Thursday, August 30, 2012

The One Week War II

The One Week War signaled the end of the colonial era in Southern Africa, and the end of Apartheid with it.  At the end of the first part of the story, a largely white revolution against the decision by the new Portuguese government to hand Mozambique to Frelimo is brewing.  Wilf Nussey continues his eye witness account of the events that could easily have led to a bloodbath.  The photographs are ones that he and his team took at the time.

Sunday, September 8, saw the haphazard rebellion begin to jell. A collection of right-wingers formed the Movement of Free Mozambique (MFM) and produced their own flag, a concoction of Mozambican and Portuguese symbols.
MFM at Radio Clube
They seized the large Radio Clube de Moçambique building in the city centre and made it their headquarters, broadcasting a stream of appeals in Portuguese, English and African languages for support. Volunteers armed with a motley assortment of guns self-importantly stood sentry at doors and windows and on the roof.
It was another day of noisy parades and motorcades. Samora Machel warned that if the Portuguese did not squash the MFM Frelimo would resume the guerilla war.
The Portuguese took the threat seriously. They sent heavily armed military police into Beira to disperse 2 000 mainly white demonstrators with teargas. A black policeman was seriously hurt when a grenade exploded on his chest.
In LM happy crowds celebrated outside the Radio Clube. I went in and found a bedlam of waving arms and loud voices as dozens of politicians fought, pleaded and argued for places in power. Taking pictures was banned - nobody wanted to be identified later.
In the tin shanties and grass huts of the bairros on the city outskirts the black population were ominously quiet early on Sunday. We tried to go in but, perhaps fortunately, it was not possible because the Portuguese police and troops were not cooperative.
The airport route was passable, however. Travellers had been driving the few kilometres between airport and city through the Xipamanine/Lagoa area, known as “Grasstown”. We had trekked back and forth several times to send film to Johannesburg.
Tom and I hired one of the few taxis still doing business and asked the driver to go by a familiar back route through a small industrial area parallel to the main airport road. He was a fat, phlegmatic middle-aged Portuguese wearing the usual floppy peaked cap.
The back route was strangely still. Not a soul in sight. All the warehouses and workshops were closed. Half a dozen overturned trucks and cars lay beside the street, some burned out. It looked abandoned, quieter than it should be even on a Sunday. Our driver became nervous and heaved a sigh of relief when we reached the airport, which was busy with activity because a plane was about to leave.
In the parking area a convoy was forming up, a motley collection of cars, bakkies and trucks. Civilians armed with an assortment of firearms from pistols to rifles and shotguns rode on the truck platforms.
Nobody could tell me what was going on, only that the convoy was heading for the city.
Why now, suddenly?
Our cabbie was getting more nervous and Tom was looking anxious. He had not yet experienced much urban violence and the atmosphere was ominous.
There was nothing we could do. The choice was to stay at the airport for God knows how long or join the convoy into town. We tagged on with one or two cars behind us. Just in front of us was a large truck with high side walls. A dozen or more men stood there.
We moved off at the slow pace set by the lead vehicle, forcing our driver to travel in second or third gear. Outside the car park the tarred road narrowed and the reed-and-thatch huts and palms of Grasstown jostled close.
At first there were few signs of life but as we moved deeper into Grasstown more and more black people began to appear on both sides twenty to thirty metres away - men, women and children, all shouting and waving fists at the convoy. Men on the trucks waved flags and shouted insults back.
A few stones sailed through the air towards us.
The men on the lorry ahead reacted instantly. Long barrels suddenly appeared above the side walls. We heard the sharp crackle of rifle fire and the deep thuds of shotgun blasts. The blacks melted away into the long grass and narrow gaps between their huts.
Our cabbie went into panic mode. He began yelling and gesticulating in anger. He glared back at us accusingly, face pale with fear. He pounded the steering wheel but there was not a thing he could do. He dared not leave the convoy, which was occupying the centre of the road. Tom, too, looked as if he wanted to get the hell out of there right now. I saw his eyes widen like saucers at something ahead and looked up.
A Portuguese motorist met his end on the airport road
A couple of corpses lay at the roadside, one a man lying flat on his back, the toes of his shoes pointing skywards, arms at his sides, his head pulped to mush by chunks of concrete lying beside him, blood spreading in a large pool. The other was equally battered.
As we slowly passed about two metres away I ignored the driver screaming Portuguese imprecations and photographed the bodies.
The journey could not have lasted more than ten to 15 minutes. With the adrenalin rush it seemed to zoom by in seconds. When we reached the end, a small police post where the Grasstown ended and the city began, our cab jerked to a stop. The cabbie flung open the rear doors and shouted “Go! Go!”
He did not wait for his money. The old taxi clattered away probably faster than it had ever travelled before.
Portuguese soldier
The convoy was of over-exuberant rebels driving celebratory cavalcades between airport and city and picking off blacks like shooting pigeons. It was like poking a stick into a hornets’ nest.
Blacks erupted from the huts and shanties and fell upon one passing parade. They pelted the vehicles with a hail of stones, dragged out some drivers and beat them up, killing three, including those I saw.
Back at the Polana it was so peaceful it felt surreal writing about the day’s happenings. Next day, Monday, September 9, the airport route was made safe by soldiers.                                                                                                                      
At that point it was anybody’s guess how long this uprising would last although it was patently doomed to fail. Frelimo was hugely supported in the LM region although it did not yet have military muscle there.
In South Africa hard-core Nationalists were urging the government to support the rebels and so fulfil the old Transvaal Republic’s ambition of controlling LM. Rumours were widespread that Defence Minister P W Botha had moved army units close to the border.
After another day at the frontline we trekked back through time to sup on grilled prawns in hot piri-piri sauce, crayfish and superb steaks washed down with fine Portuguese wines. With all tourists gone the service was overwhelming.
Demonstration at Radio Clube
Tuesday, September 10: the Radio Clube had become the main gathering place for rebel supporters. The street outside was filled by up to 10 000 cheering men, women and children.
Rumours were flying around that the air force would send Fiat jets to rocket the building.
A Colonel Tavares, commander of the uniformed civil police, drove up to the Radio Clube. The crowd welcomed him, assuming he was coming to support them.
Then came the crunch: a broadcast by the MFM announcing they were handing over the Radio Clube to the civil police.
As the stunning news poured from radios the mood outside changed to anger. When Tavares emerged they focused on him. They rocked his car and he had to put his foot down hard to escape.
Minutes later paratroops backed by armoured vehicles moved slowly up the street. They were stopped by a mob of people yelling insults and calls of “Traitor!” A sky-shouter plane circled low telling people to go home.
Tom and I were watching when suddenly several thunderous blasts shook the air, almost deafening us. They were percussion bombs – thunderflashes – dropped by paratroops from the building to scare away the crowd.
It worked. Most fled like water downhill, urged on by a flurry of shots fired into the air from automatic weapons.
They almost bowled us over and we fled too, just around the corner.
The MFM began leaving the building. Women wept. Most went unobtrusively through a back door. They abandoned an assortment of hastily acquired weapons from shotguns to heavy machine-guns and grenades.
“This is not the end, my friend, it is only the beginning,” an MFM chief told me as he departed.
He was half right. The violence was spreading.
The tension was almost tangible and the danger of a backlash very real. Luckily the army kept their cool. Had just one shot been fired then, by troops or the MFM, the scene could have turned into a bloodbath.
Because it was impossible to get into the black areas without the probability of getting killed we could not personally check conditions there. But there was action aplenty.
Portuguese Air Force men under a Colonel Cardoso led a charge by 300 men from their base on the other side of the airport runway to recapture the terminal and control tower. There was some gunfire in which an MFM man was hit and an unfortunate passenger was shot accidentally as he arrived from Beira. He died in hospital.
All commercial flights to and from South Africa were stopped. Blacks in the bairros blocked the airport road with tree trunks and stones but let African buses through.
Word trickled in about vigilantes hunting blacks in the bairros.
Crazily, in much of downtown LM life began to look almost normal. Some shops, sidewalk cafes and restaurants had reopened.
But then it was a crazy week. We rushed around gathering information, getting near to hotspots, interviewing rebels and Frelimos. After the rush we relaxed at a sidewalk cafe with coffee and with brandy. Some evenings we dined in the Polana, others at a tiny restaurant which served a delicious dish of prawns piri-piri on yellow rice.
It was a comfortable little war.
It peaked on the Tuesday night and early Wednesday amid a flurry of alarms, the beginnings of a panicky flight of civilians from the city and the first grim tally of casualties.
An official announcement said about a hundred people had been killed or wounded. The total was certainly higher: more than a hundred wounded had been treated at the city hospital alone.
Frelimo soldier
Soldiers chased us away when we tried to get into the hospital, where wounded were lying on the floor because all beds were occupied. A doctor said the hospital morgue was crammed.
Troops were struggling to contain mobs of Africans rampaging through the outer suburbs and threatening to spill into the city centre. The city shut up shop again when rumours spread that blacks were planning a mass march of about 2 500 into the centre. White anxiety ran high. Strong forces of police and army backed by armoured cars sealed off the entrances to shanty towns.
Sporadic rifle fire, machine-gun bursts and heavy explosions came from inside the townships but there was still no way we could go in.
Escaping traders said all the schools and shops had been ransacked and destroyed and houses and vehicles burned. Some had lost all they owned. Troops had fired shots in the air to scare off looters. Debris and the hulks of cars and trucks littered the roads.
An army major said the violence was not political: “They are just in a wild mood and completely out of hand.”
I wondered what made the borderline between “wild” and “political” in Africa.
A band of black people marched towards the posh Polana suburb after a vigilante shot dead a black woman. Police and troops supported by an armoured car blocked the road. They warned white onlookers to go away or risk being shot.
I sent Deon in our Peugeot to check. He took with him an Associated Press reporter and a photographer.
They found the marchers and security forces gone. The road blocks of heavy stones had been dismantled. Deon drove on. A little further a crowd of blacks materialised from nowhere. Deon stopped.
A young black offered to escort them in exchange for cigarettes. He warned: “If you see a crowd, give the one-finger Frelimo salute. A two-fingered salute will mean trouble.”
One finger meant one government for Mozambique: Frelimo. Two meant you supported two governments, Frelimo and the rebels, and invited death.
A little further a much larger crowd barred the road. One man brandished an axe. They milled around the car as it was searched. Their leader warned them not to go on, they would be dead already had they been Portuguese, he said.
They turned around in a hurry and then came the shock: all the dismantled roadblocks had been rebuilt. If they had been forced to flee they would have been trapped.
Not a soul was in sight, no troops, no blacks.
Deon, a strong man, hastily got out of the car and heaved aside enough boulders for them to drive through. Nobody appeared, nobody tried to stop them. They could feel the hair rising on the backs of their necks.
That night Joaquim Chissano, deputy to Machel, broadcast an appeal for calm, aimed especially at blacks. He added a warning to Portuguese hotheads that they were outnumbered.
Next day, September 11, the violence continued. A senior police officer emerged from the townships, still shaking from shock and fatigue, to announce that the toll of killed, stabbed and beaten had risen to two hundred.
Three other events marked that day. One was the arrival of the first Portuguese High Commissioner, Rear Admiral Victor Crespo. Few diplomats have begun their assignments in more difficult circumstances.
The second was the arrival in two frigates and by plane of Portuguese troops. By now the army was pretty much in control of most of the city. Casualty figures fluctuated wildly. No-one will ever know how many bodies were left in unmarked graves in the urban jungle.
The third event was a trick borrowed by the authorities from the old guard dictators: censorship. They cut all telecommunication links from LM to the world. Phones were dead. Telexes could not link with any others. The city became an information island.
It sent the large force of foreign correspondents into a major flap. How could they justify their existence, and their expenses, if they could not feed the hungry readers? They debated all sorts of plans and in the end several decided that one of them would carry all their copy to South Africa and there file it to the various destinations. It was a long and dangerous trip followed by the tedious business of dictating copy by phone or laboriously punching it on to telex.
We too went into shock when we found ourselves with deaf and dumb telex machines. Hoping the blackout was temporary we punched up our copy on telex tapes to run them through the moment the lines opened. We waited and waited, becoming more agitated with each minute.
And then the inimitable staffer running the Salisbury bureau, John, came to the rescue. Our telex suddenly clattered into life with a message from him. We could file our copy via a link he had set up with the post office in Beira.
The link, I learned later, was a girl in the post office there, one of his amorous conquests. When he heard of the blackout he contacted her by phone because Beira had not been cut off entirely. Never have so many owed so much to one screw.
We fed our tapes into our machine and the copy was relayed straight through Beira to Salisbury to our South African papers in time for deadlines.
It was something of a scoop and they emblazoned our reports on the front pages. We were way ahead of everybody; our opposition carried hardly a word.
It was a tough day. We slaved to meet edition after edition. After sunset we prowled the murky Indian market to exchange our rands for six to eight times more than the official rate to keep our operation going.
It was dark when Tom, Deon and I drove back to the Polana thirsting for a beer or three and supper. As we walked through the foyer past the porter’s desk and into the huge main lounge, several score frustrated newsmen rose to their feet and descended on us. They had heard our reports being quoted by South African radio, how did we get the news out?
Deon and Tom on either side of me looked at each other and grinned. They broke into a soft-shoe shuffle, side to side, arms akimbo, and burst into song.
“We are the boys of the ANS,
“The ANS boys are we,
“We are the boys of the ANS,
“We all work for Wilf Nussey!”
The news mob dissolved in laughter. It as a great moment for me.
The next day tension began to ease as both sides ran out of steam. Hunger and the Portuguese forces tightened their grip. The authorities lifted the censorship and our phone and direct telex lines came back to life.
By Friday, September 13, the One Week War was all over bar the shouting. Remonstration replaced demonstration. To put the final nail in the coffin of rebel hopes an East African Airways plane arrived from Nairobi with 70 Frelimo troops - the first tangible, visible mark of the Frelimo takeover. Soon after them came another Portuguese frigate loaded this time with Frelimos, making 200 in all. They carried well-worn AK-47s.
Here was the nightmare of most Mozambican whites come to life: the hated, despised and feared Frelimo guerillas, the perpetrators of atrocities, the vanguard of black nationalism, taking over their country and property.
The guerillas obviously were under strict orders to behave and not to provoke. They appeared in the streets, diplomatically outside the city centre used mostly by whites, followed by small bands of hero-worshipping black children.
Admiral Crespo held his first news conference. There would be no reprisals, he promised. Combined Frelimo and Portuguese patrols were keeping the peace.
Portuguese exodus to South Africa
But the mass exodus of whites had begun. It was led by seven leading former secret police officers and their families who were flown back to Portugal from Beira in an air force transport. At least one never made it: Francisco “Frank the Ugly” Langa, “The Butcher of Machava” and one of the most feared interrogators, was caught and killed by rioters.
Welcome rally for Samora Machel
There were some quirky final touches. Daniel Roxo, the militant spokesman for the MFM, blew himself up with a hand grenade. Carlos “Ginger Joe” Rocha, the criminal who escaped, gave himself up. Life on the run in the new Mozambique was not quite as nice as in prison, he said.
Machel delightedly greets the Chinese delegation
Thereafter it was just bits and pieces for us. A last feature summed it up: “One young soldier angrily swinging the buckle on the end of his army belt has triggered an explosion of violence, hate and fear that has changed Mozambique forever and drawn open the curtains on a blindingly uncertain future.
“The old, easy-going Mozambique of wine and sun and prawns piri-piri in an antiquated Portuguese colonial atmosphere has been eradicated by a dramatic week.”
Nothing had changed at the Polana hotel yet, except its guests. Seated at the next table at our last lunch were a large, fat, dark-complexioned man in a badly cut, three-piece black suit that looked bullet-proof, a large, fat, dark-complexioned woman in a similar suit and a six o-clock shadow matching her husband’s, and two children who could have been cloned from them. They said little and we could not understand a word.
They were Bulgarians. The Soviet bloc had sent him to teach the Mozambicans how to grow, of all things, mealies.

Wilf Nussey

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