I first met Rodwell in November 1976. We were the first group to receive training in Zambia after the failed attempt to have Zanla and Zipra forces unite under ZIPA. All the Zipra cadres who were in Tanzania at that time were moved to Zambia and we were the first group to be trained at Mwembeshi.
Rodwell was one of the instructors together with current commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) Philip Valerio Sibanda and the late national hero, Stanley Gagisa Nleya. There was also Cde Sigoge and many others.
He was one of our favourite instructors although he was very tough. He could easily transform someone from a civilian into a real soldier. We enjoyed being taken through training by tough instructors and Rodwell was one of them. He was very good at close combat — judo and he was a top marksman.
Whenever we went to the shooting range, we enjoyed watching him hitting the bull’s eye. We tried to emulate that a lot.
After our training in March 1977, we were sent for further training in the Soviet Union. We were a group of 200 that was sent to Simferopol for training. I specialised in signals. When we came back to Lusaka in November 1977, we were deployed at Freedom Camp.
The head of communications at that time was Cde Zvafa, who was the elder brother to the current Air Force Commander Air Marshall Elson Moyo. Cde Zvafa selected me to remain at Zipra headquarters in Zambia to set up the Zipra Communications Headquarters.
After about four-five months, I had managed to set up the Communications HQ.
Around February 1978, I was deployed to Feira so that I could set up our communications system there. This is when I had my second encounter with Rodwell. We went together to Feira on the same day. He was the regional commander and I was going to support him as the Regional Signals Commander.
His deputy commander Jerry, there was Cde Joseph Mbedzi and others in the command.
It was very exciting to be at Feira because we had always thought that those instructors who were good at training were not good at the war front. And so when we watched Rodwell at the war front, he showed us that he was not only a good trainer, but a good commander.
Within a month at Feira, we got the baptism of fire. This was the first attack by the Rhodesians on the Zambian side. We were at Kavhalamanja Base. It so happened that on this day, I had gone to Feira police station to charge batteries of our communications equipment.
When I was coming back from Feira police station, it was around past 9am. From about two to three kilometers from the base, I saw this spectacle. I was on top of a small hill that I had to go over before getting to the base that was in the valley.
There were about 15 war planes in the sky that looked like birds and in no time I saw and heard the bombings. There were five bombers, five helicopter gunships and five spotter planes.
Watching from a distance, I knew we were in deep trouble. I couldn’t do anything. I watched all the bombardment from that distance. The bombardment went on from 9am to about noon. They took a recess and came back again around 2pm until 6pm. After this, some of the comrades started coming out of the battle area. I met some of the colleagues and they told me horror stories.
The next morning the Rhodesian forces came back and continued the bombardment until midday. When this happened, we were totally disorganised and disoriented. The bombing was just too intense. There were about 76 comrades at this base. After this bombardment, some of our commanders came from Lusaka — there was the chief of operations, Jevan Maseko and Cde Dingane from intelligence. We met with Rodwell who had survived this intense bombarding and strategised on how we were to go back and assess the damage.
I remember, about a kilometre from the base there was a small bridge which had been hit during the attack. Jevan Maseko then instructed one of his drivers to drive his car across the bridge to assess whether we could all cross.
After driving for a few meters, this driver hit a landmine and the Landrover which was still very new was extensively damaged. This driver was blown to pieces. We buried him a few meters from the bridge.
The Zambian commander who was there, Captain Muthali then instructed his driver to drive across the bridge and the driver hesitated. Captain Muthali threatened this driver saying, “do you want a bullet on your head?” The driver then drove across the bridge with no incident. We then all crossed the bridge.
When we got to the base, there was disaster. We had our tents in a thicket, but the Rhodesian bombs had been dropped all over and there were holes all over the place. We went around collecting dead bodies. We counted 26 comrades who were dead. We buried them.
This was the first incursion by the Rhodesians into Zambia and I think Rodwell handled it very well. This was baptism of fire and we never thought anyone was going to survive. Can you imagine after this, after two weeks Rodwell took some comrades and actually crossed into Rhodesia for some operations? He was a fearless fighter.
After this attack, we changed bases. In July 1978, we camped at Khume Base. We discovered that the Boers were doing some reconnaissance into Zambia and so we deployed units to move around to assess their movements.
One day, as I was going for my morning communication sessions with headquarters to update them of developments on the ground, one of our colleagues spotted some Boers who were advancing towards our base. He came back running saying “amabhunu! amabhunu!” I took charge and said lets engage these Boers. I was the only one with an AK rifle. Others had semi-automatic rifles.
Unbeknown to us, these Boers were already watching us. The first bullet scratched my shirt on the right arm. I quickly went down for cover. There was a volley of fire from these Boers.
We were totally out-gunned and outnumbered. There was no way we could even return fire. What made the situation worse was that some of my comrades were actually not well. They had injuries from the previous battle.
The only logical thing to do was to retreat. I was hoping that this attack had alerted our other comrades. We retreated to our gathering point. As we were retreating, I heard sudden gunfire and I knew that one of our groups was now hitting these Boers.
About two hours later, we met up with Rodwell. He asked me “kuhambenjani?” I explained to him what had happened and he told me that I was lucky because it was clear that the first bullet which hit my shirt was supposed to hit my chest. I think this just wasn’t my day to die.
Rodwell then told me that his group had intercepted and ambushed one of the Boer groups. Rodwell told me that as the Boers were advancing, he hit the Boer who was at the front carrying the Bren Gun (a very powerful machine gun) right on the forehead.
After this, they attacked these Boers and killed about nine. They unfortunately lost one comrade who got so excited as the Boers were retreating and tried to assault. That is when he was hit.
Soon after this attack, the Boers called for reinforcement and in no time helicopter gunships came. We then retreated. Thereafter, it was back to re-organisation. Again Rodwell, went back into Rhodesia for more operations.
This was around the same time that our commander, Nikita Mangena died. We were all devastated because he was one man we respected so much. He had the vision and courage to fight the war. Nikita was also very close to Rodwell and this was one of the dark days of our struggle.
After Mangena’s death there was re-organisation of the Zipra command. That is when the Northern Front and the Southern Front were established. Around August, Rodwell was recalled to HQ and was promoted to be the commander of the Northern Front.
It was the Zipra High Command at the top and immediately after that there was the commanders of the Northern Front and the Southern Front. The Northern Front was like from Mutare to Plumtree on the North of the railway line — from Kanyemba to Livingstone.
This was all under Rodwell. The Southern Front was also from Mutare to Plumtree on the Southern side of the railway.
I was also elevated to the Northern Front Command still in charge of Signals. The deputy commander was Cde Gilbert Khumalo. Our mission was to spearhead the Zipra war operations from that side. When we left, that is when Cde Joseph Mbedzi became the regional commander replacing Rodwell in Feira.
We came up with the idea that, now that we had a regular brigade about four battalions and a guerilla detachment numbering about 6 000, we had to progress towards creating liberated zones.
You liberate, you defend and progress onwards. We decided to start by hitting the Rhodesian garrisons along Zambezi River. Our first target was Mana Pools, the second target was going to be Livingstone and the third target was going to be Kanyemba.
We also wanted to start combining guerilla warfare and regular warfare. My first task was to train other comrades in signals.
In October, as I was going through the training, we were attacked again by the Rhodesian forces. There was serious bombardment at Freedom Camp. We lost 226 comrades in this attack at Freedom Camp. We later buried these comrades in mass graves and I continued my training. Shortly after this, we lost our signals commander, Cde Zvafa.
After this we agreed with, Andrew Ndlovu who was head of artillery that we would have a unit that would attack Mana Pools. We wanted to shell Kariba from the Zambian side and shell Chirundu from the Zambian side.
We mobilised what we called mobile artillery units who would come, conduct operations and retreat to our bases on the Zambian side. I had to make sure there was smooth communication during these attacks. This operation was very successful and for the first time for Kariba we used what we called a Grad P, an artillery which had never been used before in our operations. The Boers really felt our fighting power.
Rodwell led the attack on Mana Pools and that is when he got injured. He got injured from a grenade launcher and he lost two fingers. He was ferried to Lusaka at University Teaching Hospital and later to Soviet Union for treatment.
I visited him when he was at UTH and watching him in hospital, I felt without him, it was going to be very difficult to implement our war strategies. His vision, dedication and foresight was just something else.
This narration was recorded by former Sunday Mail Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni.
I worked with many Zipra commanders, but Rodwell was a unique commander. He was worlds apart from many commanders. Without him, I felt it was going to be very difficult to implement our war strategies. After Rodwell, we then had an acting Front Commander Cde Richard Ngwenya. He is a retired colonel.
Soon after, the Northern Front was dissolved as preparations for Lancaster House talks started. I was deployed to an area we used to call DK which is between Choma and Livingstone.
This is the area we lost our commander Alfred Nikita Mangena when he hit a landmine, that’s the same area where we lost our former operations chief Asaf Ndinda together with Three Platoons — about 75 comrades. We lost them in one of the ambushes. It was one of the worst areas on the Zambian side.
The commander there was the current commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces P.V Sibanda. That was the structure until ceasefire.
I never saw Rodwell until I came home around August 1980. I was part of the group that looked after our tanks. We were given the task to bring these tanks back home.
When I met Rodwell, he asked me whether I was going to join the army and I said no. I decided to further my education and then went into business.
I later met Rodwell when he was a Lieutenant Colonel. We had vowed that if we got home alive, the first thing we would do was to visit each other’s home and meet each other’s parents. When I met him, that was late in 1980, we first went to his home, Chingezi in Mberengwa and spent about three days there.
It was literally, chicken for breakfast, chicken for lunch and chicken for supper. We had a good time as I met many of his relatives.
From there we proceeded to Plumtree, Tokwana area and we met my parents. Again it was the same routine of chicken, chicken and chicken. Besides being my commander, Rodwell had become a brother and a friend. This relationship continued over the years until his death.
We know that humans are born to die. I always say the day you are born and the day you die, are none of your business because this is beyond your control. But the time that you have alive, you have an obligation to do the best as a human being for your family, your society and your country.
This is the commitment we made when we were very young. I went to war when I was 17 years and 6 months. Rodwell and many other comrades were around the same age. We put our lives on the block. Now we have a free country.
Rodwell did his best for his family, for his society and for his country. We will continue defending what Rodwell stood for.
I think freeing the country was the easiest part because the enemy was very clear. You see a Boer and you put a bullet. You see a Selous Scout you put a bullet. You see a sellout you put a bullet. But now it’s like a moving target at night. It’s a mindset issue. This is what makes it more difficult, but we hope our children will take over the fight to defend and build this country.
Like we say in Kalanga “Muyizele Neku Nyalala!” My commander! My brother! My friend!