Childhood Perspectives of War
What is in a memory? Why are memories so important to us? These types of questions constantly pass through my mind as I think about my life. I think our past and all the experiences we face end up defining who we become. The person I am now is a culmination of all my experiences. But without memories, we can’t measure this progression. And I think there’s something inherent in all of us to connect with the past in some way. For example, seeing a collage of photographs of somebody’s life (perhaps at a birthday party) somehow creates a deeper connection and understanding of that person. Their memories paint a picture of who they are and who they’ve become. That’s how powerful a memory can be. Thus, I think memories are of fundamental importance in our lives. They define us in almost all respects. It sets the path of who we eventually become and they provide a backdrop for all the happy and sad moments that one experiences through life.
My earliest memory occurred when I was just 4 years old. I grew up on a farm just outside of Salisbury, Rhodesia (and since 1980, it is now called Harare, Zimbabwe). The Rhodesian Bush War was in full swing. The war had started in 1964 and by 1970 — the year I was born — the war had showed no signs of ending. If anything, the war was intensifying. It was a very difficult period for the country. Families were loosing loved ones and the terrorists were ambushing countless numbers of civilian famers. Many brave lives were lost — Rhodesians fighting for a country they dearly loved. Everybody was affected by the war. National Service was mandatory and our family was no exception. All my brothers had to fight. I grew up with guns and we had to take them everywhere with us. The war was a terrible tragedy on many levels. The security forces lost 1,361 young soldiers and 468 civilians (including many farmers) had lost their lives.
My earliest memory was attending a security exhibition for farmers. Famers were the most at risk from a civilian point of view. They were out in the open and needed all the protection they could get. The exhibition had many trees surrounding the property and it was located in the middle of nowhere. These gatherings were conducted in absolute secrecy, because the terrorists would often eves drop on radio communications in order to learn of their locations. I remember all sorts of weapons demonstration showing the different types of weaponry. One in particular was a solution to protect against ambush while in a moving vehicle. It comprised of 10–16 shotgun barrels, which were fitted around the top of a vehicle’s roof. All the barrels pointed upwards and when the farmer was under attack, the farmer could pull a cord, causing all the barrels to drop at the same time, firing shotgun bullets in all directions around the vehicle.
The photo shows me standing with my family, in the backdrop of our beloved country in the background. This is where my lifetime portfolio starts.
The following year the war was intensifying and everyone was on edge. For a little boy, normality was a strange concept in such times. I soon became petrified of the darkness at night. There’s no light out in these away-from-town areas and when the day turns to night, it became so dark; you could hardly see your hand in front of you. Being isolated in the middle of nowhere, nighttime was one of the most dangerous times of the day.
The Agri-Alert radio system was introduced as the war escalated. It allowed daily contact with the surrounding farming community, and it also became a means of gathering intelligence of terrorist activity for the Rhodesian Army. You’d often heard the farmers talking about the enemy passing through their farms, and we were no exception. There was roll call twice a day. I remember the family having to be present to answer the call when your number came up. Every-now-again, you’d hear a farmer missing their response during roll call and after investigation, it was usually reported that they had been killed by ambush. Some farmers forgot to take their weapons with them — when heading to the bedroom from their living room at night. Sadly, this mistake cost many farmers their lives. You took your weapons with you everywhere, literally. You never switched on lights because the probability in being slaughtered was far too great.
The nighttime became a very scary part of the day for me. Absolute darkness can easily immobilise you. I recall being awakened during the night, hearing the Agri-Alert system springing into life with farmers coming under attack. I ended up sleeping with my parents most nights. Even at the young age of 5 years old, I always went to bed with my plastic toy gun. I told my parents when jumping into bed with them, that I was there to protect them. How interesting it is that at such a young age, we have the instinct to protect loved ones.
Later that year, my mother had to travel to the UK. She took me with her and that was the first time I had been in a country that was not in a state of emergency. It’s incredible how a camera captures emotion. Especially as I look back over the photographs in my lifetime portfolio. A picture says a 1000 words so we are told. In this photograph, I’m not sure that a 1000 words is enough to picture the expression on my face. It should be a joyful moment of feeding the birds whilst on my very first dream holiday. Seeing the big city of London whilst wondering around Trafalgar Square. No matter how happy or sad the occasion is, it is important to keep recording these treasured moments because they only come round once.
It’s incredible how strong we all become when faced with adversity. All of the women in my family became the pillars of strength. They were the people that kept the family unit together, and no problem was outside their grasp. No doubt many families would have crumbled without the support of the women in their own family units. Quoting from a book titled, “The Farmer at War” by Trevor Grundy and Bernard Miller.
“If you were to ask any farmer’s wife what is the greatest burden she has to bear in this war, she will tell you without hesitation that it is the burden of worry. Not the worry about the day-to-day running of the farm but worry about the safety of her loved ones — not only in the bush but on the roads, on the farms and even in the home, that ever-present anxiety is never far from the forefront of her mind.”
The authors continue that if there was such a thing as Farming Oscar, they would say:
“… and so I dedicate it to all those wives and mothers who have lost their loved ones. I dedicate it to all those wives whose calm voices over Agri Alert during appalling attacks on their homes. I dedicate it to all our black compatriots, those wives and mothers who have been forced to witness the brutalities and obscenities of terrorism before their eyes. Above all, I dedicate it to all those wives who have carried on their normal lives, maintaining a sanity in our world, whose courage, compassion and resilience is the very fibre of our nation. To all our wives I pay my homage and I salute them.”
Its incalculable how many lives the Agri Alert system saved. It’s hard for me to reconcile my life now with those of the yesteryears. I recently came across the following quote which I think says it best:
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”
Sadly, the following year the army continued to fight… and the war continued to get worse… All I had ever known by the age of 6 years old was the normality of loved ones taking the fight to the enemy.
I clearly remember visiting to my sister’s home in the northern part of the country. She lived in a small community called Mashumbi Pools, a short 11 miles from the Zambian border along the Hunyani River. This was one of the most beautiful parts of the country. From the capital Salisbury, you travelled over the Rukowakuona Mountains and down through the Zambezi Escarpment. The views are stunning and the vegetation is like no other. In parts, the elephant grass reached 10 feet high. Sadly, danger and beauty are not to be confused. This was an extremely dangerous region to be in. The terrorists entered the country through Zambia and predictably, the area became an important fighting front for the security forces.
It’s hard for me now to reconcile the rational of travelling to such dangerous areas. You just wouldn’t do it! However, that desire to believe that life must go on prevails. My sister and her husband were in these parts of the country to teach the locals how to farm and to be self-sufficient. Many of the locals had never seen a white woman before and so my sister gained much attention. They worked for a government organisation called Tilcor (Tribal Trust Land Development Corporation), which was created by an act of Parliament in 1968. Development of the country by white farmers was rapid. It didn’t take long for Rhodesia to become known as “the bread basket of Africa”. Exporting food and other necessary commodities to the rest of the continent. The government curtailed the reach of farmers by reserving 18 million hectares of land. The land was to be protected for the local African tribes to continue their traditional way of life. These areas were called Tribal Trust Lands. My sister and her husband were there to assist and carry out development for the benefit of the tribesmen. In addition to Tilcor, the government also built roads, clinics and schools from the taxes generated by white farmers.
My sister lived in the Dande Tribal Trust Land. When things got too dangerous, the troops would evacuate her to safer grounds. In the end my sister had enough of being away from home and so the police decided to do weapons training with her. On one occasion she had been evacuated for 6 weeks. Her home was stacked high with sand bags to stop bullets and other explosive devices such as mortars. When she was under attack, she would automatically run to the bunker. Sadly, many of the Rhodesian troops that were fighting were only 18 years old and very scared. My sister took a parental role in comforting some of them during their 6-week rotation. She also helped the troops with food & drinks and even created a little bar area for them.
This was the way of life in these war torn parts of the country. For a little 6-year-old boy, it was just another happy trip to visit his sister. My mother visited regularly to bring much needed supplies with her. The photo is me with my brother and sister on the banks of the Hunyani River at Mashumbi Pools. It may seem strange to many, but you still find happy moments in times like this. My sister still comments that this period included some of her happiest moments in life. Although cameras were forbidden in these regions, I’m glad my mother took it upon herself to capture these extraordinary times of our lives.
Throughout the war, I often saw flares being fired into the night sky out of my bedroom window. The terrorists used flares to signal each other. On one particular occasion, we heard via the Agri-Alert system that terrorists were most likely to be passing through our farm. My father and brother headed out with their weapons into the darkness of night. Its hard to describe the trepidation that you go through, not knowing if they’ll make it back to the house alive. The innocence of a little 6-year old boy holding onto his plastic toy gun tightly, believing he’s doing his part to protect the family. Even though my brothers went on tour every 6 weeks, this occasion just felt different to me. Those 2 hours were probably the longest in my life. The terrorists filled their water cans at the dairy and we believed they continued towards Salisbury.
A few years later on the 11th December 1978, I remember the night sky lighting up like daylight. We went outside and we couldn’t believe what we were witnessing. It was literally unbelievable. Terrorists had attacked the oil depot at 9pm at night and had blown up millions of gallons of fuel. During the Rhodesian War, sanctions were gripping the country’s oil supply. This caused a huge fuel crisis countrywide. Once the immediate crisis was over, it became necessary to rationalize the whole business of oil importation. In around 1976, the Rhodesian government set up a secret agency called GENTA. Ostensibly a private company, it is obscurely listed a Rhodesian telephone company as “Genta (Pvt) Limited”, with an address in Central Salisbury. In fact, it was 100% owned by the Rhodesian government, and my cousin George Atmore, became its chairman and ran the clandestine business. Few people in Rhodesia know of Genta’s existence, let alone its role.
The need to live and lead a normal life still prevails when living in the middle of a war. You still go out to see friends, the family still needs to earn a living, you still need to socialise and have a party. These simple things are the very fabric of life. During the period that my sister was in the Mashumbi Pools area, she had formed a good friendship with the local tribal chief. His name was Chief Sasungoo and his village was deep into the African bush within the Dande Tribal Trust Lands. During our stay we were invited to visit him. He had 9 wives and he claimed to have 100 children. He was a very important man within these traditional African parts of the country. Nobody could do anything without his permission. The government always consulted with the chiefs before they could do anything on their land. The chief was never unprotected and he had his own bodyguards with him at all times.
When we visited the chief, all his very best chairs were neatly put out for us to sit on. Me, as a little 6 year-old had the privilege of sitting next to him (see photo). Rhodesia was always very different to many other parts of Africa. There was a wonderful harmony between the black and white populations. Visiting a tribal chief was always special and on this occasion, his 9 wives came bearing gifts. They gave us a live chicken, a pumpkin and other assorted vegetables. All he wanted in return was cigarettes. Whenever you gave something to the chief, you would bow your head and show both hands with your palms facing upwards. If the item you were presenting could be given using one hand, you would extend one hand with the other supporting the forearm underneath. You never hid your hands because not only was it disrespectful, it could also be seen as a threat.
The chief was the law! He had his own court, a little pole and dagga hut with no walls. He would listen to both arguments and make his final decision as judge and jury. The medical needs of the tribe were attended to by the Witch Doctor. He had his own mud hut in the village and lived amongst the small community. Witch Doctors are very highly respected in African culture and there’s an implicit trust in his abilities to cure all sorts of illnesses.
The chiefs were so important during the Rhodesian Bush War, that the army did everything they could to protect them. The army approached Chief Sasungoo and offered to build him a ‘keep’. This is a small bit of land, about 7–10 meters square, with very high walls to surround a small hut inside. The chief agreed and whenever the fighting got too close, the chief would retreat to his ‘keep’ for safety. The terrorists used to kill all the villagers whenever they passed through them and the Rhodesian Army would do everything in their power to protect them. A great deal of trust was formed between the chief and the army.
My sister had formed a great friendship with the chief. She used to visit him about once a month and bring him cigarettes. They used to chat about everything and his wives always brought food for them to eat. The chief was proud and tremendously keen for my sister to try out the various traditional African dishes. On one occasion, he offered my sister some land — such was the mutual respect between them. However, my sister was never able to accept such a gift as no White people were allowed to own any part of the Tribal Trust Lands.
After the visit to the chief, we went sight seeing to the Fossilised Forest, which was located about 7 miles from Mashumbi Pools. It was a forest of dead trees and looked ghostly. Going sight seeing in one of the most dangerous parts of the country just seems crazy on reflection. But that’s what we did, albeit under an armed security escort. The roads were land mined and the bush was where the fighting took place.
Farmers throughout the country sought every available means to protect themselves. Dogs had proved exceptionally useful in becoming an early warning system. Thus every farm had dogs. The next barrier of protection came from high 6-foot fences. Well, it wasn’t really protection, but it did serve to make it harder for terrorists and intruders to enter the property unheeded. But our farm was different! All we had was a flimsy barbed wire fence with 3 strands. When I was 7 years old I remember asking my father why this was… he said that if we had a 6 foot fence and we were under attack, we’d have nowhere to run. He had heard far too many stories of how farmers had gotten trapped within their own security.
Going back to the discussion of memories and how they shape us… its difficult to know how the war shaped me into who I am today. I guess I’ve always been a jolly sort of fellow and always look for the positive in everything. Because looking at it any other way does nobody any good. I have an implicit belief that “tomorrow will be okay”. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying over trivial things. I think these are qualities that were shaped by my childhood.
Written by Gwyn Cole — Founder of Still River Films, Filmmaker & Storyteller.
Following a successful 18-year career in software engineering, Gwyn Cole retrained in 2012 as a filmmaker and storyteller. And despite the two fields being quite different, Gwyn says he could apply the skills learned at University to both careers. After working in London for one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies, he co-wrote a technical computing book in 2002. He says, “in my new life as a filmmaker, I continue to learn from the best and continue to apply the core principles of story, cameras, lighting and all things connected with film.”