WHEN I was cutting my teeth in journalism, I decided one day to take myself off to Rhodesia, the former Zimbabwe, where a war was being waged by the majority black people against their white minority rulers.
There were six million blacks, the whites just 250,000. The Patriotic Front guerrillas of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo were engaged in a bloody conflict with the soldiers of Premier Ian Smith, a veteran British World War 11 fighter pilot who had unilaterally broken from British rule in the early Sixties.
I can still recall the sounds and the smells and the scorched red earth that first day I set foot on African soil in 1977. All I had back then was a raw enthusiasm and ‘some’ nerve to venture into a war zone, with a token guarantee of work for the Irish Press group and Radio Eireann, Scotland’s Daily Record and the odd stint for Associated Press (AP).
‘I still have the odour of burnt and putrefied flesh in my nostrils …’
For home I landed stories on the many Irish farmers cultivating tobacco and beef, and now daily finding themselves on the frontline. There was copy too on church missionaries, many suffering horrific deaths at the hands of both the Rhodesian forces – propaganda purposes – and Mugabe’s guerrillas whose learning at the knees of China and North Korea gave them a jaundiced view of missionaries.
In an Ireland still very much ruled from the bishop’s palace, such reporting found prominence.
Air Rhodesia Flight 825 was a scheduled passenger flight shot down by guerrillas on September 3,1978.
The Viscount, named The Hunyani, was flying from Victoria Falls to the capital Salisbury (now Harare). Guerrillas scored a hit to its starboard wing with a Soviet-made Strela 2 surface-to-air missile, critically damaging the aircraft and forcing an emergency landing. An attempted belly-landing was foiled by an unseen gully, which caused the plane to cartwheel and break up.
Of the 52 passengers and four crew, 38 died on impact. To this day, I still have the odour of burnt and putrefied flesh in my nostrils.
Insurgents then rounded up the 10 survivors they could see and massacred them with automatic gunfire. Three passengers survived by hiding in the bush, while a further five lived because they had gone to look for help before the guerrillas arrived.
I remember the Rhodesian Army officer who led the journalists’ convoy to the scene was ex-British Army, had served in Belfast, and did not count Catholic Paddies among his favourites – but we hit it off.
Dentist Cecil McLaren was the hero of the hour as he led a man, two women and five-year-old Tracey Cole through hostile territory for two days, begging water from suspicious villagers, and eventually to safety.
At the time, I wrote: “Like Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, beleaguered among hostile natives, Scotsman McLaren possessed and displayed ‘presence of mind and strength of character’.’’
Tracey Cole is today a dentist in Switzerland.
About a year before that I was in a convoy travelling from Salisbury to Bulawayo in the southern region of Matabeleland when we came under fire. We hit the decks of our 4×4: I peed my pants and, in the fire, was hit by shrapnel.
Nothing dramatic I hasten to add and the shrapnel was only about a quarter the size of the nail of your little finger. But it was lodged in my chest and occasionally caused me irritation and you could see the tiny hole where the skin had never fully healed.
In 2010 I underwent open-heart surgery for a congenital murmur and the good surgeon afterwards presented me with a clean bill of health …
And the said shrapnel.