By Douglas Mutepaire
The Zimbabwe War of Independence was pivotal in the nation’s history, but not all of its stories have been told or remembered. While some battles and heroes have been celebrated and commemorated, others have been neglected and forgotten.
This article aims to shed light on some of the overlooked memories and marginalised narratives from the periphery of the national liberation struggle. In particular, it focuses on the Battle of Man’unu in Mudzikatiri village and the Mahutwe camp attacks, a fierce confrontation between the guerrillas and the Rhodesian forces in 1979 that claimed many lives and left a lasting impact on the Rusambo community.
The Backdrop of the Battle
To appreciate the significance of these events, we must first understand the backdrop against which they unfolded. Before the liberation struggle, the Rusambo camp was a mission station controlled by American missionaries who owned Mavhuradonha High School and Karanda Mission Hospital. The Rhodesian forces also established a camp at Rusambo, where they stationed a formidable army that never dreamt of defeat. The Rusambo camp also played a crucial role for the 7 Independent Company (7 Indep Coy), a group of French volunteers who fought for the Rhodesian army.
They were stationed at the camp until reassigned to the Marymount Mission. They thought they were better trained than the guerrillas and used air force and ground forces to attack them and the villagers. The stage was set for the clash between the white minority regime and a determined group of freedom fighters. An early encounter with the settler forces occurred in 1966 at Chinhoyi, which is widely regarded as part of the beginning of the armed struggle. This battle was chronicled in our history books and is remembered during the Heroes national holiday. However, not all the stories of heroism and sacrifice have been recorded or remembered by history.
Six years after the Chinhoyi battle, in 1972, a better-trained guerrilla group came to Rusambo and met with the white missionaries. The missionaries reported the presence of the guerrillas to the Rhodesian forces and relocated to Salisbury (now Harare). The Rhodesian forces then came to Rusambo and arrested three young boys who were planning to join the guerrillas: Robert Mutemaringa, Faison Chibanda and Martin Makau. They were taken to Harare, where they were detained until the end of the war. Robert died two years later from the effects of detention. He never benefited from the war victim fund or the ex-detainees fund. His family is still struggling to make ends meet.
The Battle of Man’unu
One of the most tragic incidents occurred on March 22, 1979, when Rhodesian soldiers raided Mudzikatiri village, just a few kilometres from Rusambo Primary School. They opened fire on both guerrillas and civilians, killing many innocent people. Some huts were set on fire, and people were enveloped by fear. The Mutepaire family lost five members, the Joe family lost two, and the Maguhwa family lost two. There were also casualties in other families. Rhodesians were on a mission to enforce collective punishment. The nightmares experienced by the guerrillas in Mudzikatiri village are difficult to fathom. The tragic reality is that people who had been healthy at the beginning of the day were dead by midday. A deliberate, merciless attack by regime soldiers targeted guerillas and civilians, terrorising the village.
But this nightmare also inspired acts of heroism and resistance. One survivor of this attack was Hodon Mutepaire, who was arrested for assisting the guerrillas. However, Hodon Mutepaire was not a collaborator, but a brave resistance fighter forced to join the Rhodesian forces as a general hand worker. He secretly studied the daily trends of enemy soldiers and planned his escape. He found an opportunity when 22 regime soldiers bathed in the Ruya River near Karanda Hospital. He stood on guard while his friend tied up the disarmed soldiers with rope.
At gunpoint, he marched them to Chesa, from where he sent word to the guerrillas at the front. He crossed Mozambique with his captives, leaving a stunned enemy camp behind.
This remarkable feat of abducting 22 trained soldiers by one man was not chronicled in any official history. Hodon Mutepaire passed away in 2018 without receiving any hero status or a state-funded funeral. His story is one of many that have been ignored or erased from the nation’s collective memory.
The Mahutwe Camp Attacks
This incident was not chronicled by history but significantly impacted the war’s course. Hodon had managed to abduct 22 trained soldiers from the enemy camp and weaken their morale. He had also paved the way for one of the war’s most decisive battles: the battle of Mahutwe. On a quiet night of May 16, 1979, a group of freedom fighters descended upon Mahutwe camp, surprising the Rhodesian forces with a hail of bullets. They had no chance to return fire.
This marked a pivotal moment as the guerrillas emerged victorious, leading to the desertion of the Mahutwe camp by regime soldiers. Within five months, the Lancaster House peace agreement brought hope and permanent peace to the communities of Mahutwe and Mudzikatiri. The battle of Mahutwe was a pivotal moment in the liberation war of Zimbabwe. Many narratives have been written about this historic event, but they often overlook the local context and the preceding events that led to it. Mahutwe was a notorious Rhodesian military camp that had been involved in several incursions and attacks against the ZANLA forces and nearby villages.
Some historical narratives have portrayed the battle of Mahutwe as a retaliation for the Rhodesian forces’ bombing of the Nyadzonia refugee camp in Mozambique. For the Rusambo community, however, the battle of Mahutwe was also a personal revenge for the Man’unu battle and the untold suffering that had been inflicted on Mudzikatiri village. They witnessed the Rhodesian forces’ atrocities and joined the ZANLA fighters in their quest for freedom and justice.
The end of the liberation war in Zimbabwe in 1979 brought about many changes for the people and the country. After the peace talks, the guerrillas were instructed to move to designated assembly points, where the Commonwealth Monitoring Forces monitored them. They received food, clothes, security, money, and other necessities. Life had changed for the better. They also had days to visit their families and relatives, who traveled to the assembly points to welcome them home. It celebrated the end of a war that had taken many lives. The guerrillas were then transformed into a formidable Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) army. The army integrated cadres from ZANLA (the military wing of ZANU) and ZIPRA (the military wing of ZAPU), as well as those who had served under the settler regime. They all joined under the banner of “Reconciliation.”
The people then returned to their settlements, which had been deserted during the war. Rusambo mission was one of them. The American missionaries from TEAM tried to restore their former mission stations, such as Mavhuradonha Secondary School, Karanda Mission Hospital, and Rusambo Homecraft Centre. They reopened Rusambo Primary School, which had been closed in 1977. They built a new clinic and renovated the church building. Things were coming back to normal.
However, there were still signs of the war, such as bullet holes on the walls of buildings. The people of Rusambo were not entirely convinced that the war was over. They did not trust the foreign missionaries and preferred the local council to take over the mission. The missionaries relocated to Karanda, leaving Rusambo under the charge of a financially struggling local council. Rusambo has not developed much since then.
These untold stories from Rusambo remind us that history is not just about grand battles and famous leaders but also about ordinary people who endured immense suffering and sacrificed for their country’s freedom. As we commemorate our heroes and heroines, let us also remember those whose names may never appear in textbooks but whose courage and resilience shaped our nation’s destiny.
Douglas Mutepaire is the Head of Makachi Primary School in the Rushinga district. He witnessed the Battle of Man’unu and other significant battles during the war. As a war collaborator, he adds a unique perspective to the untold stories of sacrifice and resilience that shaped Zimbabwe’s history. Through his firsthand experiences, Mutepaire sheds light on forgotten heroes and heroines who fought for freedom and dignity, ensuring their legacy is not lost to time.