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Ambush at Lesoma, 35 BDF soldiers, 3 Zipra combatants ambushed

21 Feb 2017 at 10:44hrs | Views
In the evening of 27th February 1978, a detachment of 35 BDF soldiers, 2 teenagers from Lesoma village and 2 or 3 ZIPRA combatants were ambushed by Smith's Rhodesian Soldiers at Lesoma sand ridge. 15 BDF soldiers, 1 teenager from Lesoma and a ZIPRA combatant lost their lives from the ensuring fire fight and it is to them that this short story is dedicated.

Retired Captain Gukhwa Bangai pulled over his pride-a battered 2006 Pajero at Northgate filling station in Nata village. The time was just shy of ten o'clock in the morning. He had driven without a break for the past four hours from Xhumo and his body flashed warning signs of creeping fatigue and the need to dash to the gents. A smiling petrol attendant dutifully directed him to the bathrooms behind the restaurant.

The bathrooms were invitingly clean and he silently awarded the facility two stars. There were five urinary booths in the bathrooms and were all occupied except one. He proceeded to it and in a deep voice said, "Barena dumelang". The four men at the urinals simultaneously shifted their attention to him and acknowledged his greeting differently.

"Re teng boss." The first one to reply said with a pleasant smile on his face.
"Go tsogilwe ntates, wena?" The second to acknowledge the greeting said.
The third to respond was a grey haired man and he said, "Re tsogile morwa rra, ga go na molato."
The last one who appeared to be in his late teens said, "Sharpest, go jwang?"
"Marapo ke one a barena bame," Gukhwa said and took a minute to complete his call at the booth.

After finishing his duty he went to the nearest hand basin to wash his hands, or more precisely his right hand. What used to be his left hand was now a stump that was aided by an artificial limb. He looked in the mirror that was above the basin and his scarred face starred back at him. The scars were generously spread all over his face and looked like a product of a novice artist. The scars had become part of him and he had long come to accept them.

 A phalanx of what he suspected to be passengers from one of the numerous buses which serviced the two tourist areas of Okavango and Chobe invaded the bathrooms when he was about to exit. He politely yielded for the whole group to enter. Besides the common purpose of answering the call of nature, the group was what some Batswana would call a mixed-masala.

The crowd was made of the young and the elderly, the dapperly dressed and the shabbily clothed. Various languages spoken in Botswana intermingled in the confined space as the different passengers conversed animatedly. Tjikohane, Shiyei, Ikalanga, Otjiherero, Shuakhwe and Tjinandzwa escaped and reverberated from the different learned lips. Batswana and their beautiful languages, Gukhwa soliloquized as he finally exited the bathrooms.

Gukhwa found an unoccupied table on the veranda of the restaurant and ordered coffee. The place was packed with customers on transit and the coffee nevertheless took a short time to be brought to him. He drank two cups at a leisurely pace then signalled to the waiter. He settled the bill and gave the waiter a ten Pula tip. He felt rejuvenated as he went to his car to continue with his journey to Lesoma.

Travelling to Lesoma was a pilgrimage that he always made on the 27th of every February. Coincidentally the 27th of February was his birth date as well as that of the President of the Republic of Botswana, His Excellency Lieutenant General Doctor Seretse Khama Ian Khama. The journey however had less to do with birthdays but more with the missing left hand and the bold scars that decorated his face.

Driving from Nata to Lesoma junction was always an adventure for Gukhwa. He loved wildlife and the open plains which the Nata-Kazungula road offered in abundance. The road although littered with potholes, was wide and comfortable to drive on. Traffic on the way was light which gave him the pleasure of watching the various animals that grazed along the road. He saw elephants, giraffes, kudos and impalas all the way starting from Ngwasha gate and up to the Lesoma junction.  The beauty that he saw somehow made his journey miraculously shorter. He took under three hours to reach the Lesoma junction.

After turning at the junction he stopped his car and went to a sign board that read, 'Lesoma Disaster Monument'. He inspected it thoughtfully for a moment and then went to sit under a nearby mukwa tree. Lesoma village and the Lesoma disaster monument were just below the sand ridge that could be seen from the turn-off. As he sat under the mukwa tree his thoughts wandered to what happened thirty eight years back on the evening of the 27th February 1978 just below the ridge.

On that day, Gukhwa had been a newly graduated Private of No. 2 Platoon with the similarly new Botswana Defence Force on a trip at Kazungula base. The day had taken a different course when two teenagers from Lesoma had been sent by the Chief to report disturbing activities by Rhodesian soldiers in the vicinity of Lesoma. The Platoon Commander had immediately summoned No.4 Platoon to be the one to go. Members of No. 2 Platoon had been shattered as everyone had been eager to go on that mission. Gukhwa and four of his squad mates from No. 2 Platoon had literally prayed to be part of the team.

Thirty five young men armed with AK 47 and FN rifles and the two teenagers had boarded three land rovers under the command of Platoon leader Sennanyana. At Lesoma, the platoon with rifles at the ready had searched the dense bush meticulously for two hours. They had come across two heavily armed ZIPRA combatants who had been hiding in the bush and the Platoon had apprehended them without firing a shot.

The two freedom fighters had informed the Platoon that they had engaged the Rhodesian security forces at dawn on the Rhodesian side and the Rhodesians had suffered heavy losses. It had been strictly a hit and run operation and the freedom fighters had disengaged after they had achieved their objective and had crossed into Botswana.  Having taken refuge in the February-green Lesoma bush, the two freedom fighters had closely followed the activities across the border.

Reconnaissance planes of the Rhodesian soldiers had flown across the border at tree top level while spotter planes had glided at a higher altitude above the Lesoma bushes. The two combatants had also seen members of the Selous Scouts numbering not less than one hundred entering Botswana in hot pursuit. The two combatants had gone deeper into the Lesoma bush, camouflaged themselves and with AK 47s at ready had waited for any eventuality. The two combatants had therefore been relieved to see members of the Botswana Defence Force and had readily surrendered to them.

With no evidence of the Rhodesian soldiers on the Botswana side of the border, the platoon had concluded that the Rhodesians had returned to their country. The thirty five BDF soldiers, two ZIPRA combatants and the two civilian emissaries had boarded the three dirty green BDF land rovers to return to the Kazungula base. At that time the platoon had relaxed and had become less attentive. Returning to the base had been taken as mere routine. Fingers had been taken away from the trigger guards and friendly conversations had been struck.

It had been below the Lesoma sand elevation after the platoon had driven hardly a kilometre when all hell had broken loose. The still evening had been shattered by thunderous rumblings of heavy machine gun fire. The air had been punctuated with screaming bullets from automatic weapons firing relentlessly at full auto. The three land rovers had been hit by bullets after bullets and in the process had suddenly caught fire.

Caught unprepared and in the midst of raining bullets, shrapnel and flames it had been a question of every man for himself in the packed land rovers. Some had been killed instantly while in the land rovers, while others, wounded and confused had managed to jump from the burning vehicles. Some of the wounded had been unable to crawl to the nearby mophane cover due to the extent of their injuries and had thus remained easy pickings for the Rhodesians. Unbelievably there had been those who had escaped unscathed.  

The then Private Gukhwa Bangai had been one of those who had escaped the mayhem albeit with a severed left arm from the elbow. At that time he had felt no pain as the rush of adrenaline in his body had acted as an anaesthesia. He had staggered into the thick forest bleeding and confused until recovered at midnight by a platoon that had come to investigate after hearing the gunfire.

The following morning, bodies of 15 BDF soldiers, 1 ZIPRA combatant and 1 civilian had been recovered from the scene. On account of Botswana's policy, the ZIPRA guerrilla was classified as civilian. The incident which became known variously as the Lesoma Massacre or the Lesoma Ambush or the Lesoma Disaster became the turning point which defined the active engagement of Rhodesian soldiers by BDF at any opportunity.

This active engagement however had not been sanctioned by the political leadership but had been a tacit resolve by the BDF to avenge its fallen comrades. Following the ambush, whenever the guerrillas engaged the Rhodesians along the border, the BDF would surface to defend its territory as well as guerrillas that inevitably would enter Botswana after every skirmish that took place along the border.

Retired Captain Gukhwa Bangai rose from the mukwa tree shade and solemnly drove to the monument. From the entrance he marched slowly until he was a metre away from the inscribed marble monument where he came to attention and expertly saluted. With a heavy yet proud heart, his eyes went through the names of the fifteen comrades who fell at the hands of Ian Smith's notorious regime.

The fallen heroes were two Sergeants and thirteen Privates. They were listed as Sgt Moremi Mothudi (Shoshong), Sgt Daniel Setlhogile (Tshane),Pvt Moliti Lesole (Tshimoyapula), Pvt Mathe Mathe (Serowe), Pvt Lesitamang Mponyo (Mponyo),Pvt Olaotse Ikobeng (Serowe), Pvt Sejo Katung (Serowe), Pvt Anton Mlandu (Jackalas), Pvt Olaotse Oefile (Molepolole), Pvt Oabile Modiko (Molepolole), Pvt Mokgadi Rasekedi (Molepolole), Pvt Monyoi Mosweunyane (Tobane), Pvt Bathusi Nteta (Molalatau), Pvt Stanley Thebele (Tati Siding) and Pvt Mbakile Butale (Butale).

For Bangai, the incident that claimed the fifteen seemed as fresh as if it had happened the previous day not thirty eight years back. He saluted again, made an about turn and exited the monument.

Source - Boletilemang Gabokgatlhe
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