A Rhodesian Canberra bomber attacks Westlands Farm, Lusaka, Zambia in 1978. We were next door neighbours when the bombs fell.
The recent fall of the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe in November last year brought back painful memories of my own unwitting involvement in that country’s history. My parents emigrated to Zambia with my brother and I in 1968 shortly after its independence. For two small boys aged 6 and 7 it was a thrilling childhood full of adventure and excitement. The Zambian people are among the most beautiful and friendly in Africa and the country was prosperous thanks to its abundance of copper and its fertile farms.
I remember our camping trips to the game parks and the visits to the stunning Victoria Falls. I admired the majestic lions and the magnificent elephants, rhinos and giraffe. It was a place where the Zambians and Europeans mixed freely in mutual respect and friendship. At times I felt like I was living in a Garden of Eden.
A hundred miles to our south, the situation in Rhodesia as it was then called, was very different. Unlike Zambia, the white led government of Ian Smith had resisted the tide of African self-rule and had declared UDI against the British. The 300,000 whites in Rhodesia ran the government, business and most of the large farms for over sixteen years. Ian Smith had the support of the apartheid government of South Africa and against all expectations and global sanctions, Rhodesia prospered. The white Rhodesians had one of the highest standard of living in the world but over time their relationship with the African population deteriorated and the situation became untenable.
Meanwhile in Zambia, our economy worsened as the country became a one-party dictatorship and the genial and clean-living but misguided President Kenneth Kaunda flirted with socialism. When my parents bought a farm on the northern outskirts of Lusaka in the mid 1970’s, shortages of essential commodities became commonplace. To make matters worse, President Kaunda took the fateful decision to harbour an army of ‘ZAPU’ guerrillas who were fighting for Zimbabwean independence against Ian Smith’s Rhodesian regime.
Of all the places in Zambia that President Kaunda could have picked to locate the guerrilla base, he chose Westlands Farm which shared a long boundary with our own farm. We would frequently wave to the guerrillas as we drove past their training camp in our little red Fiat 127 on the way to town. The well-armed guerrillas became our polite but volatile new neighbours.
The political leader of the ZAPU guerrillas was a man called Joshua Nkomo and in September 1978 he looked like a man on the brink of history. He had the ear of both the British government and Zambia’s president Kaunda. Nkomo held secret peace negotiations with Ian Smith of Rhodesia who had realised a peaceful settlement was preferable to a long and bloody civil war. But then the inexplicable happened.
On the 3rd September 1978, a civil airliner, Air Rhodesia flight 825 carrying 52 passengers and 4 crew was shot down by ZAPU guerrillas. 38 innocent people died in the crash and of the survivors, 10 were rounded up by the guerrillas and executed. Only 8 lived to tell the tale. It was a horrific act of brutality which ended the aspirations of Nkomo to become the first president of an independent Zimbabwe. From that moment, his international supporters regarded him as toxic and their support moved to his more extreme rival Robert Mugabe who was to rule Zimbabwe with an iron fist for the next 40 years. The event also led to brutal retaliations against Zambia from the Rhodesian armed forces.
On 19th October 1978, in what became known as the ‘Green Leader’ raid, the Rhodesians launched one of the most audacious air attacks in history against Westlands Farm (renamed as Freedom Camp). A squadron of Hawker Hunters, Canberra bombers and Alouette attack helicopters flew 100 miles across Zambian airspace and bombed Freedom Camp just as the guerrillas were parading on the central square. Luckily my brother and I were still at boarding school in the UK, but my father described how he dived into a nearby ditch to take cover and how the glass in our farm shattered from the exploding bombs. The attack resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives and the destruction of Freedom Camp.
In one of the most famous aircraft broadcasts in history, the leader of the bombing mission known as Green Leader, calmly instructed the Lusaka air traffic controller to pass a message on to the Zambian air force not to interfere with the raid. Just as calmly and politely, the air traffic controller acknowledged the instruction. Video footage of the raid can be viewed below in a dramatic seven-minute YouTube clip. It is not for the faint hearted. If you do not like bad language or the harrowing implications of the bombing raid you are advised not to watch the video. In the video, just as the bombs are being released, our family farm looms into view. It is almost as if our farm is the target of the raid. The discovery of the video clip had a profound impact on myself and my brother.
In July 1979, my brother and I returned to our farm in Zambia for our long summer holiday. There had been a second raid on Freedom Camp in March that year and tensions were high. My brother and I still waved to the survivors in our red Fiat, but many of the guerrillas were deeply suspicious of the young white schoolboys who they believed may have had a hand in passing intelligence to the Rhodesians. Many guerrillas had abandoned Freedom Camp and were ‘living off the land’ with their AK47 machine guns. Inevitably our farm was attacked by an armed gang and tragically one of our farm workers was killed. As luck would have it, my brother and I had chosen to spend the night in Lusaka and missed the raid by a few hours. We will never know if we were the intended targets.
The Rhodesian war ended a few months later and our ZAPU neighbours returned to an independent Zimbabwe. Many of the white Rhodesians blamed the politicians for betraying their beleaguered white run country. No-one can deny their bravery or fighting skills, but how much better would it have been if Ian Smith had followed the Zambian model in 1964? There would have been no civil war and it is unlikely that the despotic president Robert Mugabe would have wrecked the economy of the once prosperous nation and caused such widespread social unrest. But with the recent fall of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe is at the threshold of a new dawn. I wish the country, its new president Emmerson Mnangagwa and its long-suffering people of all races the very best for the future. May it be prosperous and peaceful one.