Sifelani Tsiko Senior Writer
As Zimbabwe celebrates its 39th year of Independence, as Africans we have either chosen to ignore or have been brainwashed to forget the terrible things white Rhodesians did to our own freedom fighters in the 16-year protracted armed war of liberation.
We have chosen to roam around, like one writer says: “Roam around the world like a tortoise without a shell. He has no backbone. Zero identity. Thus no race respects him.”
We have come to hate ourselves so much that we despise our African roots, our history and the difficult journey we walked to attain our freedom.
As black Zimbabweans, we now pin our hopes and life on white America and Europe, forgetting the terrible things whites did to us as blacks.
One of the worst and darkest episodes of our history that is least talked about or that Western countries do not want to talk about is the chemical and biological warfare programme which was used to maintain the minority white settler regime.
Rhodesian agents and some medical doctors and researchers breached medical ethics and engaged in the apartheid government’s chemical and biological warfare (CBW) programme.
Books and archival materials are now exposing how white Rhodesians used the CBW to try and maintain white minority rule.
The books and archived materials are rarely found in local libraries or even in online platforms in an attempt to keep this away from blacks.
Even if it’s there, as Africans, we still lack a reading culture to learn our history and understand the cruel and inhuman strategies which were employed by the Rhodesian agents to eliminate Zanla and Zipra guerrillas fighting the white minority government of Ian Smith.
One book titled: “Dirty war: Rhodesia and Chemical-Biological Warfare 1975-1980,” by Glenn Cross, published in 2017 sheds some useful insights into the cruel and barbaric methods employed by the Rhodesian agents.
Glenn Cross, a US government CBW expert argues that in its attempt to defend white rule, Rhodesian white settler agents killed 1 000 to 2 500 people with CBWs, including hundreds or more in Mozambique.
“The first use of CBW was before Mozambican independence. In 1973, the Rhodesian army began to poison wells in Gaza and Tete with cholera (vibrio cholerae), in part to force guerrillas moving over the border to take other routes where they could be more easily shot.
“The water supply of a Frelimo garrison in Malvernia, Gaza, was contaminated by cholera in 1975 and an estimated 200 people died. Water for a village in Tete was contaminated in 1976, perhaps killing hundreds,” he writes in his book.
“From 1976, Rhodesia moved on to chemical poisons, used to contaminate clothing, food, beverages and medicines.
“These were based on chemicals readily available in Rhodesia. Most important was parathion, an organophosphate insecticide applied to cotton, rice and fruit. For humans, it disrupts the nervous system and is absorbed via skin and mucous membranes.
“Preparation was rudimentary. Liquid parathion was spread on steel roofing sheets to dry in the sun, to eliminate the smell. The flakes were pounded into powder in a mortar with a pestle. The powder was brushed on underpants and t-shirts, or they were put into a tank to soak in a poison liquid.
“The other important poison was thallium, used as rat poison and thus locally available. Thallium was spread on maize meal and injected into cans of meat and beverages.”
Because the guerrillas were being supplied by local people inside Rhodesia and in Mozambique, Cross says the Rhodesian Special Branch tried to poison supplies that were being left for or sent to guerrillas by finding caches and substituting poisoned goods or by corrupting the contact men doing the supplying.
“This system leaked, so poisonings were reported at local hospitals, for example of men who had bought poisoned underwear,” he writes.
The evidence that is emerging from documents by retired white Rhodesian and South African agents, their military memos, personal photos and personal recollections is shocking and uncovers the true extent of the covert CBW weapons programme that used human experiments, massive plots to murder blacks using poisoned beer and anthrax, assassinations attempts through poisoned clothes, tampered tools and exploding letters.
As black Africans, we have failed to understand the gravity of the CBW programme which still presents itself today in the form of the deadly cholera outbreaks which have killed thousands of people in the post-independence era.
Rhodesian agents also used anthrax to wipe out thousands of cattle — store of wealth for the majority black people in most communal areas as they sought to stop supplies by the people to guerrilla fighters.
Due to the pressing economic hardships, a combination of a poor reading culture and sheer ignorance, we have been discouraged to speak out against the inhumanity of the white Rhodesian CBW programme.
“During raids on guerrilla bases, poisoned food and medicine would be left.
Warfarin, another rat poison, was put into food in Zanla camps in Sofala Province in 1977 and 1978, with some deaths,” a defence and security analyst wrote.
“From 1975, the CBW team used Selous Scouts bases at Mt Darwin and Bindura.
“Testing to determine the lethal dose of various poisons was done on captured guerrillas and supporters held at these bases, and bodies were dumped in a nearby mine. The testing, for example, showed that parathion had to be mixed with dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) to increase absorption and lethality.
“The CBW programme had links to a similar one in apartheid South Africa at the same time, and CBW experts report that South Africa was the conduit for up to $1 million per month of money from Saudi Arabia to the Rhodesian CIO.”
Cross estimates that CBWs caused 15 percent of insurgent deaths, and notes “that rate of loss due to CBW use would be unprecedented in the history of warfare.”
Security and defence researchers say the 1978-1979 anthrax outbreak by Rhodesian agents killed hundreds of thousands of cattle belonging to the black community.
They also say it caused considerable illness in the black population.
Even though correct figures where difficult to calculate, experts indicate that the outbreak affected more than 11 000 people, including an estimated 200 who died.
Sources interviewed by Cross indicate that the outbreak resulting from the intentional introduction of anthrax into “native areas” (communal areas) was made ostensibly to infect cattle and deprive insurgents of a source of food.
Soon after Independence, Rhodesian intelligence agents made every effort to destroy records and strategies that were employed under the CBW programme.
They wanted to make it impossible for the new Government in 1980 and researchers in the post-independence period to determine the complexity of the CBW programme and more importantly the responsibility of it.
Western foreign intelligence organisations have professed ignorance, but Zanla and Zipra war veterans still maintain that CIA and British operatives pretty much supported the Rhodesian chemical and biological warfare activities, albeit clandestinely.
But recent memoirs by former Rhodesian agents and declassified US and British government documents now highlight how Rhodesian and apartheid South Africa agents maimed and killed thousands of blacks in the fight against colonialism.
“Many of the victims’ stories remain silent, killed with their unidentified bodies destroyed without a trace.
“Among the victims were at least 200 members of Namibia’s liberation movement SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation), killed by lethal injection between 1979 and 1988. Several members of Renamo, Mozambique’s rebel movement, were also killed by lethal injection in 1983.
“Some, like the senior ANC’ leaders Pallo Jordan and Ronnie Kasrils, lived to tell the tale when assassinations by poisoned umbrellas and then a ‘modified’ screwdriver, failed,” wrote Lynsey Chutel in 2016, in an article titled: “Decades later, apartheid South Africa’s chemical and biological weapons programme is still hidden.”
The Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe and operating from Mozambique and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo and operating from Zambia led the armed struggle against the Smith regime.
The 16-year protracted armed struggle claimed the lives of more than 20 000 people, other war veterans put the figure at up to 40 000 — all war-related deaths.
Losses in the Rhodesian security forces were put at 1 120 dead, while some 500 white civilians were killed by guerrillas, including 107 passengers in two Air Rhodesia airliners shot down by Zipra fighters.
All this point to the need for further research in understanding the Rhodesian CBW programme and its linkages to the current debate on the origins of Aids and the deepening problem of anthrax and cholera in Zimbabwe.
James Baldwin once said: “History is not about the past. It’s about the present.
“We take it with us, we cannot escape our history . . . It is through this prism of our history that we see the world.
“What was done in the past and the present affects us now whether directly or indirectly.”
His message is quite instructive and calls on all Africans to firmly understand their history — the injustices perpetrated against them as well their current predicament characterised by self-hate, poor understanding of their history and the common enemy against Africa’s interest and agenda.