issue 192 - February 1989
Dumba Nengue is a Mozambican expression which means
'trust your feet', 'think fast'. A bandit attack turned 25-year-old health
director Felisbella Gaspar into an instant expert. She tells her story...
It can't be,' I told him. 'It's not the right time for one,' It was 8 a.m. and the sun was already high. Renamo bandits normally strike after dark.
Then the thought crossed my mind: 'If there really is going to be an attack I had better be properly dressed for it.' So I went back to my house, which was just next door to the hospital, put on a pair of trousers and a blouse and took my documents. At that point some friends burst in and said they had seen soldiers running away from the barracks. These were the new recruits, who had been here a couple of weeks and had not yet received their weapons. The bandits had the town, Mandimba, surrounded. And there were hundreds of them.
'Not a good idea. Best to try and make it over the border to Malawi.'
The border was just five kilometres away. To get there we would have to cross two open spaces - a playing field and the airstrip. We decided to give it a go and started climbing over the hospital wall. But we soon ducked down again as bullets whistled past our ears.
From where we were we could see some of the awful things that were happening. People dragged out of their houses - or offices - and being killed. A man in a wheelchair being shot as he tried to make a getaway. Houses being looted. We sat tight, staying with the patients in the hospital. It was evening before the bandits reached us.
'Who are you? What are you doing here?'
I had to think fast. It was vital that they did not find out that I was a health worker or that I was working with the Government. If they discovered that, they would most likely kill or mutilate me.
'I'm a patient,' I said. 'I've come from Malawi for treatment.' Then off the top of my head I improvised: 'I've had a miscarriage recently and I'm still losing blood.' Actually, it was the best thing I could have said. The bandits frequently rape the women they capture. But there is a widely held belief that if you have sex with a woman who had recently miscarried you will catch tuberculosis.
The story worked. They immediately let go of me and said: 'Don't touch this woman.' Later, when they weren't looking I disposed of my documents and anything else that might identify me.
The bandits then rounded us up and took us to the Town Hall where we were to spend the night. There must have been about 1,000 of us crushed together. The next morning Frelimo forces launched a counterattack. It only lasted about half an hour and they went away again.
But the following day they were back. This attack lasted about two hours. I think it must have worried the bandit leaders because afterwards they decided it was time to head back for their base in the district of Maua. We - the people they had captured - were forced to carry all the things they had looted.
All afternoon we walked before settling down for the night in a sugar plantation by a river. On the opposite side was a small village. The bandits warned us that if any of our children made a noise they would be killed instantly.
The next morning, at dawn, I asked one of the leaders if I could go down to the river. I needed to go to the toilet, I said. I climbed down about 100 metres to the river bank. There were long stalks of cane growing out of the water and crocodile tracks in the mud. But that did not stop me: I took off my clothes and quickly slid down into the water. The river was very deep so I had to clutch onto the stalks of cane to keep afloat.
I waited. And waited. From 5 a.m. until about 10.30 a.m. Waiting for the bandits to make everyone move on. Eventually I heard them setting off. But I did not make a move until I was quite sure they had gone. Then I climbed out of the water and got dressed again.
I could see the mountains of Malawi in the distance. It still seemed the best place to go. So I half-walked, half-ran in that direction for about four hours. By this time I was barefoot, my clothes torn, my skin scratched and broken with thorns and prickles. But I kept looking at the mountain, thinking: 'On the other side of that is Malawi.'
The only people I came across were an old couple working their plot. I asked them if this was the shortest route to Malawi. They said 'yes', but added that I should wait for a while before continuing. They had recently seen some soldiers go by and they were not sure which side they were on. 'Stay here,' they said. 'We will hide you'. I stayed and talked with them for a while before concluding that the troops were more likely to be government forces. And besides the mountains (and Malawi) looked so near. So I set off again. I had not got very far when I came upon a couple of soldiers. Imagine how I felt when I recognized them as two of the bandits.
'You were with us last night weren't you?' said one. 'You are trying to run away aren't you?'
'Not at all! Thank God I have found you!' I said. I told them that I had gone down to the river because I had been losing blood. I must have passed out while I was down there because when I came to everyone had left. I had no idea what to do. I was a stranger here. I would die on my own. So I had tried to find the group again. I also mentioned that the old couple I had met had told me they had seen some 'comrades' go past.
'What "comrades"?' said the bandits in unison.
'I don't know. The old people said some of them were in uniform, some were not. I don't know if they were your soldiers or the others.'
This really got them worried.
'Let's go!' said one. 'Let's get back to the rest of the group. It's dangerous here. Come on.'
They were not altogether convinced by my story so when we got back to the rest of the group they asked other captives if they knew me. Of course I could see many familiar faces. But they denied all knowledge of me. They said they had first seen me a few days ago and they thought I had come from Malawi. The bandits warned us that if anybody tried to run away they would be killed.
The next day the bandits gave me a bizarre cocktail of medicines they had stolen from the clinic. I had to keep quiet while they injected me with penicillin, gave me anti-malarial tablets to swallow and just about anything else they had to hand.
Then we set off again, marching heavily laden for several hours. Some men managed to escape as they pretended to stop to rest. I lagged behind, saying I was losing blood and I felt weak. It was not until we had crossed three rivers and were just approaching the fourth that I spotted my chance. There was a big plot of cassava and some long grass. I could see that further ahead the countryside was quite open. This was the only opportunity I was likely to have. I dropped the bundle I was carrying and hid it in the grass. Then I slipped down into a dip which turned out to be a hole. I stayed in there, listening to people walking past, towards the river.
But, to my dismay, the bandits decided to stop for the night this side of the river. I stayed put. By this time I was very hungry and thirsty. I could hear them preparing food. But I stayed in the hole. At about 4 a.m. I heard them getting up and crossing the river. By eight in the morning everyone had crossed. Still, I did not dare move. By 9 a.m. there was a tremendous silence. All you could hear was the sound of running water.
Eventually I climbed out and decided to head back for Mandimba. I was exhausted but still I ran and ran, until I reached a village. I looked carefully before entering to make sure that the population was not armed. The local people explained to me that they were just coming in to get some things they needed. Normally they slept in the fields because they feared bandits would attack their village at night. After hearing my story they told me they had heard that Mandimba had been recaptured by government forces. It was safe now. Two of them offered to accompany me there - or anywhere else I wanted to go.
On the way we came across some Frelimo soldiers. I should have been relieved but by this time I felt so shattered that I was more afraid than ever. They started questioning me and for the first time I burst into tears. After comforting me they took me with them back to the regional capital, Lichinga. I stayed there a couple of weeks before coming down to Maputo to do a statistics course.
But for several months after the event I suffered from deep depression and panic attacks. I was afraid to be alone and some days I could not stop crying. Luckily I had friends - doctors - who gave me a lot of help. But still I couldn't concentrate on my work and eventually I had to come back home and live with my parents.
It is over a year since the attack and things are slowly getting better. But I don't think I will be able to go and work in the troubled districts again. Not for the time being, anyway.
Felisbella Gaspar is now setting up a TB programme in her home town of Quelimane - and enjoying it.
On 28 July 1988 Mozambican troops clash with what they assume to be a group of rebels of the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR or Renamo) in the far south of the country, near the border with South Africa.
Only it is not just the MNR. Within days the South African Government requests the return of the corpse of a South African killed in the clash as well as military equipment seized by the Mozambicans. Again Pretoria has been caught red-handed.
Although Pretoria finances Renamo today it did not create it. That dubious distinction goes to the secret services of the illegal white minority regime of Ian Smith in Rhodesia.
Birth: In 1976 Frelimo shows its support for the Zimbabwean struggle for majority rule by allowing Robert Mugabe's nationalist guerillas to use its territory. Smith retaliates by setting up a Mozambican fifth column comprising former agents of the Portuguese secret police (PIDE) and elite units of the Portuguese colonial army. These are joined by disgraced ex-members of Frelimo - such as the present Renamo leader Afonso Dhalakama, cashiered from the Mozambican army for theft. Rhodesia provides Renamo with training facilities. Renamo acts as Rhodesia's eyes and ears inside Mozambique, spying on the movements of Zimbabwean guerillas. As the war progresses permanent MNR bases are set up inside Mozambique. By the end of 1979, the Smith regime has collapsed and the Lancaster House agreement puts an end to white settler rule. But that is not the end of Renamo.
Adoption: A new boss is waiting in the wings. Rhodesian Intelligence simply transfers the entire MNR operation into the hands of South African military intelligence. By the end of 1980 Dhalakama and his men are installed in the Transvaal. South Africa sets out to spread the war across Mozambique, burning villages, mining fields and sending the economy into a tailspin.
Nkomati Accord: A severely weakened Mozambique enters negotiations with Pretoria in 1984. The result is the Nkomati Accord which states that neither country is to support hostile actions against the other: Mozambique will not allow the African National Congress (ANC) any military or transit facilities, while the South Africans will drop the MNR. Mozambique keeps to its side of the bargain but South Africa brazenly continues pumping military equipment to Renamo and in 1985 sends its Deputy Foreign Minister Louis Nel three times into Mozambique for discussions with MNR leader Dhalakama.
Snake bites: The capture of Renamo's headquarters at Gorongosa in 1986 prompts a jubilant Samora Machel to exclaim: We have broken the back of the snake.' But later that year several thousand rebels pour into Zambesia and Tete provinces from Malawi as part of a massive offensive to divide the country in two. When Mozambican forces supported by Tanzanian troops eventually regain the territory two years later they find Mozambique's once richest province in ruins.
Recruitment: Renamo supporters abroad claim the rebels must have popular support or they would not be able to operate, as they do, in the greater part of the country. But recruitment to rebel ranks has little to do with political mobilization. It is simple press-ganging. When the MNR descend on a village they tend to kill anyone directly associated with the Government and with Frelimo. They then kidnap the rest of the able-bodied population. Women and girls are used as playthings for the rebel commanders. Men and boys are given military training and forced to go on missions. They are told there is no going back, that the government forces will kill them if they surrender.
Backers: Renamo's main foreign backers are South Africa and former colonists in Portugal who want to regain their foothold in Mozambique. But there are others.
The Washington-based Heritage Foundation is probably the most powerful. It has widespread connections with the New Right and funds several bodies on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Mozambique Research Centre which lobbies the US Congress to get Renamo recognized as a respectable political opposition. The other main US lobby groups for Renamo are Freedom Inc. and the International Freedom Foundation. The latter is privately funded with overseas branches in London and South Africa and connections with the Council for National Policy (a highly secretive network of New Right leaders which seeks to influence US policy). Other fund-raising causes include the Nicaraguan Contras.
The Mozambique Solidarity Campaign is a London-based organization launched in July 1988. Despite its misleading name it receives funds from the International Freedom Foundation and produces pro Renamo briefings and newsletters. Sharing the same offices is the International Society for Human Rights - a shadowy West German body founded by ex-Nazi collaborators from Eastern Europe, which distributes largely concocted reports of atrocities against Christians in Mozambique, allegedly carried out by government forces.
By Paul Fauvet and Derrick Knight.