Lovemore Ranga Mataire Senior Writer
The closing chapter of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle was decided at the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference between September 10 and December 15, 1979.
Described by many historians as the “Last Funeral Parlour” of the British Empire, it was at Lancaster House Conference that a decision was reached to establish what was to be called assembly points.
Assembly points were established as rendezvous to facilitate the demobilisation of thousands of freedom fighters deployed throughout the country.
Sadly, either by default or design, the ceasefire or demobilisation period is one of the least documented periods in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.
Yet a lot of things happened during this period. Gory things happened that sank the hearts of many, who witnessed callous killings of unarmed freedom fighters by Ian Smith’s forces.
This was despite the presence of Commonwealth forces comprising of 1 500 peacekeepers — 150 Australian, 22 Fijians, 50 Kenyans and 75 New Zealanders. Britain provided 800 soldiers with 300 coming from the Royal Force and a small contingent from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.
It was a period of euphoria and uncertainty. Many were sceptical of the ceasefire holding. And Rhodesian forces broke with impunity the terms of the ceasefire agreement by constantly ambushing guerillas making way to assembly points.
The fighters were given only one week to gather at assembly points after which the ceasefire was to come into effect. In total, sixteen assembly points were established with only a few like Dzapasi in Buhera located in the interior. The majority were in the periphery of Rhodesia in the north-west, east and south east of the country.
The assembly points included Kilo, Foxtrot/Dzapasi, Lima, Juliet, Golf, Echo, Delta, Charlie, Bravo, Alpha, Papa, November, Quebec, Mike, Hotel and Romeo. Most of the assembly points were located close to sources of water and were mere makeshift camps lacking basic necessities.
Rhodesian forces were mainly concentrated in the centre of the country with some on the borders. Guerillas were sandwiched between Rhodesian and Commonwealth forces.
The idea of assembly points was to ensure that freedom fighters registered their names, surrendered their weapons and recorded the serial numbers of their weapons with periodic checks being conducted by commanders of the Patriotic Front comprising of Zanla and Zipra forces.
On numerous occasions Rhodesian and auxiliary forces (Madzakutsaku) would encroach into Patriotic Front (Zanla and Zipra) assembly points because they had freedom to move around unlike the guerillas.
It was during the Rhodesian forces encroachment into assembly points that they committed heinous acts against the guerillas most of which went undocumented. The whole period was delicate and chaotic as most assembly points were inundated by relatives looking for long lost loved ones.
Villagers around Foxtrot/Dzapasi, which had the largest contingent of freedom fighters recount a palpable atmosphere when residual effects of the war came into conflict with the lives of villagers some of whom had been collaborators of the colonial regime.
“You could tell from their faces. They were unsure of the future and yet very euphoric that they had come back alive. Villagers had to assist the freedom fighters with food and water,” said 75-year-old Peter Chikwekwete of Buhera.
Chikwekwete vividly recalled how some comrades, who out of excitement went some distance out of the camp and were not seen for three days only to be found in shallow graves 20 kilometres from Dzapasi.
It was clear Rhodesian forces had committed the massacre. Yet to this day this atrocity is not documented in the history books.
There were various options for freedom fighters. One needed to fill a form indicating whether he/she wanted to join the new integrated army, seek employment or resume education.
The majority decided to join the new army while others opted for the police.
What got lost and probably never got historical documentation was that a large number of comrades never made it to the new Zimbabwe as they were callously butchered by Rhodesian forces en route to assembly points.
And today, the ruins of Dzapasi and other assembly points stubbornly stand as reminders of an epistle yearning proper recognition and fully contextualised in Zimbabwe’s historiography.
It is only this year when the Zimbabwean Government declared Dzapasi Assembly Point a national monument. Yet very few Zimbabweans are aware that it was at Dzapasi that Zimbabwe’s formal independence epilogue was symbolically initiated when the then Zanla Commander Rex Nhongo shook hands with Rhodesian Army Commander Bertie Barnard and lowered the British flag while the new Zimbabwean flag was hoisted in February 1980.
The significance of Dzapasi can never be underestimated. It was Dzapasi that heralded the birth of an independent Zimbabwe condemned the Rhodesian military machine into the dustbins of history. At the centre of Dzapasi camp was Chiuwi Primary School, which was closed in 1975 but is now operational. All around the school, debris left by combatants have resisted the vagaries of weather.
It was out of weight of this historical significance that the Minister of Rural Development, Preservation and Promotion of National Culture and Heritage, Cde Abednico Ncube on the advice of National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe decided to declare Dzapasi a national monument.