issue 203 - January 1990
Killing the soul
Courage or bravado? The difference is vital as
Margaret St Clare discovers when riding with an
armed convoy through war-torn Mozambique.
I really wasn't looking for trouble, or even adventure. Two teacher friends in Malawi had asked me if I'd visit Zimbabwe with them. Since I had worked in the country for four years and had friends there. I could not think of a better place to spend Christmas.
My teacher friends had air-tickets. I could only afford to go by road. From Blantyre in Malawi to the Zimbabwean capital Harare is a straight 400 miles. But for part of the journey you have to join an armed convoy as the road cuts through Tete province - a part of Mozambique where MNR guerilla attacks sometimes occur. I tried not to think too much about it until one morning at 5.30, 1 was there at the border looking for a ride.
At Mwanza border post, a young Zimbabwean commander OK'd my lift with a Dutch couple, Anneke and Franz. He told us: 'We think that you will have a good journey to Tete. But this route is very unpredictable'. I asked him whether it was getting worse or better. 'Better, definitely,' he said.
So we set off: first the armoured vehicle, then three private cars, followed by about 60 trucks. The procession was punctuated by two more armoured vehicles.
Franz, Anneke and I were in one of the cars behind the first armoured vehicle, which carried about 20 soldiers. When they slowed down, we slowed down; when they swerved round a pothole so did we. These are places where land-mines can be hidden. Nobody said much. As we drove through villages and settlements I was astonished by every calm child's or adult's face. How must it be to live in such insecurity, not knowing when or whence the next attack may come?
Then the bush closed in on the road. I began to think how easy it would be to creep up though the trees and ... Then there was a thud. The soldiers waved us to stop and opened fire into the trees on our right. Zip - zip - zip, spitting jets of yellow flame, then rattattattatt and a hail of light. I thought: 'Don't do that, you'll hurt somebody' and then just sat, very still and sad. Now four or five of the boys jumped down off the armoured car and walked calmly, normally, across the road shooting, and disappeared into the bush still shooting. Another round of mortar fire exploded behind us. We all three sat, dead still. But the car drivers in front and behind us - all of them white men - got out of their vehicles and walked around, stretching their legs as if they were in a game park and they weren't afraid of the rhinos. An American-sounding voice yelled from behind: 'Those Zimbabwean guys are right on top of it. The Mozambicans would have run in the opposite direction'.
This piece of shit-scared macho bravado turned my stomach. What I had felt as I watched the soldiers get down off the car and walk into the trees, firing, firing, was gratitude, sadness, love. Intimate feelings, not comic-strip heroism at all. I felt like their mother - anxious, protective, but awed by their courage.
After perhaps 10 or 15 minutes it was over and we continued to Tete, a sun-bleached shanty-town spread around the Zambesi river. There we took on board a young American traveller called Rick. He had been hiding under a sack of potatoes during the firing and was the only man in the three cars who admitted he was scared. Even Franz later said he had thought it was all a joke, a kind of show put on for us by the soldiers. Perhaps he couldn't relate to the loose natural movements of the Zimbabwean soldiers, couldn't take them seriously. No sergeant major screaming, no drama, no tough guys - just people, and a job to be done to preserve life.
Whatever the reasons for their failure, I found the inability of these men to face the truth of what was happening humbly and seriously the most disturbing feature of the whole episode and, in a sense, more life-threatening than being attacked by invisible forces. Responding to mortal danger by trivializing and denying your feelings seems to me the ultimate form of alienation - that is death of the soul. It is a very dangerous state fur our Western culture to be in: dangerous to ourselves, but also to everyone else. We deal in violence as news, entertainment and macho power play - from comic books in primary school through to propping up dictatorships or romanticizing liberation struggles. But somehow, as a culture, we cannot feel the human, emotional reality of such violent situations.
I have never heard a Zimbabwean speak in a glorifying, or pragmatic, or joking way, about war - and this country is full of what we would call heroes. So here is a riddle: are we whites (especially white men) so dangerous, cruel and callous as a globally dominant culture because we are so detached, so alienated from our own actions and feelings? Or is it the other way round? Or are the two perhaps inseparable?
Margaret St. Clare is living and working in Malawi.