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

43 replies »

  1. Powerful images & post. The world is so fragile & we all need to work together, meanwhile a small petulant group on the American right is prepared to bring down their own country and take many of us with them & here in Canada we have a Prime Minister who prorogues parliament whenever things get messy. The heart breaks and commonsense weeps.

  2. This story was amazing and so so sad. I’m learning more about the world, thanks to you. I’ve never studied much African history, except through Western eyes. I’m glad Francesco was able to be reunited with his family, and that he survived… It seems everyone who’s been through war says the same thing: it’s not worth it. Your line that, “while attempting to gain a piece of the pie, they lost themselves” was poignant. There are some horrors and atrocities that have occurred and are occurring in this world that I do not like to even contemplate.

    Moving post, Lianne. How do you meet Francesco?

    • Thank you Jessica. If only we could all just get a long! And be tolerant of people who are different to us; with different beliefs, cultures, religion, race or different opinions. I wonder how we can make a difference as an individual or in my case as a mother? And I think it simply comes down to treating people as we would want them to treat us. Maybe to prevent war, we all just need to start with ourselves.

      Back to your question about where I met Francesco…I took our kids for a walk a long the Pungwe river banks a few months ago. We saw him pulling his heavy fishing boat out of the muddy water. He was friendly, gave us a big smile and showed us his catch of the day. A few months later, after starting my Personal encounters category, I thought he would be a good person to talk to. I returned and was spot on! He’s had an amazing life indeed and was as excited as I was about being able to tell someone his story.

    • Thank you so much for thinking of me 🙂 I’ve been following your blog and am really enjoying your posts, especially the quotes. They seem to pop up just when I need them 🙂 Thanks again Ajay Tao for the generous nomination!

    • Thank you, it’s good to know people have connected with this story. And I’m feeling blessed that I’m in a place where I can put a face to these soldiers and a war that most people know very little about.

  3. This is really a story of how his own life was raped – loss of control of your own life and what is happening to you in a violent situation. And yet, miraculously, he is able to be philosophical about it and get on with rebuilding his life. He has an amazingly resilient spirit!

    • It is indeed – I have promised to print out a copy of this post for Francesco so that he can see it for himself and for him to know that his story is being told and we are learning something from it. At least, I hope so!

  4. This story clearly indicates that perhaps we are after all not the smartest animals on this planet. ..we continue to create barriers and promote hate and greed . then we go to war using whatever excuse we can find to kill snd destroy on the name of justice and freedom

  5. I sometimes wonder how some situations come to happen. Here’s one way. They take you, and if you don’t shoot (and perhaps even if you do) you get shot. This is a real punch in the gut. But one i’m glad to receive. Thanks for gathering this and putting it together so wonderfully and tactfully, Lianne.

    • Thanks Alessandro! He was a damn lucky man; at the right place at the right time kind of luck – his only reason for surviving. It is heart breaking what you find when you dig a little into the past of many of these Mozambicans. They have crawled out of what seemed to be a bottomless pit and with nothing, have slowly pulled themselves up again and made a go of their lives. That is why the recent attacks linked to old unsolved issues from the war, have everyone on their toes and incredibly anxious. It would be tragic for dialogue to fail these people again. They just want peace.

    • It is indeed. And to think that there are so many veteran soldiers with similar stories is even more sobering. It was a horrific war. Thanks for your comment.