Thursday, August 16, 2012

The One Week War

In April, 1974, when a group of thoroughly fed up Portuguese officers toppled their dictatorship, the shock was felt in several parts of the world but mostly in Southern Africa where it precipitated massive change.
Right after their coup, the junta of Portuguese generals grandly promised “democratic self-determination through negotiation and consultation” with all in their former colonies.
There followed a long hiatus. Internecine fighting erupted in Angola. In Mozambique nothing happened. Everybody waited tensely.
Then five months later, out of the blue, the generals unilaterally announced that the Frelimo movement – their former enemies - were the rightful rulers of Mozambique. In five days’ time, at midnight on September 7, they would hand over to a transitional Frelimo government and grant full independence on June 25 the next year.
The turnabout triggered Mozambique’s sad and futile One Week War.

Wilf Nussey was a newspaperman for forty years, all but four of them in Africa. He was the foremost foreign correspondent for the large Argus group of newspapers for many years spanning most of Africa’s transition to independence and its continuing upheavals.  He was right in the heart of the One Week War in Mozambique, and here gives us an amazing eye witness account of a very murky and dangerous event in Africa’s very dangerous and murky history, illustrated by the actual photographs he and his team took at the time. 

Wilf’s on the spot experiences in Southern Africa and his knowledge of the politics of the time provide the background to his excellent thriller DARTS OF DECEIT.

               Part I
Covering conflicts in Africa is usually a grubby business in broiling desert or sodden bush trailing after a bunch of disorganised, unruly soldiery along a vague and fluid front line with the distinct possibility of getting one’s head shot off. By either side. Unless one is a member of that fraternity of pseudo-hacks who write their reports from the gossip gleaned in the hotel bar.
Sometimes we got lucky. As in the One Week War in Mozambique. Not a war, really, but a localised rebellion. But no less vicious and bloody than the big ones. And, unusually, it was urban.
In Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) and Beira the reaction by both pro-Frelimo and anti-Frelimo to the announcement of independence from Portugal was immediate and dramatic. The pros were mostly blacks with a fair number of whites, mainly students, and the antis were mostly whites with a sprinkling of conservative blacks.

A younger Wilf watches
protesting dock workers
I and my Argus Africa News Service crew were in the perfect position to watch the drama unfold. We had an office with a telex in Lourenço Marques and I always had at least one journalist there, just in case.
Conflict began in September, 1974. It was the strangest I have experienced: drive a few kilometres to watch confrontation, bloodshed and destruction; drive back into the lap of five-star luxury with cocktails, fine wines, gourmet food and rest. Then out again, and so on, and on.
      Rally at Machava stadium
A big Frelimo rally was scheduled for Friday, September 6, and I smelt trouble. I flew to join my staffer, Tom, taking with me Ruphin, a long-haired, bearded Belgian hippy photographer with a flared Edwardian jacket and a pipe exuding smoke so foul it could drop a fly at forty paces. We checked into the Polana hotel, the unofficial contact venue for media and politicians.
Frelimo supporters going to the big Machava stadium on the outskirts of LM were in no mood to brook interference: a white man with more bravura than brains got himself beaten to death by blacks when he tried to stop them.
By mid-afternoon more than 30 000 people were crammed into it celebrating their imminent independence. They were in a state of high political intoxication. They sang “Nkosi sikelele iAfrika” and other anthems, waved flags and banners and displayed huge posters of Samora Machel.
As an exercise in ideological rhetoric at maximum volume it was peaceful enough: lengthy, boring speeches bellowed through deafening amplifiers.
We headed back to town and then the trouble began.
It is startling yet stimulating to be in at the birth of a revolution, to see it bud as a small incident and flower into full-blown mayhem, like the South American peasant who saw smoke puff from the earth he was ploughing swell into a towering volcano.
In downtown LM the late afternoon atmosphere was trigger taut. Hardly anybody was working. The sidewalk cafes, restaurants and bars were filled with Portuguese. The subject on every tongue was the Frelimo takeover.
We sat at the Continental sidewalk cafe on the Avenida Republica over tiny cups of strong black coffee and Constantino brandy. All around us locals were drinking and jabbering, most of them men. The air was vibrant with anger.
Streams of cars and trucks passed back and forth, some filled with people flying Frelimo flags. A small saloon car came slowly past full of noisy white students exuberantly waving large Frelimo banners from all the windows and shouting slogans.
It was too much for one young soldier. He pulled off his belt, charged the car and swung the buckle to shatter the windscreen.
The car jerked to a stop. In seconds a wave of shirt-sleeved men rose from sidewalk tables and ran to it, all restraint snapped by the spark of violence. More rushed from the other side of the street. The car and students were surrounded by a bloodthirsty mob seeking outlet for their rage.
They smashed the windows and toppled the car on its side with the terrified students still inside. I was right there next to it shooting with my Leica.
A passing patrol of military policemen stopped and rescued the students. Civil police arrived and tried to control the growing crowd. An officer, Commissioner Fernando Segurado, raised his splayed hand to try to block my lens so I photographed him too. It made the front page.
The mob ignored the police, who gave up and left. Now grown to several hundred, they swirled along the avenida to a building housing two newspapers.
We tried to follow but they became aggressive so we chose discretion over stupidity and went to the fourth-floor rooftop of the Tivoli hotel where we could look right down on them.
They rolled a delivery van on to its roof and overturned two cars. They smashed the newspaper building’s windows and kicked in the glass double door.
Newspaper car overturned by anti-Frelimo rebels
As we watched our tame Belgian, Ruphin, casually strolled along the street below us towards the angry citizens, smoking his pipe and taking photos. They began yelling and pointing. A bunch ran up and grabbed him.
Oh God, I thought, Ruphin’s had it, the bloody novice, he’s dead meat. And then, astonishingly, they let him go, brushed him off and waved him on his way. He waved back and ambled on, leaving a trail of tobacco smoke that must have been as bad as teargas.
A few minutes later he arrived on our rooftop. They thought he was a newspaperman, he said, until he explained in French that he was an innocent tourist accidentally caught up in all this fascinating activity. Tourist was a buzzword in LM. They apologised and let him go.

Cafe wrecked by Frelimo rioters
Elsewhere in the city rioters smashed windows and threw petrol bombs into the offices of a magazine and a liberal politician who had already survived an assassination attempt.
That night the tensions exploded into widespread violence. Exuberant mobs of Frelimo supporters roamed the black bairros (suburbs) which almost surrounded the city’s landward side, stoning cars and traders’ shops.
Mobs of hysterical anti-Frelimo protesters plunged other city suburbs into chaos. About a hundred people raided a hostel and offices near the university, whose students were prominent in pro-Frelimo demonstrations. They methodically smashed plate glass windows while soldiers and police watched, then went inside. When everything was wrecked, the police made them leave. There was no doubt whose side they were on.
A dim-witted student shouted “Long live Frelimo!” The mob descended on him with chairs from a nearby sidewalk cafe and would have killed him had a passing army patrol not rescued him.
Some of the mob grabbed the barrels of their automatic rifles and tried to wrest them away. They stopped when the soldiers cocked their guns with ominous clicks.
Sumptuous lunch at the Polana
The most bizarre part of the scene was the spectators: people eating and drinking at cafes and restaurants while they leisurely enjoyed the mayhem. This became characteristic of the rebellion.
When it was over we retired to the exuberant décor of the Polana, sipped salted dogs at its comfortable bar and enjoyed a sumptuous dinner. War was a zillion miles away. It was a tough life.
In the dead of that night some clever rebels managed to elude troops guarding an ammunition dump outside LM and set it on fire. It blew up with a thump felt all over the city.
The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on the Polana verandah, we went downtown to watch as noisy cavalcades of cars filled with yelling young right-wingers waving Portuguese flags, led by motorcycles and buzzbikes with horns blaring.
Truckloads of blacks flaunting Frelimo banners passed them going to the Machava stadium for another mass gathering. White men leaped from their cars and tried to rip away the Frelimo flags. The confrontation was about to erupt into violence when traffic police, of all people, stopped it by moving the vehicles on.
The city was grinding to a halt. Water and electricity stopped when gangs stoned city vehicles in the bairros. A general strike by black workers shut down the remaining services and shops. Most whites stayed at home or settled down in a few cafes open for business to watch the fun, but tempers were fraying.
Our newspapers splashed the story all over their front pages, running fresh editions throughout the day. The rebellion struck a powerful chord: thousands of South Africans had holidayed in LM, everybody knew somebody who had been there, Mozambique was right next door to Natal and the Transvaal.
“20 000 Back Frelimo at Giant Rally in LM”
“LM stops work as Frelimo hailed”
“Mobs run amok in LM”
“LM on brink of anarchy”
The handover was due at midnight, September 7, technically ending four centuries of Lisbon rule.
It had no visible effect. After dark trouble spread. In Beira a grenade was tossed into a bank and angry crowds roamed the streets.
In LM a large crowd smashed into the civil prison in the Polana suburb to free about 200 members of the former Portuguese political police who were arrested after the coup. They also released one of South Africa’s most wanted men, the notorious criminal Carlos Rocha.
The prison was not far from the Polana hotel but could have been on another continent as far as the guests were concerned.

       A temporary victory
It was a strange sight. About a thousand spectators – men, women and children – watched in the pleasant, leafy suburb as the mob leaders tried to talk soldiers into releasing the men. While they talked Rocha somehow tipped off mob leaders from a window that the weakest point was a wooden door near the main door.
To distract the guards the crowd battered and overturned the prison commissioner’s car parked outside and threatened to set the whole prison alight. To back their threat they drove up a large truck and aimed it at the main door.
Others from the crowd went to the door marked by Rocha and rocked it until the lock snapped. They threw it wide and burst into the prison.
Confronting them were rows of soldiers armed with automatic weapons. Here was the recipe for a massacre.
It did not happen because people in the mob happily hugged the soldiers and told them “You can’t shoot us, we are also Portuguese.”
The security policemen fled, most to South Africa where many were taken into our Security Police and various Defence Force units.
By this time we were being run off our feet, trying to follow incidents all over the city almost around the clock. We were living on adrenalin supplemented by Laurentina beer, still in copious supply, thank God.
So I borrowed a reporter and a photographer from The Star and sent them to Beira, the new hotspot.

A tense moment
News of the upheaval brought a flock of foreign correspondents. The locals did not like it. A TV cameraman was punched. A photographer was threatened by angry whites, who backed off they learned he was South African – the Portuguese right-wingers all assumed South Africa was backing them.
Most came by air or road and one by train from the border. He complained that when the train broke down he had to help push it, a first for a British hack going to war.
Those coming by road had to run a gauntlet of blacks enraged by the actions of the whites in LM. Some were stopped by mobs armed with clubs and pangas who banged on the roofs of their cars and made them get out, stole their cigarettes and whisky and let them go reluctantly when they identified themselves as British.
At a road block one watched a black man beside the car sharpening the blade of a large panga on the tarmac. The man glanced up and grinned evilly at him as if he was next on the menu. They saw shops being plundered and fired and a burning car with two dead people in it, presumably whites.
Taxis ceased to run in LM and we needed a car. The Star sent me a Peugeot driven by Deon, a bright young reporter who brought with him a photographer and a couple of other journalists. Approaching LM they were brought to a stop by blacks manning crude road blocks.
Any attempt to barge through would bring certain death. Deon summoned all his persuasive talents and they let him through.
The consumption of liquor in the Polana soared that evening.

Wilf Nussey - TO BE CONTINUED  

1 comment:

  1. Wilf, I sure hope Ruphin will feature prominently in your novel. I love his style...

    And this is fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing.