The Case of Elim Mission 'Massacre' During Zimbabwe's Liberation War: Will the Truth Ever be Known?

Author:Dzimbanhete, Jephias Andrew


This article interrogates the evidence that has been used to identify the perpetrators of Elim mission 'massacre'. This event took place during the war of decolonization when Africans in Rhodesia engaged in an armed struggle against the white colonists. Attempts to achieve independence through constitutional means had come to naught because the white settlers stood in the way of independence for the Africans. Africans to the north of Rhodesia in Zambia, Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania had been granted independence in the early 1960s and the Africans in Rhodesia had hoped for the same. The white Rhodesians declared independence from Britain in November 1965 thus underlining the fact that they were not prepared to give independence to the Africans. Most of the black nationalists were incarcerated by the white government of Ian Smith, who was the Prime Minister of Rhodesia. It became very clear to the Africans that they had to resort to an armed struggle against the recalcitrant white Rhodesians to gain independence.

The leadership of the two liberation movements namely the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) who had survived arrest initiated the armed struggle from exile. From the mid-1960s the armed wings of the two nationalist parties waged a war of liberation against the white Rhodesians. The two armed wings were the Zimbabwe African People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA). The two liberation armies were based in Zambia and infiltrated into Rhodesia from this sanctuary. It was after Mozambique gained its independence in 1975 that ZANU and its liberation army (ZANLA) moved out of Zambia and established their base in Mozambique. The theatres of operation for the two liberation armies became clearly defined as they infiltrated into Rhodesia from different host countries. ZANLA's area of operation covered the whole of the eastern part of Rhodesia whilst ZIPRA's covered mainly the north-western part of Rhodesia. It was commonplace that civilians in the rural areas, where most of the fighting took place, were murdered and the fighting factions denied responsibility and blamed the other. This was the case with the Elim Mission incident which occurred in the battlefield that pitted the Rhodesian security forces against the ZANLA guerrilla fighters. This event that took place in 1978 has been cited to have epitomised the brutalities associated with this kind of war. Writing in 1982, Caute, a journalist-cum-author wrote that on the night of 23 June 1978 violent death came to Elim Pentecostal mission when eight missionaries and four of their children were savagely murdered. (1) The two adversaries in this part of Rhodesia namely the Rhodesian security forces and the ZANLA forces blamed each other for the killings

The Rhodesian security forces and ZANLA recorded their activities during the war. Rhodesian military records are said to have been either destroyed or spirited to South Africa in 1980. (2) The wartime Rhodesian military records in South Africa have been made accessible largely to researchers who are sympathetic to the white Rhodesians. (3) The truth from these documents will forever remain hidden because no one among the writers would want to tarnish the name of the glamorised Rhodesian regime forces. ZANLA's war records are kept at Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) headquarters in Harare and have not been opened up to the public because access to them is still somehow restricted. (4) Most of ZANLA's war records have not been sorted out and properly catalogued. Once the process of filing ZANLA records has been completed and full access is granted to the public perhaps then the truth may come out. This is only if a group of the ZANLA forces was responsible. In circumstances of this nature the validity of oral testimonies may be questionable because these could have been manipulated to advance certain positions. Documentary records from each of the warring parties could unlock the mystery of who between them had the missionaries' blood on their hands. (5)

Many 'dirty tricks' that were committed by units of Rhodesian armed forces might not have been recorded. The 1975 Indemnity and Compensation Act gave the Rhodesian security forces the carte blanche to kill with impunity.

Among the units of the Rhodesian security forces, suspicion fell on the Selous Scouts largely because they were dispensers of 'dirty tricks' during the war and after the war they showered themselves with accolades for having used these 'dirty tricks" successfully. (6) The Selous Scouts were able to achieve their goals when an operational area was temporarily banned or "frozen" to all other Rhodesian army units for the sole reason that the former were disguised as ZANLA guerrillas and in danger from the other units. (7) My contention is that even if no record of the killings was made, available Rhodesian military documents could indicate for example that the area around Elim might have been "frozen" during the time of the massacre. This could provide a lead to the perpetrators of the murders. On the other hand, ZANLA commanders were obliged to produce field reports but sometimes they did not compile these reports but information in some of the reports might provide clues to implicate them if they were responsible. Whilst there are strong possibilities that reports from both camps could have been censored and destroyed chances are that some of the reports might have survived. These could possibly provide leads to the culprits.

Examination of Literature on the Elim Massacre

Existing literature (which is very limited) that has focused on the killing of the missionaries at Emmanuel Secondary School in the Vumba Mountains has come mainly from white Rhodesians and their sympathisers. (8) This section aims to subject these to scrutiny and interrogate the evidence that was used to conclude that ZANLA forces were responsible for the brutal murder of the missionaries. This literature could have drawn from sources that were part of the avalanche of propaganda that was peddled to depict ZANLA forces as "terrorists" bent on committing acts of brutalities. (9) However, the involvement of academics in this debate makes this discussion not only appropriate but relevant.

Caute, who has paid some attention on the Elim event, showing sympathy with the white Rhodesians said that the testimonies of black teachers and pupils at Elim Mission were unanimous: the killer gang had identified themselves as ZANLA freedom fighters. (10) He proceeded to mention that Elias Chikashana, Deputy Headmaster and Andrew Tinonesana, a teacher, giving evidence to the inquest on 21 August, recalled how six guerrillas in balaclavas had arrived at the classrooms at about 8.30 in the evening and had marshalled all 250 pupils for an open air meeting. (11) The...

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