Before we moved to Macheke in the north of Rhodesia (see my blog titled Limbikani) we had taken over a farm in Mutoko. This was in 1978 in the middle of the bush war that was being led by two factions that were against White rule of what we are now politically correctly made to call freedom fighters, (but we called them terrs, being short for terrorist) by Robert Mugabe’s Zanla (backed by Communist China), and now in charge of Zimbabwe under his ruling party ZANU(PF), and Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA (backed by Communist Russia).
Our farmhouse was heavily fortified, being totally surrounded by a roof-high wall, barbed wire strung along the top, steel doors at the back and front, and sandbags piled high at each one. The wall produced a narrow passageway in which one could move safely without being seen . At strategic points in the wall there were loose bricks which could be easily removed to allow a rifle to be poked through in order to shoot back at any attackers. All outside doors had an extra, overlapping wall which was further protected by layers of sandbags at least five feet high.
There had been several farm attacks in the area and we carried our weapons with us at all times, even within the house from room to room. Peter’s was an FN, mine an Uzi. The terrs’ weapon of choice was the Russian-made AK-47 (designed by Alexander Kalashnikov).
Because of the danger of landmines we had been allocated an armoured vehicle . There were many kinds of these and they were given various names, our was a Kudu. A huge, lumbering, cramped. fortified vehicle that was difficult to drive with merely a small slit for the driver to peer out of, and basic seating very hard on the posterior. However, we felt fairly safe but had we hit a landmine we would have no doubt been injured in some way, though hopefully not killed.
One Sunday, after a day spent at the local club, we left and drove up to our farm gate coming to a halt in a cloud of thick dust. We had had a good time for the past hours, relaxing and forgetting the strains of farming in the middle of a war zone, enjoying all the usual banter and jokes with good friends and neighbours. We were feeling quite mellow, looking forward to a hot bath and bed before encountering all the frustrations and rigours of the following farming day. We stopped at the gate and hooted for our Guard Force to come down to open it, but no one appeared. We light-heartedly argued as to whose turn it was to get out of our armoured vehicle and unlock and open the gate…….. and it seemed it was my turn! I pointed to the kopje (hill) in the distance and joked that the terrs were probably watching our every move from their vantage point. As I began to move towards the gate, at last Guard Force came running with the key letting us through and reporting all was quiet with no problems and so we proceeded into the house. By this time, it was dusk and Peter went out to the garage to fire up the diesel-run generator, there being no electricity in the whole farming area. To avoid having to go out into the dark to turn it off we had a system whereby a cord was slung from the generator, across the yard and through the vent at the top of our bedroom wall. This cord dangled down the wall within reach of the bed and had to be pulled with some force in order to turn off the generator. This meant of course that we had no way of putting on the electricity again unless we went out into the night.
Knowing we had an early start in the morning, and feeling fairly content , we went off to bed at about seven thirty, pulled hard at the light cord, heard the generator run down, and fell asleep more or less as our heads hit the pillow. It felt like we had only just drifted off when there was an almighty explosion. An RPG rocket had been launched from somewhere in the field outside our security fence. It had been aimed at our bedroom but fortunately for us the garage was in the way and It burst through the garage wall and we woke to the stark realisation that we were under attack.
To be woken from sleep in such a manner results in confusion and some disorientation. The only other time I can recall such a stunning sensation was a particular night in the Gonarezhou, that most beautiful national park in the south-east Lowveld, when we had settled down for the night as the only visitors at a rough camp on the banks of the Lundi River. We had earlier heard lions in the distance roaring and grunting in the dry river bed but felt no threat as they were some distance away. But later we were all woken from deep slumbers by the booming roar and grunting of a lion standing a mere five feet away from our camp beds. The resulting scene was comical in its recall – all of us thrashing about trying frantically to discard entangled sleeping bags, some doing a version of the sack race as we tried to get under cover and into the rondavel (round house, with no windows, and just a two foot high wall – not really much protection). Luckily the lions were not interested in us but were conversing with their mates down river.
Now we were suffering that same disorientation and confusion. Scrambling for the torch, finding the candles and matches, our Wolfhounds going berserk, getting under our feet; Gertie, our pet goat, out in the high-walled and heavily sandbagged corridor bleating madly in panic.
During all this chaos, we were aware of the sound of shouting and automatic gunfire as Guard Force returned fire as we raced along the passage, tripping over the madly excited dogs, and managing to get to the radio: “Mayday, Mayday. This is Kilo 89, this is Kilo 89, we’re under attack.”
Peter grabbed his rifle and headed out of the back door to start the generator . Bullets were flying all around . He got the lights on and joined the Guard Force in their counter attack. A frightened Gertie had taken the opportunity to rush to relative safety into the house, bleating her head off.
A second rocket was then aimed at the house.. It was obvious that our bedroom had been the target of the first rocket but fortunately the garage was between the terrs and us, and we discovered later that one of our hens, who was sitting on her eggs, remained with dedication at her post throughout, even though she became covered in dust and rubble. The bedroom window above our bed sustained one bullet hole, but the outside walls were covered in pockmarks.
We had been assured over the radio that help was on its way, but it turned out to be a good few hours before anyone arrived. During this time Peter and Guard Force kept up the resistance in the pitch black night, and I could see the red tracer bullets hurtling against the starry sky.
We were now getting worried at the lack of backup, and got back onto the radio to find out why no one had arrived. It seemed the police response unit had in fact gone to the wrong farm, but at last they arrived at the locked security gate. With bullets flying all around, Peter had to get to the gate to let them in, four young policemen who got stuck into giving as good as we were getting. The gunfire and resistance was sustained for a long time with no let up. The noise was incredible. Eventually the men rushed back into the house, they were dangerously low on ammunition. Some weeks before we had been given a box full of ammo by a farmer who was leaving the district, so we dragged it out and each man took several handfuls and the shooting resumed. It was now getting on for eleven o’clock and after three hours continuous attack there was no let up. We got back onto the radio requesting more backup. We were told to put on our roof lights as a helicopter gunship was to be deployed . Not long after, we heard the aircraft overhead and the booms as it fired several rockets into the compound.,
At last , and by now it was two in the morning, all was quiet and the police and Peter came back into the house exhausted and glad to get sandwiches and strong coffee. It had been a close call as once again ammo had been getting too low for comfort. We then all tried to get some sleep and at first light the police team proceeded to do a follow up. But, from the house and to our dismay we heard automatic fire and later learned that the terrs had stayed in the compound and were hiding in a disused cattle dip. It was from there they again opened fire but managed to run off across the lands and into the bush without being caught.
We went out and examined the damage. The first rocket had fortunately hit the garage, and not our bedroom. The mother hen was still sitting diligently on her eggs on the tractor seat. Some of the workforce had fled to neighbouring farms during the fighting, but those who had remained were visibly shaken and frightened. At one stage during the night the terrs had demanded to know where our cook’s house was and they proceeded to fire at her house. She had positioned herself into a recess in the wall and was lucky not to have been hit, but there were bullet holes in the door and walls. It was while they were attacking her that the helicopter had appeared and they had run off.
We received a call on the radio from a neighbour telling that a number of our workforce had run away in the night to his compound and he would send them over on one of his tractors. Not long after we heard, with dread, a muffled explosion and our fears were confirmed when word came that the tractor had hit a landmine laid by the terrs on their way out of the farm. One of four land mines as it turned out. We rushed to the scene to see the men staggering about; the tractor, completely wrecked, on its side, and the driver groaning over a broken leg, the only injury that had been sustained , which was a miracle.
The local follow- up stick quickly arranged for a posse to track the terrs. This ended in tragedy as in their wake the terrs had laid a further three landmines. Two were detonated as the follow-up vehicles went over them resulting in the tragic deaths of two of our neighbouring farmer friends.. The terrs got away. We never heard whether any had been caught.
Investigations around the farm and the fields revealed that our attackers had numbered around twenty-five, a much larger group than was usual for such attacks, and had been conducted with far more resilience and determination. The usual modus operandi was to attack swiftly and briefly and then run. This attack had consisted of a much larger number of men, and for a prolonged period. In addition, they had remained at the site and continued the armed engagement the following morning. Several years later, strangely and surprisingly, Peter came across the leader of the attack on our farm, whose Chimurenga (war) name was Daniel Boon. The reason for such a sustained attack on us ,he said, was because the farm had in their opinion, been “liberated” (it had not been previously been attacked – the owner had left due to ill health and had been vacant for several months) and our subsequent take-over had been seen as an affront to their so-called success.
The next day, we telephoned our daughter at boarding school in Salisbury to let her know we were safe and arranged to go and fetch her home. She had already suffered considerable heartache with the loss of her beloved horse, Flight. We had arranged for him to be sent up to us from Chiredzi by rail but the train had been attacked, carriages de-railed, including the carriage containing the horse and groom. Fortunately the groom was unhurt but Flight was sadly not so lucky.
For some reason, we rather stupidly decided to make the trip into Salisbury in our car and not in our armoured vehicle. The farm roads were deserted and we got to the school with no problems.
It was on our way back, when were just a couple of miles short of our farm gate, that we came
across a roadblock manned by police. We were told to reverse some way back, pull to the side of the road, stop the engine and stay in the car. Several army personnel and police who had been standing at the roadside began to move away from the road and into the bush, leaving one young man alone kneeling over an area in the dust. As he looked up, our daughter was shocked to see that he was a friend she had known from a well-known private school just a year ago, and here he was, aged a mere 17, dangerously uncovering what turned out to be the fourth landmine laid by our attackers only the day before. On our journey out we had, in fact, either straddled over, or driven adjacent to this landmine. We had been unbelievably lucky yet again. The atmosphere was tense and we felt fear as the young man, merely a teenager, worked away at uncovering the mine. At last, it was disarmed and the all clear given for us to resume our journey.
Many of our farm workers, being fearful of further attacks and possible reprisals, left our employ and this meant that with the few remaining employees we were battling to continue with the farm.
To conclude, I must say that during the whole attack we felt no fear – the adrenalin was high, and we were just too busy getting on with returning fire. However, from then on, for a week or two we didn’t sleep so soundly. A couple of nights later I was woken by what sounded very much like rapid gunfire, coupled with the peacocks making their eerie, ear-piercing alarm call. As I shouted to Peter: “We’re under attack. We’re under attack” I scrambled out of bed intending to rush to the radio to call for help. Peter jumped up quickly to stop me, saying: “Wait. Calm down, calm down.” It was only the heavy Jacaranda seed pods clattering noisily onto the corrugated iron roof!