On the midnight ride to war

It was all a lie. After working as a chef in a popular hotel in Beira for eleven years, he believed his efforts and hard work had finally been recognized. He had been chosen, amongst others, to go to Maputo for training where he would receive an official Chefs certificate. He happily waved good bye to his wife and children, unaware that he would only see their faces again in eleven years time.

Francesco would not be training at a chef school. He would be training at an army camp. He would learn to kill. He would forget his family. He would forget his past. He would forget himself.

I’m not going to name political parties, because the parties seem irrelevant when it comes to this man’s story. It seemed not to be about which party you supported, what you really believed and were willing to fight for until death – but more like being possessed.

They travelled at midnight in army trucks covered with tarpaulin. It was half way down the bumpy road to Maputo that Francesco realized he was going to war. He thought of his family and for the first and final time, he allowed himself to miss them, knowing that it was very likely he would never see them again. I asked him how this made him feel, hoping to elaborate on the fear he must have felt. Instead he simply answered that there was no use in becoming angry or fearful, it would achieve nothing.

The new army recruits were told, ‘this war is not against the Portuguese, this war is against your brothers.’
They instinctively knew not to question. Question and you would be suspected of being the enemy, one quick bullet to the head. From then onwards, it was a matter of survival.

The freshly trained soldiers were sent north after a grueling 25 days of training. Francesco and his group had been ordered to protect a village in central Mozambique. News was received that the enemy was advancing and that the village would soon be under attack. The first batch of soldiers set out, powering through the dense African bush. A gun fight broke out, bullets flying in all directions. A handful of the soldiers limped back, defeated.
Francesco was next. He was part of the second batch of soldiers who had been ordered to attack. The enemy was gaining ground. He crouched down low, steadying his gun and his finger that trembled. This would be the first time he killed a man.

The bush rustled ever so slightly. He aimed and pulled the trigger, initiating an explosion of bullets from all directions. Fellow soldiers buckled as bullets pierced their flesh. And soon, Francesco was also bellowing with pain. He’d been shot in the leg. Unable to walk properly and bleeding heavily, his comrades told him to wait where he was. They left him to die – he never saw them again.

Hours later, Francesco reluctantly woke as the barrel of a gun was repeatedly jabbed at his temple. He didn’t recognize the uniforms of these men and immediately knew that he was in the hands of the enemy. They took him back to their camp for questioning. And he prepared himself for death, this was surely the end?

As the enemy soldier lifted his gun to shoot, satisfied with the information he’d tortured out of him, he received orders to ‘stop.’ The commander had recognized Francesco. They grew up together in a small fishing village. If anyone can be lucky in war, today was Francesco’s day. He was allowed to live. But he would now be fighting for a different army.

In 1974, the Portuguese had left Mozambique in droves. Suddenly Mozambique’s land and fortunes were up for grabs. And so this time, Francesco was told he would be fighting for a ‘piece of that pie.’

His new comrades carried him for 2 days, back to their base camp. Here Francesco would be nursed back to health, he’d be tended to by South African doctors and his story would be heard by foreign journalists. Food and weapons would be dropped by air. He even got to fly to Namibia where he would be trained to shoot down aircrafts and to parachute from planes.

For the next 9 years, soldiers would attack and kill entire villages. They raped and pillaged. They killed children and babies – they took what they wanted. And while attempting to gain a piece of the pie, they lost themselves.

And then it was all over. For two months, they were rehabilitated and for the first time, were allowed to leave freely and to return to ‘normal’ society. Many of them returned to find that their families and friends had been killed. And often, they returned to find that there was no end to the war; tormented forever more with the memories of bloodshed and killing.

Francesco returned to find that his family had miraculously survived the war. But that his wife had remarried.

It was the second time Francesco got lucky. His wife returned to him and together they had another 3 children.

I asked him whether he had told his wife about his experiences during the war? He said no. She did not want to know. And I wonder is it because she already knew the answers? One million people died during the war. Thousands of families were permanently displaced or killed. Women were raped. Villages were pillaged. The country was and still is laden with land mines. Children were shot in front of their mothers and thousands were left to grow up as orphans. The aftermath speaks for itself. Everyone has a story to tell, all much the same. And most Mozambicans are all in agreement that they never chose to fight in the first place.

I asked Francesco what his message would be to those going to war? His answer was brief and to the point. “You must talk instead. War is a complete waste of time. He said that before this war, he was living well. But now he has nothing.”

It seems Mozambique is falling back into murky waters. With elections nearing, unrest threatens the country. Mozambicans are deeply concerned; concerned that dialogue once again, is taking a back seat.

Maybe it is time for the ex soldiers to tell their stories to their children and wives and to speak the truth about war. Can fighting and killing truly bring peace to a nation, does it ever end well?

War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.
JIMMY CARTER, Nobel Lecture