader Dr.Joyce Mujuru

IT is night in the late 1970s. Some senior comrades fighting the Rhodesian army during the war of independence arrive at one of the liberation camps in Mozambique sparking joy and jubilation among the fighters in the camp.

By Wongai Zhangazha

Everyone rises to greet them after which a conversation starts on the state of the liberation struggle. The senior comrades announce that the guerillas will soon receive new weapons, increasing the excitement in the camp.

Beer and whisky brought by visitors from Maputo is passed around and the soldiers take a swig as laughter erupts.

For others this becomes a cue to take to the dance floor. They gyrate to fast-paced rhythms that betray a heavy influence of the kanindo music then popular in Tanzania where most of the combatants received military training.
Meanwhile, Comrade Liberty is asleep, but is woken by one of the male soldiers: “Some comrades want to see you,” says the guerilla.

Liberty wants to know why, but in the typical ‘yours is not to reason why, but yours is to do and die’ as English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson would say, she is curtly told to just come. Liberty finds comfort in asking whether she can bring her friend, Comrade Flame.

The male comrades’ faces light up upon seeing the female comrades arrive.

“These are comrades from higher offices, they have come from Maputo, sit, sit,” one of the guerillas tells Flame and Liberty.

The commander of the camp, Cde Che, calls Flame and asks her to accompany him to his room, while her friend Liberty is taken by one of the male guerillas from Maputo.

Liberty tries to resist his demands, but is given a blow to the face. The blow floors her.

While in his room “Cde Che” tells Flame: “You are such a beautiful woman and also very intelligent. Why do you hate me?” to which she responds “I don’t hate you.”

“Do you know something Flame, I love you, why don’t you come closer,” continues Che as Flame moves backwards, trying to resist his advances.

“No, No, No please,” she shouts, to no avail. Che uses his strength to overpower and rape her.

She confides in Liberty about the sexual abuse, but chooses not to report the case to anyone.

The sexual abuse continues until it becomes a routine and a way of life for Flame. She eventually bears a child as a result of the abuse.

This is a scene from a 1995 Zimbabwean movie Flame, which highlights the tragic and often unspoken experiences of the country’s female freedom fighters during the liberation struggle. The movie suggests that the war was far from a purely heroic endeavour in which courageous fighters of both sexes successfully confronted the forces of imperialism and racist hegemony.

Flame was initially conceived as a documentary project detailing women’s experiences in the liberation war. However, when all the participants refused to appear on screen, Ingrid Sinclair who directed the movie, decided to develop a fictional representation of their experiences.

The movie brought to the fore stories of pain, violence, bitterness and a history of broken promises. It is a graphic tale of sexual harassment, gruesome sexual abuse and sex for food. It is a movie that was released to self-righteous howls of indignation by the patriarchal leaders in Zanu PF which sought to deny the pain and abuse of women.

Few people have openly spoken about the abuse of women fighters during the liberation war, but a story published in the state media this week alleging that former vice-president Joice Mujuru, then a teenager, slept with a commander during the liberation struggle, ignited debate on how women were abused during the struggle.

“It does not matter whether the story is true or false, but certainly it highlights the abuse of young girls during the war. Young girls were vulnerable to armed commanders and freedom fighters. That is the untold story of the liberation struggle,” said a Zanu PF official and ex-combatant who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I can’t say whether it happened or not, but it was difficult for a teenager possibly around 15 or 16 to refuse to bow down to the advances of a commander. In many cases resistances did not matter because they would just force themselves on you.”

United Kingdom-based Zimbabwean journalist Chofamba Sithole said women combatants had a rough time during the liberation war at the hands of male colleagues and commanders, as exposed by the film Flame.

“It’s sad that the suffering of female combatants during the war has hardly received official recognition by the government, 36 years after the war ended. Female fighters endured not only the trauma of war, but also carried the added burden of being sexually abused by some of their own comrades and commanders, a number of whom may still occupy positions of leadership and authority in the government and state institutions.

“It’s rather callous and morally inept of the misogynistic men who control the state media to seize on these sad experiences and use them as political muck to soil the reputation of a female rival. It conveys the suggestion that President Mugabe’s liberation history is so insecure that it requires such vile tactics to shore it up.”

While some women have denied stories of rape and abuse, others, including the late Freedom Nyamubaya, an outspoken ex-combatant, maintained raped was rife.

Nyamubaya is on record saying Zimbabwe should accept the truth of what really happened during the war.

Among Nyamubaya’s works, the poem For Suzana which narrates ordeals of a woman who sacrifices her life to train and carry arms for freedom before suffering humiliation through rape when her body becomes a “church for high-ranking monks to relieve their stress”.

In her book Re-Living The Second Chimurenga: Memoirs of Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle, former education minister, Fay Chung, who was there, also highlights how thousands of young women guerrillas were used as sex slaves by commanders.

“Sometimes, women did not enter into these casual unions willingly, but were forced into them. I remember two incidents when I was in Pungwe III, a military camp on the banks of the Pungwe River deep in the heart of Mozambique. I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of commotion — many angry voices could be heard shouting from the women’s barracks situated a hundred metres from my posto1. The next morning I was told by a young commander that (the late Zanla commander, Josiah) Tongogara and his retinue had arrived in the middle of the night and had demanded women to entertain them. Such women were euphemistically called warm blankets,” reads Chung’s book.

“The sycophantic camp commander had immediately gone into the women’s barracks and called out the names of several young women for ‘night duties’. These women knew what this meant and refused. The commotion was caused by the fight between the camp commander and the young women, whose fierce opposition to being carried off to grace the beds of the commanders was termed ‘rebellion’. Despite their shouts and screams, they ended up in the beds of the top Zanla commanders that night.”

Political commentator Stanley Tinarwo says the story “fitted into the unfortunate narrative of attempting to vilify women and their role in the liberation struggle and to portray someone who was a victim of gender violence as a perpetrator”.

Outspoken former female freedom fighter Margret Dongo was quoted last year saying, “The truth of the matter has not yet been told … abuses of female ex-freedom fighters were so high and sophisticated that they deserve to be paid damages.” Environment minister Oppah Muchinguri has also spoken about the abuse of women during the liberation struggle.

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