BSR: The trauma of war and its lasting effects


(Photo credit: J. Ross Baughman)

Being Freeman

“[My father] has not openly expressed any regrets [about the war] but I sometimes pick from our conversations that there are certain things that passed him by while he was in the bush. His father died while he was away, fighting, and he did not have much time to learn from him.

Secondly he did not finish his studies. Now there are some of his peers who did not go to war and went on to university and are better off financially. Sometimes, growing up, I felt he wanted me to do more, so I could take advantage of opportunities that he missed during his youth because he had to go to war”

Freeman, the bearer of these words, is a young Zimbabwean professional who currently plies his trade in the United States. He was talking about his father, a veteran of the liberation struggle. As a young man, Freeman’s father left home in the 1970s to join the liberation struggle. He belongs to a generation of young men and women which, buoyed by courage and patriotism, threw caution to the wind and gave their lives to the cause of liberation from colonialism. His first child arrived soon after independence and he called him Freeman. At last, they were free men and women. Or so he believed.

When I chose to write this article, I wanted to speak to people who had grown up in a “War Veteran household” – that is, a home in which at least one parent had gone to war. I knew from our interactions that Freeman would be a perfect candidate, not least because he has the gift of story-telling.

I was curious to know what it was like growing up in such a household. Do these veterans talk about the war?

My father rarely voluntarily talked about the war,” says Freeman. “Personally, I think it was a traumatic time which very few want to talk about.”

I found this very interesting because it is typical of my interactions with those who experienced the rigours of war on the front-line. Those who were in the thick of action rarely volunteer to talk about it. You have to tactfully coax the stories out of them.  This is not surprising. War is ugly and represents the worst of humankind. Traumatic things happen during wars and no-one wants to remember or talk about such experiences.

“When you have witnessed so much life disappear before your eyes and sometimes at your hands, you can either develop profound respect for life or you detach yourself completely and lose all respect for it. The latter is scary and dangerous. We don’t want to talk about the lives we took, even if we know it was war and we could have been killed. It is not because we were clever. We were lucky. But we respect those who departed,” one former fighter once confided in me a few years ago. “It is those who were far from the battlefront who talk too much about it. If you have been there, you respect it”

Never mind the apparent contradiction that one who took life should respect it at the same time, the point is war is an intensely traumatic experience that no one wants to remember or talk about all the time. This much is echoed by historian Munyaradzi Munochiveyi in his book Prisoners of Rhodesia which carries his research on the experiences of political prisoners and detainees between 1960 and 1980. “For many informants, recalling Rhodesian incarceration, particularly experiences of torture and violence, is a very painful and difficult process,” writes Munochiveyi. “Many of the men and women I talked to told uncomfortable stories of torture and bodily harm that Rhodesian security agents inflicted on them … rumours and gossip of sexualised torture on the overwhelmingly male contingent of political prisoners casts a heavy shadow of shame and silence about political imprisonment during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle”. No doubt the war-time experiences were deeply traumatic for the participants.

It is this issue of war trauma that motivated me to write this article. How did the authorities deal with these issues after independence? Did the authorities do enough to assist the men and women who went to war or were detained and suffered these traumatic experiences? How have the effects of these experiences affected the conduct of government since independence?

Lasting effects

War is a brutal and unforgiving enterprise and the liberation war was no exception to this rule. Curiously, it is also a regular phenomenon in the affairs of humankind. Between two fighting forces, the aim is to conquer, annihilate and subdue the other. This gives the victor dominance over the vanquished. The irony is that even the victors cannot escape the after-effects of war. Win or lose, the war has lasting physical and mental consequences upon participants. Both the victor and the vanquished have to deal with the demons of war that haunt both body and mind long after it has ended.

Those who work in the domain of the mind refer to this as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This article attempts to demonstrate the challenges that were faced by combatants, both during and after the liberation war. To that, as Munochiveyi’s work has shown, we must also include the experiences of political prisoners and detainees, all too often forgotten in the discourse of the struggle in which the guerrillas tend to take much of the space.

The war resulted in severe physical and mental damage to the combatants and civilians and the failure to sufficiently treat and rehabilitate them after independence might explain some of the challenges we have faced as a country since 1980. The minds of those who govern carry a lot of baggage from the war and this baggage weighs heavily upon their behaviour and consequently how they govern.

From the bush to the office

“Mauya mauya Comrade, Zvamauya hamuchadzokeri!”

Shaky, then a young teacher at independence remembers the song very well. “You have come back home, Comrade, And now that you’re back, there is no going back to the bush!” It was a song that celebrated the end of the war and the return of “Vakomana” (the Boys), the label for the guerrilla fighters – both men and women – who were returning from the liberation war. The label of course demonstrated the gender of the liberation war and its exclusionary nature despite the fact that women were heavily involved in the struggle.

“The song became the second national anthem after Ishe Komborera Africa (God Bless Africa). The excitement was electric! People were so tired of the war that its coming to an end brought so much relief and happiness among Zimbabweans!” Shaky says, remembering the euphoria of the time.

Although the new government formed under the leadership of Robert Mugabe in 1980 was an eclectic mix which included elements of the old Rhodesian regime, the bulk of ministers were nationalists from ZANU and ZAPU, the parties that had jointly prosecuted the liberation struggle. For many of them, it was a quick transition from the bush to the office, requiring rapid adjustment. A story is told that at some point, the new Prime Minister had to remind some of his ministers that their days in the bush were over and that they were now expected to dress up formally as members of government. For some of them, old habits had refused to die easily. They simply carried on from where they had left in the camps in Mozambique and Zambia. It can’t have been easy for the war-weary cadres to shed off the guerrilla mind-set but it had to be done.

But if it was hard for ministers and top government officers, how did the re-integration process go for the rank and file of the guerrilla movement when they returned home, in some cases to empty villages and with very little? They had left with nothing and many were returning with nothing but the promise of independence. The first point of gathering for most guerrillas were the Assembly Points around the country in accordance with the Ceasefire Agreement reached at the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference in December 1979. Afterwards, the process of integrating the three fighting forces, namely ZANLA, ZIPRA and the Rhodesian Security Forces (RSF) began. This was no mean task, given that these three forces were hostile to each other during the war. There were serious skirmishes along the way, the Battle of Entumbane, between ZANLA and ZIPRA forces being a notable one.

The integration of the three armies was a delicate exercise which required great tact, diplomacy and leadership. From the guerrilla side this leadership was provided by Solomon Mujuru and Lookout Masuku, both commanders of ZANLA and ZIPRA respectively. However, since there were so many guerrillas, not everyone could be absorbed into the newly created Zimbabwe National Army. Those who lost out were mainly female combatants, the less educated and those who had been wounded during the war. Those who were not absorbed into the ZNA were demobilised, a process by which they returned to civilian life. This process of demobilisation was fraught with many challenges, including lack of funding and corruption which meant some former combatants went away with nothing.

The two Generals: Lookout Masuku and Solomon Mujuru


The government established a Demobilisation Directorate which was headed by John Shoniwa, a former ZANLA commander who along with Emmerson Mnangagwa was among the first group of guerrillas to be sent for training in China by ZAPU in 1963. His deputy was Report Phelekezela Mphoko, who is now one of Zimbabwe’s two Vice Presidents. The Directorate operated under the Ministry of Labour and Social Services, headed by Kumbirai Kangai, who had been a member of ZANU‘s Dare reChimurenga (War Council). The demobilisation package consisted of a $185 per month stipend for 24 months. At the time, the Zimbabwean Dollar was quite powerful, matching and sometimes outperforming major currencies such as the British Pound Sterling and the US dollar. For perspective, Shaky, then a young teacher was earning a basic monthly income of $126 in 1982.

Demobilised ex-combatants were given an ID card and a Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) passbook. Their monthly stipends were paid into that POSB account. Apparently, the POSB book had a different colour from the ordinary ones. According to a source in Judith Todd’s book, Through the Darkness, the different colour was not a mark of honour for the veterans. Rather, it was intended to alert bank tellers to be more vigilant to guard against fraud. Therefore, the different POSB passbook was a form of profiling of the War Veterans. In other words, the new system that these War Veterans had fought to establish did not seem to trust them at all! Instead, they were treated with suspicion. This was an ominous sign which illustrated the exclusionary mechanisms used against ex-combatants in the early years.

The Directorate was generally underfunded and according to Todd, its founding director, Shoniwa was sceptical and frustrated by its circumstances. When he approached Kangai, he was told that there was no money to educate and train the ex-combatants. There was also no land allocated to them for their projects. According to Todd, “No one had thought about demobilisation in time to include it in the ZIMCORD documentation, which was used to raise and channel the very generous donor funding pouring into Zimbabwe”. The War Veterans seem to have been an after-thought. This is odd given the integral role and contribution of the War Veterans in the struggle. Their welfare and integration should have been one of the key issues in the post-independence era.

This could have been guaranteed at the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference in 1979. It is surprising that the nationalist leaders who attended the conference did not raise or push for the welfare of their fighters to be included in the final agreement. The irony is that the Lancaster House Constitution contained solid provisions for the protection of pensions and other benefits that were due to civil servants who had served the Rhodesian regime. These provisions meant that pensions could be paid anywhere in the world. This meant civil servants who were not prepared to work under the new black government could migrate and still receive their pensions from the new state, wherever they went. Members of the RSF who had fought against the guerrilla forces benefited under these provisions. Yet by contrast there were no constitutional protections for the ex-combatants from the guerrilla forces. They had to make do with the $185 monthly stipends which lasted for only 2 years. The only time that War Veterans got constitutional recognition and provisions for their welfare were guaranteed was in the Constitution adopted in 2013 – 33 years after independence! These are the protections that the nationalists should have won at the Lancaster House Conference in 1979.

Although the stipends were substantial amounts in the early eighties, they did not last long, partly due to heavy individual and family obligations and also because of sheer extravagance and lack of financial management skills. According to Josephine Nhongo-Simbanegavi who conducted a number of interviews with female ex-combatants in her 1990s research, “Many said they thought government wanted them to have something of a good time after all the suffering they had endured [during the struggle]. More would come, they thought.” Shaky remembers the days and says, “These guys needed financial education. The financial conduct of most war veterans was influenced by the socialist propaganda enunciated by the Government at the time. They said we share everything equally!” Evidently, there was no financial prudence.

In some cases, the stipends got exhausted through poor investments or sheer bad luck. Some had tried to pool their resources together to start cooperatives in agriculture and retail ventures such as grocery stores, butcheries, grinding mills and bus companies. However, in most cases, drought and poor management resulted in complete failure. The war had not equipped them to run commercial business ventures and no training had been availed to them after the war. As Nhongo-Simbanegavi points out in her research, “Those who pooled their resources to join co-operatives were regretful afterwards. The cooperatives succumbed to the calamities affecting other similar enterprises”. She also points out that some female combatants who had been persuaded to return as refugees in order to campaign for their parties apparently never got their demobilisation payments as they struggled to prove that they were combatants.

Distress at the Lido Hotel

There was an old hotel building in Bulawayo. It was known as the Lido Hotel before it was bought by ZIPRA. After the war, this old decrepit building was occupied by about 200 former ZIPRA combatants who had been wounded during the war and became disabled. They all carried various forms of disabilities. Some had lost one or both legs. Others had lost their hands while others had lost one or both eyes. The physical damage was evident. Less evident was the psychological trauma that the men at Lido carried from the war. This band of the war-wounded lived together, like brothers, each doing what they could to complement the other.

Like other injured and disabled ZIPRA ex-combatants, they had been given $600 lump-sum payments by the state and told to go home. With that, after years in the bush, after losing limbs, they were expected to somehow start new lives. By contrast, their disabled ZANLA comrades had been moved into a newly established rehabilitation facility in Ruwa. The preferential treatment was a sign of the times – ZANU, to which ZANLA belonged was the victorious party in power.

Judith Todd gives a vivid account which painfully demonstrates the deplorable conditions under which these men lived at the Lido Hotel. There was no electricity, so the men had to cook outside on an open fire. One part of her account illustrates the serious challenges they faced:

“… the men had to cook outside, and firewood was a problem. One of the men said he could no longer help with the cooking. Stirring a huge pot of sadza over the open fire one day, he had found that one of his [artificial legs] was melting …”

In her book Against the odds – a history of the Zimbabwe Project, Mary Ndlovu also gives an account of the challenges faced by the disabled ex-combatants at the Lido Hotel:

“They were perennially short of food and any form of rehabilitation or activity but their situation had reached a crisis because they could not afford to pay the municipal water bill. As a result, their water supply had been disconnected and their premises declared a health hazard by the Council Health Department”.

These brave men had been rejected and abandoned by the very system they had helped establish through personal sacrifice. When their political leaders and former commanders got wind of the situation at the Lido Hotel, they were embarrassed and sought help for them.  They approached the Zimbabwe Project, an NGO which had been formed in London in 1978 to support the war effort in Zimbabwe. After independence its focus was transformed to deal with pressing social issues, including in this case, the welfare of War Veterans. Judith Todd, daughter of Sir Garfield Todd, a liberal former Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia was a founder member of the Zimbabwe Project. Mary Ndlovu gives a detailed account of the work done by the Zimbabwe Project in those early years.

The situation of the war wounded at the Lido Hotel got worse when ZAPU properties were confiscated and seized by government in 1982, on allegations that they had been used to cache arms to be used to overthrow the government. After independence, both ZANU and ZAPU had set up various companies to invest in commercial activities.  Some of the companies in which ZANU has invested over the years include Catercraft, Jongwe Printers, National Blankets, Tregers, and First Bank Corporation. ZANU’s holding company for these different interests is ZIDCO Holdings Ltd. ZAPU’s holding company was called NITRAM, which we learn from Todd, was the name of its accountant (Martin) spelt backwards. NITRAM had purchased a number properties, including farms, hotels and other smaller ventures. ZIPRA ex-combatants had been paying $50 per month from their monthly stipends as investments.

However, when the government banned NITRAM under the Unlawful Organisations Act in 1982 and seized its properties, it left the former ZIPRA ex-combatants literally in the lurch. They had effectively lost their personal investments. This issue of ZAPU properties remains a sore point among former ZIPRA cadres to this day and rightly so, given that they had invested their personal savings. Curiously, not even the Unity Accord between ZANU and ZAPU in 1987 dealt with this issue.

Rejection and abandonment

Researchers have documented the plight suffered by ex-combatants in these early years. In her recent book, Sara Rich Dorman points out that many of these ex-combatants “felt rejected or abandoned by both their party leadership and by society in general”. According to Norma Kriger, ex-combatants expected more than symbolic recognition and wanted material benefits for what they believed to be superior contributions to the liberation struggle.  Another researcher, Zvakanyorwa Wilbert Sadomba, himself a War Veteran reveals that the failures of demobilisation and re-integration were due to corruption by senior commanders who became extremely wealthy soon after independence.

The levels of abuse and corruption became more apparent in the mid-late 1990s when it was revealed by the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper that the War Veterans Compensation Fund was being looted by minsters and senior government officials. The Rhodesian regime had established this fund in 1973 under the Victims of Terrorism (Compensation) Act in order to compensate victims of “terrorist” activities after the resumption of the armed struggle in 1972 with the attack on Altena Farm in Centenary.  It was amended in 1980 to become the War Victims Compensation Act. In this new form, the law was wide enough to cover ZANLA and ZIPRA cadres who had been injured in the war. However, as revealed by former ZIPRA commander, Wilfred Mhanda, most of the ex-combatants were not aware of this facility and therefore never submitted claims. Instead, it was ministers and senior government officials who were aware of it and were making huge claims, some of them fraudulent and almost all exorbitant. Even soldiers who had served in the RSF were eligible and made claims while former ZANLA and ZPIRA cadres wallowed in their ignorance.

As it turned out, many of these claims by political elites were fraudulent. At the centre of these controversial and fraudulent claims was Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi, a medical doctor who was also the Chairman of the Zimbabwe National War Veterans Association. It was found that he was exaggerating the diagnosis of injuries supporting inflated claims by political elites. Later, President Mugabe established a Commission of Inquiry headed by the then Judge President, Godfrey Chidyausiku. Although the Chidyausiku Commission discovered large-scale fraud and corruption by senior government officials, there was no single prosecution or conviction. It joined a long list of big corruption scandals that were swept under the carpet. This incensed the ordinary war veterans since the fund was suspended and they were no longer able to make claims. They believed the political elites were bent on tarnishing their image when they had been severely neglected since independence.

Network of Cooperation

In 1990, the War Veterans got together and formed the ZNWVA, with Charles Hungwe, currently a judge of the High Court as its inaugural Chairman. The creation of this network of cooperation was not easy as it faced resistance from the political elites. According to Dongo, who is referred to by both Sara Rich Dorman and Josephine Nhongo-Simbanegavi in their studies, efforts to start an association of war veterans had started in 1982. They tried again in 1985 and 1989 without success. “Government seems not to trust us” said Dongo in an interview with The Herald in 1991. Sadomba says war veterans were only allowed to formally organise after the Unity Accord in 1987.

It seems the nationalist government was not altogether comfortable with a mobilised group of War Veterans because as Sara Rich Dorman argues, it “contained the potential to deliver a radical critique to the government’s post-national achievements”. In response, the government tried to assuage the War Veterans by enacting legislation designed to cater for their interests.

The power of War Veterans was felt not long after their formed their network of cooperation. By 1996-7 they were leading demonstrations against government citing neglect. As Mhanda explained, War Veterans felt alienated and observed that those who had worked for the Rhodesian regime they had fought and those who had stayed away from war and attended education were now occupying powerful roles and treated them with contempt. The ZNWVA was formed to “champion their forgotten interests” after they fell into “extreme poverty and destitution”.

The failure by government to cater for War Veterans interests and the ability of War Veterans to organise and form the ZNWVA as a network of cooperation created conditions that presented a serious challenge to government. In 1997, facing serious pressure from their network of cooperation government gave $50,000 lump-sum payments to War Veterans, together with monthly benefits.  This was an important concession which demonstrated the power and influence of war veterans. But it also cemented bonds between the war veterans the party, which would have significant impact on Zimbabwean politics for the next decade.

All in all, as confirmed by Mhanda, the government failed the War Veterans as they had no sound policy for re-integration into mainstream society. Other researchers like Dzinesa, Kriger, Mazarire and Rupiya have also been critical of the poor re-integration policy after independence. The War Veterans struggled to fit in and settle. Some had lost homes and families, they had no jobs and no education. The demobilisation payments they got did not last long and were not well managed. Political elites were corrupt and abused the scholarships and support that was supposed to accrue to the War Veterans. All these challenges affected the mental universe of the ex-combatants, which was made worse by the fact that there was no programme to deal with the trauma of war. Many of the ex-combatants would have suffered mentally due to exposure to the brutality of war. There should have been programmes to treat ex-guerrillas of PTSD.

Emma’s story

Emma’s story is not from the liberation struggle. But it is from a war in which Zimbabwean soldiers were involved in the late 1990s, when President Mugabe sent the military to intervene in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to save the regime of Laurent Kabila which was under siege from rebels and former allies. When I spoke to Emma about my article, she offered to share her story, which usefully illustrates the mental health challenges arising from war. This is Emma’s story:

“I have an uncle who went to the DRC war in the late 1990s. People said when he returned he was not the same man they knew before his tour of duty. I did not know him well before the war so when I got to know him after his return I would always pass judgement on his conduct which was strange and irrational. He had a particularly hot temper and would snap for very minor reasons. I would always be so shocked because when we were all appalled my mother would be very empathetic – she always says, even up to today, that he is a victim of the war.

To us he is a brutal man – you would never want to be the subject of disciplinary regime because he doesn’t know any limits when it comes to inflicting violence. He once beat up his own child so badly that he had to be stitched up. His crime was that he had eaten food outside designated hours.

My mother always tells us that before the war he was such a jovial man who could never hurt an ant. I can’t relate this man with the man he is now – very sombre and moody most of the time. He’s not someone that you can joke with. He did some irrational things. Sometimes, he would make his family push him around in his car on an empty tank all day. He would make them re-enact war situations and beat them up mercilessly since they were acting as the enemy.

In the end his marriage broke down. My aunt – my mother’s sister – ended up leaving him after enduring all this and more. I can’t even begin to think what she went through. She only left because one of the head of the village managed to get them away overnight. They found sanctuary in Bulawayo. That intervention saved her and the children. That’s how terrible it was – even strangers recognized that anywhere else was better than living with this man.

They have had to get therapy. One of my small cousins always runs and hides whenever there is a knock on the door. She screams that her father has come to take her and punish her. It is clear to me that this uncle is in need of serious help.”

Evidently, Emma’s uncle is a victim of war. But his family and his community also became victims of the same war – a war that took place thousands of miles away in the thick jungles of the Congo. That war came all the way to Nkayi.

Women in the struggle

“War is a very excruciating and traumatic experience and the first thing that should have been addressed ahead of any financial or material benefits was to facilitate the former fighters’ reintegration into society through providing counselling to help them cope with PTSD. Sadly, this was never done.” These are the words of Mhanda. Mhanda himself would have had intimate knowledge of the stresses and trauma of war. Along with other ZANLA cadres, Mhanda had spent the last years of the war living in terrible conditions having been incarcerated by their comrades for allegedly plotting a rebellion.

One of the major contributions of Josephine Nhongo-Simbanegavi’s work is that it debunks the myth of ZANU’s commitment to women’s emancipation during the liberation struggle. There are others like Irene Mudeka who are still more sympathetic and argue that while males continued to dominate during the struggle, the liberation war had shifted perceptions of women by virtue of the roles they played. These critiques notwithstanding, Nhongo-Simbanegavi’s work demonstrates how the liberation war propaganda presented a falsified picture of the actual lived realities of women during the struggle. The myth that the liberation movement was committed to women’s liberation was sustained by both war propaganda and sympathetic scholarship which tended to focus on the lives of the elite women, most of whom were married to or in stable unions with male political elites. Nhongo-Simbanegavi’s work reveals the rampant abuse of authority by senior commanders, which included egregious sexual abuse of young female combatants and civilian girls. Her research demonstrates that guerrilla interactions with young women was a source of bitterness among women and also attracted criticism from FRELIMO who were ZANLA’s hosts in Mozambique. Other scholars like Tanya Lyons have echoed similar sentiments in their critically acclaimed work on Zimbabwean women in the liberation struggle.

“Warm blankets”

In her autobiography, War Veteran Fay Chung echoes the narrative of rampant sexual abuse during the war, describing how young women were referred to by senior commanders as “warm blankets”. These commanders often came to the female quarters during the night to take a pick of girls to spend the night with. It is worth quoting her extensively so that she describes one illustrative scene in her own words:

“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 posto. The next morning I was told by a young commander that 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”. 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.”

In 1974, there was a major rebellion by a group of young commanders of ZANLA. Led by Nhari and Badza, the young guerrillas had major grievances against their senior commanders. According to both Nhongo-Simbanegavi and Chung, one of the major grievances was the abuse of young women by senior commanders. “We have a problem with high-ranking comrades,” wrote the rebels as quoted by Nhongo-Simbanegavi from the ZANU archives. “They force girls to have affairs with them and some of them end up with ten wives. Afterwards, they leave the mothers to look for a girl without a child to marry”. The new female recruits were particularly vulnerable as they were considered fresh, more appealing and free of STDs which were rampant in the rear camps. Both Chung and Nhongo-Simbanegavi point out that although some unions were voluntary, this was not always the case for many young women. Some were forced into sexual relationships by the conditions, such as the scarcity of materials in the camps which meant aligning with top commanders was a strategic move which provided access to scarce resources.

There are other, more sympathetic scholars who, while acknowledging the existence of sexual abuse, argue that ZANU was committed to fight it. One such scholar, Jephias Dzimbanhete, argues that “because of rules crafted by the liberation movement, sexual misconduct was patchy, rather than frequent.”  To support his argument he cites Nzira Dzemasoja, a popular song that essentially encapsulated the code guiding the conduct of ZANLA guerrillas. This song, which was based on Maoist principles implored guerrillas to respect the civilians and avoid sexual misconduct. According to Dzimbanhete, “In 1978, reports reached the military leadership at Chimoio that guerrilla fighters operating in Tangwena Sector of Manica Province were sleeping with girls, among other cases of indiscipline. Sheba Gava and Dominic Chinenge (now Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces General Constantino Chiwenga), members of the ZANLA High Command were sent to investigate and take appropriate action to end these acts of indiscipline. In a meeting at Chaminuka Base, the two military leaders reported to the High Command that they had taken the necessary action to correct the situation. They withdrew the detachment commanders, who were largely the culprits, from the war front.”

Dzimbanhete’s effort is an attempt to, in his own words, debunk the “impression that people get … that ZANLA forces willy-nilly slept with women and made them pregnant and got away with it scot free.” Although it can’t be denied that there were some cases where disciplinary action was taken, the weight of evidence from the majority of scholars supports Nhongo-Simbanegavi’s argument that abuse was more systematic and rampant than the picture that painted by Dzimbanhete. To say sexual abuse was merely “patchy” seems to me to gloss over and sugar-coat a history of pervasive sexual abuse which is acknowledged by many scholars and researchers and even by those who were in the struggle like Fay Chung and Freedom Nyamubaya.

Sexual abuse was not restricted to the rear camps. It also extended to the field of operation where young girls – mostly Chimbwidos – were also vulnerable to sexual abuse. This abuse was also not exclusive to the guerrillas but RSF soldiers also perpetrated similar abuse against rural women. Nhongo-Simbanegavi reveals how such abuses were rampant in the protected villages (PVs) into which rural communities were placed by the Rhodesian security forces in order to deprive guerrillas of rural support upon which they depended. Conditions in these PVs were extremely tough and young women were exploited by soldiers who had power and access to scarce resources.

Abuse by female commanders

Although this literature reveals extensive abuse of young women by both male guerrillas and Rhodesian soldiers, both Chung and Nhongo-Simbanegavi reveal that female commanders also abused young male cadres. According to Chung, “some women commanders who rose to the top exercised the same sexual prerogatives as their male counterparts, taking their pick of the thousands of young men who had joined the struggle.” Nhongo-Simbanegavi echoes this saying some female officers “took new arrivals to have sex with them”. She also refers to data from ZANU Archives which were availed to her during her research. She noted, “Some women’s relations with their male comrades, as well as with young civilian men, caused a stir. Some commanders of women’s platoons operating in ZANLA’s Musikavanhu Sector in Buhera were noted for their exploits in that sphere. The leadership had to recall a couple of women to the rear”. Interestingly, however, she notes that the ZANU leadership was quick to act against female abusers but tended to be more lenient upon male perpetrators. Joice Mujuru, who was a senior female commander, is quoted as having condemned the abusive female commanders, “These boys have now lost respect for you and they scold you in front of the comrades you command. Even my own dignity is at stake because of your actions”.

All this abuse was of course against the ZANU’s official rules and the counsel of spirit mediums who as David Lan has revealed in his work had an important role in driving the liberation struggle. ZANLA’s code of conduct, encapsulated in the song Nzira Dzemasoja prohibited sexual abuse while spirit mediums advised against such conduct as it was believed to bring ill-fortune to perpetrators. If one goes by these rules, they will come away with the impression that ZANU was committed to preventing abuse against women and that there was indeed no abuse during the struggle. However, that would be an overly romanticised picture which fails to account for the lived realities of the women both at the rear and at the front.

Freedom Nyamubaya

Osibisa – “a mental prison for mothers in war”

As a result of sexual relations – whether voluntary or abusive – many young women fell pregnant in the rear camps. This was compounded by ZANU’s policy which prohibited contraceptives. This contraceptives policy meant female combatants had no control over their bodies and reproduction. Some women who were able to get contraception when they left the camps for trips into urban areas. They had devices such as loops inserted as contraception. However, they were ordered to get them removed. Abortions were also prohibited. While the male cadres expected loyalty from their partners, they were free to roam and have as many women as possible, many of whom got pregnant.

Getting pregnant, it seems, was a curse. Pregnant women and nursing mothers were sent to a camp called Osibisa. Nhongo-Simbanegavi describes this movement of women as alienation due to pregnancy or mothering. Osibisa was a wretched place where conditions were dire. It represented rejection and uncertainty over the future. It was a place where multiple women impregnated by the same men had to share space. The living arrangement at Osibisa, created many conflicts between women leading to hostilities and fighting.

Nhongo-Simbanegavi quotes a powerful poem by Freedom Nyamubaya, herself a War Veteran who witnessed events at Osibisa. She called it “a hot camp of frustration” where pregnant women and mothers were “unknown by the world at large, forgotten by their male comrades, who made them pregnant”. She describes Osibisa as,

“A place of mental torture,

Where women and children were dumped,

Cut off from life,

A mental prison for mothers in war.

Mentally disconnected, but physically involved …”

It is a powerful poem which expresses the tough and mentally-draining conditions under which the women lived. After suffering abused, they were excluded and ostracised in highly deprived conditions were conflicts were commonplace as described by Nyamubaya, “I saw them battering each other. Jumping at each other’s throats …” Generally, women were condemned and shamed by a highly patriarchal system. They were blamed for STD’s as if their male comrades had no responsibility. They were punished for “luring men”. But they were silenced by culture and by the fear of being branded as sell-outs of the struggle.

Even after the war, the fear of shame about what happened during the war years means few are prepared to talk about it openly, preferring to keep it locked in their hearts. At the Chidyausiku Commission in 1997, some female ex-combatants threatened to talk about the sexual abuse they suffered during the war. How could that be quantified in damages, they asked. A 1990s film that reflected the role of women and the challenges they faced, including sexual abuse attracted resistance from the male-dominated state organs. The result of this resistance and wall of silence, according to Nhongo-Simbanegavi is that few are prepared to talk and those who do, either do so anonymously or give romanticised narratives in which they block their own experiences but this also causes more mental anguish. There can be little doubt that these abuses wreaked havoc on the mental health of guerrillas, both the victims and perpetrators. So what happened after independence?

Challenge of re-integration

After independence, there was need to rehabilitate survivors of war and abuse. There was need to undertake comprehensive processes to help them re-integrate into society. The problem is that, as we have already observed, no such mechanisms were put into place. The women especially struggled with the re-integration process. They were described as an “unconventional breed of women”. In interviews, some admitted that they had developed “rough ways” from the war – habits which they carried with them from the bush which society was not used to. A story in Moto magazine quoted by Nhongo-Simbanegavi describes them as “sexually starved female guerrillas” and “‘gangs’ of ‘nymphomaniacs’” who went around demanding sex at the Assembly Points.

Upon their return from the war, civilians deferred to them, which may also have got to their heads. They carried themselves with an air of arrogance, believing that the normal rules of society no longer applied to them. They had to negotiate a path between the guerrilla personas they had adopted in the bush and the expectations of a traditionally patriarchal society which they were re-joining. During the war they had had to deal with a version of patriarchy that expected them to submit their bodies sexually and now back home, they had to deal with a traditional form of patriarchy that required them to be conservative in those matters.

Female ex-combatants soon suffered rejection from their old male comrades from the bush, who left them for younger civilian women who were supposedly more “normal” in the sense that they conformed to conservative norms and traditions. According to Nhongo-Simbanegavi, the female ex-combatants were insulted by their former comrades as “women from the bush [who] were such a problem”. Although a new law was created to facilitate the validation of war-time unions, many female ex-combatants never used it as there were only two centres in Harare and Bulawayo whereas most of them were in remote rural areas. It was either too costly or they simply did not know that such a law existed. Those who brought children from the war found it difficult to find husbands. Some were abandoned in the rural areas while the partners went to the cities ostensibly to look for jobs. The majority had left without education and they struggled to find jobs.

The situation in which ex-combatants found themselves caused them to feel excluded and resentful. Some regretted lost opportunities during the war, as upon return they saw their peers – friends, associates and family members – who had stayed behind had acquired education and were employed while they slipped into extreme poverty. Some of these people who had since climbed the ladder regarded them as lazy and they felt that their sacrifices they had made for these people were being held in contempt. This would have contributed to their mental anguish – feeling rejected and disrespected and living in poverty when they had risked their lives on the frontline.

Some of the ex-combatants would also have suffered Survivor Guilt – the irrational sense of guilt that survivors feel after a traumatic event or process in which they are casualties. They had seen their friends die during the war. They might feel guilty that they could have done something to save them, even though in fact, there was nothing they could possibly have done. This guilt, their war-time scars and the fact that they found themselves so far behind their peers after returning from the bush would have significantly affected ex-combatants’ self-esteem and general mental health.

Female ex-combatants, who found themselves at the bottom of the pile not just during the war but afterwards when they returned home would have suffered even more. Yet, as I have already pointed out, the new government did nothing to look after the mental health of ex-combatants, especially given the rampant cases of sexual abuse and the exclusion of pregnant women and mothers at places like Osibisa. Is it any surprise then that a lot of the violence and sexual abuse that has been observed post-independence mimics what happened during the struggle? Gukurahundi in the 1980s and the election violence of 2008 all attest to continuities in methods and attitudes – torture, sexual violence and brutal killings. These acts of impunity were encouraged by the fact that there is no punishment and some of the perpetrators were only picking up from where they left off in 1979 when the war ended. This culture has hardly dissipated, even across society – any dispute, however simple must be solved by physical violence.

Tatenda’s story

Like Freeman, Tatenda has spent the last few years in the United States. He recently graduated with a degree in International Relations. He is from Rushinga, a hot-bed of the liberation struggle, being so close to Mozambique where ZANU had rear bases. His father joined the liberation war as a young man. After the war, he did speak about it sometimes but sadly, his narratives of war were not always voluntary. “My father’s liberation name was Tandai Munetsi,” says Tatenda. “He was a quiet, strategic, but often moody individual. He was called Mdara Munetsi or by his title Samaita”.

“While some of the stories he told were voluntary, the most excruciating and painful ones were the involuntary ones. Mdara would occasionally start talking to himself about his war experiences and when that happened during the night it would be very difficult to sleep. Some said family elders should have held a ceremony and brewed traditional beer to cleanse him after the war. They said that would have given him freedom from the war.”

I think the war had a terrible effect on my father’s view of white people. He had an intense dislike of them and would get visibly angry whenever we talked about white people. So it was a subject we learnt to avoid. He once threatened to axe my sister when she brought her new Science teacher friend to our home. I believe the guy was American. My father was trembling with rage and cursing. It was a very difficult experience. I don’t know what they did to him during the war. He never talked about it.

What pained me the most were some occasional moments when he would take cover behind bushes all the while shouting “Mabhunu arikuuya!” (the white soldiers are coming!). It was very painful to see him like that. Over time, I learned to accept that this was going to be my father’s reality for the rest of his life. Whatever perspective one takes on the issue, be it clinical solution or traditional cleansing ceremony perhaps something ought to have been done.

He died angry at the government not because it was not taking care of him but because of the plight his other comrades in the village. It was difficult for most of them to get medical check-ups, food on their table and fend for their families. Zvino nyika yacho yatakarwira ndeipi (Is this what we fought for?) was his usual line when he was angry. But he remained proud of his contribution to the liberation of Zimbabwe.”

But despite the difficulties he faced, my father was actually better-placed than his fellow comrades. There are a lot of War Veterans in the villages who have no limbs. They have to rely on their families to carry them in wheel-barrows  or ox-drawn carts when they want to go to the clinic. Even though, I am against the issue of war vets having a sense of entitlement and holding Zimbabwe hostage (my 2017 voice), I still think that most of the cadres who contributed to the struggle in the villages have been let down and are suffering greatly.”

Tatenda’s story is a powerful reminder of the real lives of the men and women who went to war. All too often, we are inundated with images of self-centred and greedy War Veterans who seemingly care only for themselves. We are not exposed to the lives of ordinary War Veterans who sacrificed their lives and limbs for independence but because of inadequate support systems, have remained at the back of the queue, sometimes not even in the queue at all. It’s a reminder too, that it is not just the material benefits that matter, but treatment and other social support that is necessary to re-integrate them into society. The system failed Mdhara Munetsi and many others. As I write, I wonder what happened to the men at the Lido Hotel after they were moved to Vukuzenzele by the Zimbabwe Project …


As with any war, the liberation struggle was a brutal affair. There were many types of abuse on both sides. As Fay Chung explains in her book, “Prisoners also received electric torture, with electric wires often attached to their sexual organs. Many tortured prisoners suffered permanent physical and mental damage as a result of such extreme suffering. Whenever guerrillas were captured and killed, their dead bodies were displayed as a warning to the people.” So-called civilian sell-outs were executed in cold blood. Guerrillas suspected of rebellion were executed by firing squad. Some of the executions took place publicly and were witnessed by children.

These excesses of the war did enormous harm to the mental constitution of many guerrillas – victims, survivors and perpetrators alike. A lot of these people went on to occupy important offices of the state. But very few, if any received any treatment or rehabilitation after the war. They have carried the baggage of war on their minds. It is hardly surprising that the behaviour exhibited by some of the leaders is erratic, cold-hearted and aggressive.

For the ordinary War Veterans like the parents of Freeman and Tatenda, they have had to deal with the demons of war on their own.

“I remember years back when my father was startled by the bursting sound of a plastic tube which I was pumping with air,” says Freeman. “He jumped and promptly assumed prone position. Afterwards, he sternly warned me never to do that again near him.” It had brought back terrifying memories of the war.

“After reading more about PTSD and all the psychological trauma that comes with war, I think my father and his siblings (two others in the family had also joined the struggle) could have been suffering from it, but unfortunately our healthcare system like everywhere else in the world did not understand the condition. I do not think they got any treatment for anything related to the psychological effects,” concludes Freeman.

Terrible. It’s too late for Tatenda’s father, but it’s never too late for those that still live.

I dedicate this article to the gallant sons and daughters gave up their time to fight for independence. Some paid with their lives. Others returned with broken limbs. Many, perhaps all, came back with a lot of baggage on their minds, baggage which has never been off-loaded and whose effects are all-too-evident in our land. 


I would like to thank Freeman, Tatenda, Emma and Shaky for sharing their stories.

Do you have a story similar to the stories featured in this BSR? We intend to feature similar stories on this site so that the issues raised in this BSR can win the attention of the authorities and others who can help. If so, please write to:

Meanwhile, award-winning film-maker Hopewell Chin’ono is currently making a documentary, State of the Nation, which investigates the issue of mental health in Zimbabwe. It is due for release later this year. Leading psychiatrist Dr Chibanda has recently set up the Friendship Bench in Harare, a concept designed to assist communities deal with mental health challenges. Mental health awareness is very critical and must be encouraged.