The Dark Side of the Zimbabwe Liberation Struggle: A Personal Account

(Photo: Paul Harris/Getty Images)

By Douglas Mutepaire

The Zimbabwe liberation struggle was a historic and heroic movement that ended the colonial rule of the white minority and ushered in a new era of independence and democracy. However, the road to freedom was not smooth and easy.

It was paved with blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifices. Many people lost their lives, their loved ones, their homes, and their dignity in the fight for liberation. Some of the atrocities that were committed during the war were never revealed to the public, although they had a lasting impact on the survivors and their families. In this essay, I will share my experience living in the Rushinga District during the war. I will discuss the dark side of the struggle that involved intimidation, coercion, sexual abuse, violence, and betrayal. I will also reflect on the implications of these atrocities for the healing and reconciliation of the nation.

The Freedom Domain and the Operation Domain

The liberation struggle was fought on two domains: the freedom domain and the operational domain. The freedom domain was the ideological and political sphere that motivated and mobilised the masses to join and support the struggle. The operational domain was the military and tactical sphere that involved the actual fighting and operations against the enemy forces. The freedom fighters, also known as guerrillas or comrades, operated in both domains. They were trained in political education and military skills. They were expected to uphold the principles and values of the struggle, such as discipline, loyalty, solidarity, courage, and sacrifice.

However, not all freedom fighters adhered to these principles and values. Some had power and authority over the civilians or povo who lived in the operational areas. They violated their human rights and dignity by subjecting them to various forms of atrocities. These atrocities included intimidation, brutal coercion, sexual abuse of both married women and single mothers and girls, false accusations of witchcraft or sellout, torture, and killing.

As is always the case in any war situation, women and girls were particularly vulnerable to these abuses. They were often exploited by rogue guerrillas who used them for their sexual gratification or as spies or informers. Some women and girls became pregnant as a result of these abuses and were left without any support or compensation.

Some men whose wives or daughters were abused by the guerrillas were also humiliated and powerless to protect them. These abuses created fear, resentment, anger, and trauma among the povo, who were supposed to be allies and beneficiaries of the struggle.

My Story: A Survivor’s Testimony

I was one of the victims of these atrocities. I witnessed how some guerrillas terrorized my village and my family in 1978, two years before our independence. I was only a young man then, but I had to endure unimaginable pain and suffering at the hands of some comrades who claimed to be fighting for our freedom.

Two days before they came to our village, we had a visit from the Rhodesian forces who were on a fact-finding mission. They suspected that we were harbouring or supporting the guerrillas who operated in our area. They interrogated us about a veld fire that had broken out near our village a few days earlier. They threatened to burn down our village if we did not provide them with information about the guerrillas or their activities. No one dared to answer their questions for fear of being accused of collaborating with either side.

I gathered courage and stood up to answer their questions on behalf of my fellow villagers. I spoke fluent English to them and convinced them that we had nothing to do with the veld fire or the guerrillas. I told them we were peaceful farmers who wanted harmony in our land. The Rhodesian soldiers were impressed by my language skills and my confidence.

They believed my story and left us alone. They returned to their camp at Rusambo without harming anyone or anything in our village. I thought I had done a good deed by saving my village from destruction and earned respect from both sides for being brave and honest and showing leadership potential that could be useful for our future.

I was wrong.

When the guerrillas came to our village two days later, they heard rumours about my encounter with the Rhodesian soldiers from some jealous girls who wanted to get back at me for rejecting their advances. They reported that I was a friend of the army and that they had asked me to report the presence of the guerrillas. They also accused me of using magic to produce good crops in a drought year. They said I was a sellout who deserved to die. These accusations angered and shocked the guerrillas who came to our village. They did not bother investigating the truth or listening to my side of the story. They decided to punish me and my family in front of the whole village.

They gathered all the villagers at a pungwe and taught us about the party’s leadership structure, the goals of the struggle, and the consequences of betraying the cause. They also entertained us with songs and dances that praised the struggle and denounced the enemy. However, this pungwe was different from the others we had attended before. This time, there was no joy or solidarity. There was only fear and hatred. The guerrillas used the pungwe as a platform to humiliate, torture, and kill those they suspected of being sellouts or witches.

They started with my father Nyaruso, who was popularly known as Kufaitira, an elder and a successful farmer in our village. He had three children fighting for our liberation in different parts of the country. He was a loyal supporter of the struggle and had often donated food and money to the guerrillas. They accused him of using magic to produce good crops while others were starving. They said he was selfish and greedy and did not care about the suffering of his people. They pushed him to the ground and beat him mercilessly. He fell and lost consciousness.

Then they moved on to my mother, a kind and gentle woman who loved everyone in our village. She was a healer and a midwife who had helped many women and children with her herbs and prayers. She was also a devout Christian who prayed for peace and justice daily. They accused her of being a witch who used her powers to harm others. They said she worked with the enemy to sabotage the struggle and curse the guerrillas. They forced her to confess her crimes and name her accomplices. They beat her with sticks and stones until she bled profusely. They made us, the villagers, watch these horrors and laugh, sing, and dance with them. They said this was a lesson for us not to mess with our comrades or betray the struggle. They said this cleansing ceremony would rid our village of evil spirits and enemies.

I was their last target and victim. They dragged me out of the crowd and told everyone that they were going to kill me. They said I was a friend of the Rhodesian soldiers who had visited our village two days earlier. They said I had sold out our village and our struggle to the enemy. They said I had betrayed them and deserved to die. They hit me with everything. They did not spare any part of my body or any ounce of my pain. My mother was still alive, but barely. She saw what they did to me and cried out for mercy. She begged them to stop hurting me and let me go. She told them that I was innocent and that I had only tried to save our village from destruction by the Rhodesian soldiers. But they did not listen to her or care about her pleas. They continued to torture me until I lost consciousness.

One of them, whose Chimurenga name was Gain, tried to save me from this fate. He was an honest and conscientious cadre who knew me well and respected me for my courage and intelligence. He had heard the rumours about me from some girls at their base earlier that day. He knew they were false and malicious. He knew I was not a sellout or a friend of the enemy. He knew I was a loyal supporter of the struggle who had risked my life to protect our village from harm. He tried to convince his colleagues that I was innocent and that they were making a mistake by killing me. He wanted to stop them from hurting me and my family. He tried to reason with them and appeal to their conscience. But they did not listen to him or care about his arguments. They accused him of being a traitor who had sided with me against them. They threatened him with violence if he did not join them in their brutality. He refused to join them or abandon me. He decided to leave them alone and change his focus. He told them he was going on another mission and would return soon. He left me in their hands, hoping that they would spare my life or at least end my suffering quickly.

He never came back.

This is my story of surviving the dark side of the Zimbabwe liberation struggle in Rushinga District in 1978. This is one of many stories hidden or forgotten by history or society. These stories are not meant to discredit or undermine the liberation struggle or its heroes. They are intended to reveal the truth and acknowledge the pain and suffering of those caught in the war’s crossfire. These stories are not meant to incite hatred or revenge against those who committed these atrocities. They are intended to promote healing and reconciliation among those affected by them. These stories are part of our collective memory and identity as a nation. They are part of our history and heritage as a people. They are part of our legacy and responsibility as a generation. We cannot ignore or deny these stories. We cannot smile, forget, and say: This was war; let bygones be bygones. We have to face these stories and learn from them. We have to honour these stories and share them with others. We have to heal these stories and move on with our lives.

This is my story. This is our story. This is Zimbabwe’s story.


Douglas Mutepaire, a passionate educationist with extensive experience, was born in 1960 in the Rushinga district. He began his teaching journey as a temporary teacher in 1980, eventually earning a diploma in primary education from Masvingo Teachers College in 2001. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Education from the University of Zimbabwe and heads Makachi Primary School in the Rushinga district. Throughout his career, he has held teaching and leadership roles at schools such as Kasenzi, Katoni, Runwa, Nyamatikiti, Rusambo, and Katakura primary schools.