REMEMBERING PAST ATROCITIES, IN MOZAMBIQUE AND SOUTH AFRICA: I’m writing this, on Saturday May 3, sitting in the lovely home of our friends Shirley Pendlebury and Harold Annegaarn, in Johannesburg.
Leila and I got here on Thursday evening, after bidding a sad farewell to Salomao in Maputo. But we’ve been so busy that I haven’t blogged since about Tuesday. Too bad! I’d gotten into such a rhythm between experiencing interesting things and then blogging about them almost immediately– but now that rhythm has been all upset. I mean, what is more important in life: having experiences or blogging about them???
Actually, for me as a writer, having the experiences as fully and as “presently” as possible, and then writing about them as well and effectively as I can, are both equally important jobs. (And no, I don’t consider that my writing on the blog is the “best” that I can do. It is, rather, a handy supplement to my notes; a form of five-finger exercize for subsequent writing; and a way to share some of my experiences and reflections in near-real time with anyone including my family and friends who chooses to read them.)
So here are the highlights of what we’ve done since I last blogged:
(1) On Wedesneday morning, we got up early and drove with Salomao and Zunguza to a place called Chiboene, some 40 kms from Maputo, where there was a terrible massacre of local militia trainees sometime in the mid-1980s.
You don’t have to drive far out of Maputo to get into the real, hardscrabble Mozambican “bush”. We left a tarmac-ed road about 15-20 kms out of town and then drove for a further 35 minutes along very bumpy dirt tracks. Lucky Zunguza had agreed to come with us and drive us in his 4×4. There weren’t many high trees where we were, but a lot of scrbby, 4-foot-high bushes, punctuated every so often by either ruined-looking small breeze-block homes or compounds, or by round or rectangular straw huts. As throughout Africa, people were walking along the track carrying work implements or harvested goods, or schoolbooks as they went to school.
Salomao commented that most of the Mozambican civil war had been fought in just such terrain as this– but with the important differece that you’d never see anyone else on the roads, because if they heard a vehicle coming they would hide. Plus of course, back then, many of the roads, trails, and just bush areas were heavily mined. This area– though still quite close to the capital– had only been demined to an “acceptable” degree within the past couple of years.
Luckily, he knew which forks to take as the road divided and re-divided along the way. We came to Chiboene Primary School– a large, spiffy-looking structure that Salomao said had been built since his last visit here two years ago. Scores of kids were playing in its big dirt yard.
We drove around the school, and on into the bush a little. Approaching a small cluster of huts, Salomao called out to a young man to ask for someone to escort us to the mass graves. He’d earlier told me that on his previous visits, there was a local “secretary” who organized the visits. This time, though, it seemed to be in the hands of a group of three local women who came to join us at the boy’s request. One of them hurried off to fetch a big jerry-can of water and a dipper, and the three of them piled into the back of the car.
The graves were, actually, very nearby. There were two of them. both were under the spreading boughs of cashew trees. One was “marked” by a ten-inch-high platform of crumbling cement about 20 feet by 10 feet. Both grave areas were also marked by numerous sprigs of a tough-looking form of impatients growing out of the dun-colored earth.
The women– Priscina, Antonietta Jeremias, and Ana-Paula– were joined by an old man in gumboots. The women picked sprigs from some of the impatients plants and handed them to each of us four “visitors”. Then they kicked off their flip-flops and walked into the grave areas, bending from the waist to clear away dead leaves, twigs, etc., from the grave area. At first, we were at the cement grave. After they’d cleared it, they stood back, and sang a couple of hymns in Shangana, and said a quick prayer. Then, the ritual continued with each of them in turn taking a dipper full of water from the can and sprinkling oit over the grave, and also planting the sprig that she had earlier reserved for herself, into a crack on the top of the crumbling cement, and firming the sprig upright into the crack with wettened earth.
The dipper was then passed around for each of the rest of us to do this turn.
Then, we walked the short distance to the other mass grave– each held the remains of 22 men slaughtered during that massacre, Priscina told us.
Anotnietta Jeremias told us her father had been with the militiamen who were training here when they were killed, but that he had been one of the lucky ones to escape alive.
They dated the event as “somewhere in the mid-1980s”.
They said they’d been living in a communal village not far away at the time, and they had heard the screams of the men being slaughtered, and the firearms with which many were killed.
With Saloamo interpreting, I asked them how they thought about those acts of violence, and whether they still blamed the people who had committed them.
They said they found it difficult to feel blame. It had been such a hard time, altogether, during those years, they said, that it was hard to keep strict accounts of who to blame for what, when. “Sometimes, we even had to smother our own babies in the bush, if their crying would give away our hiding place,” one said. Evidently, issues of “blame” and accountability seemed very different to them than they might in most western-style courts of law.
“But now, the violence is finished, and we just pray that we don’t have violence again,” Priscina summed it up at the end.
I said a few things that concurred with the latter wish, and made them a small gift.
This place is one of only two memorials that Salomao knows about, in the whole country, to the million or so Mozambicans who died during their ghastly, 16-year civil war. I felt blessed and privileged to have been able to participate in the ceremony with the women at Chiboene. Actually, very few people even in Mozambique know about the place. When we met with Archbishop Dinis Sengulane, the Anglican archbishop of Maputo who played an important part in getting the civil-war peace talks started, he hadn’t heard about it– even though the women there said that they had some connection with the Anglicans…
(2) Anyway, moving right along to Johannesburg… Yesterday (Friday) Leila and I took an organized tour down a now-unused gold mine, which was a vivid reminder of the role of western colonial powers both in this area and, by extension, throughout much of the non-western world. Somehow, launching imperialist wars for so-called “strategic” resources seems so terribly 19th century, doesn’t it?
And then, we moved straight across the road to the very new Apartheid Museum that a small group of entrepreneurs has opened up there. It is apparently quite controversial. The Government is supposed to be building a Museum and Study Center and lots of things as part of the follow-on work from the TRC. But these entrepreneurs evidently figured they’d try to break into the market first…
And then, still on the theme of remembrances of atrocity, we all went to “The Pianist” in the evening. Adrien Brody was incredible. But I wonder how Jewish israelis would feel seeing the movie. So very many of the things portrayed in it are exactly what Israel is doing to the Palestinians right now. (That is, in the phase of “concentration” of the Jewish community of Warsaw; but before the phase of “extermination” began.)
“Concentration” of poentially suspect populations was developed most fully in the recent era right here in South Africa, of course: by the Brits against the Afrikaaners during the Anglo-Boer wars. I note that it did NOT make the Afrikaaners into a cuddly, compliant bunch of people….