The recollection of what happened during the evening of February, 27, 1978 at Lesoma will remain etched in the minds of many, Staff Writer RYDER GABATHUSE writes
FRANCISTOWN: An invitation extended by the Brigade Commander, 2 Brigade from the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) Donga camp, through a letter penned by Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Ragalase quickly evoked memories of yore with nostalgia.
A recollection of what happened during the evening of February, 27, 1978 at the sleepy village of Lesoma, a few kilometres south of the busy Kazungula will remain indelible in the minds of many, especially members of the army.
The euphoria associated with the formation of the BDF in the late 1970s remains a killer.
Lesoma is the place where 15 members of the then newly formed BDF, a ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army) freedom fighter and one civilian emissary were waylaid and cruelly massacred by members of the Rhodesian military during the Ian Smith regime.
About 35 unsuspecting members of the BDF, two civilian emissaries and two ZIPRA freedom fighters were combing the Lesoma plains for the suspected presence of the Rhodesian Selous Scouts. There were earlier worrying reports that Rhodesian military aircraft had been flying suspiciously around the village.
The BDF platoon was returning to the Kazungula base camp after following ‘false’ reports of spotted Rhodesian soldiers entering the Botswana border perhaps in pursuit of the two guerrillas who had earlier engaged them, hell broke loose. In fact, there was no evidence of the military intruders on the side of the Botswana border, leaving no doubt in the minds of the BDF platoon that the reported Rhodesians might have returned to their country.
The three Botswana Land Rovers carrying 35 soldiers, two ZIPRA combatants and two civilian emissaries were abruptly hit; killing two sergeants and 13 privates at an area where a monument in honour of the fallen heroes has now been built.
State-owned Kutlwano magazine would shortly carry detailed stories of the massacre supported by grey photography.
It was Radio Botswana however, with its hourly news bulletins, that carried the story throughout the day for all and sundry to appreciate the Lesoma massacre as if it was trying to outsmart its sister news outlet.
One of the surviving army heroes and retired Colonel Benson Sennanyana, who was the platoon leader at the time of the massacre was given wider coverage in both the Kutlwano and Radio Botswana. He told the story of how he survived. His was indeed a true case of missing death by a whisker. In one of the interviews, he related how their attackers pierced a bayonet through his skin, but he played dead. Blood oozed from his wounds, raising fear that he would lose a lot of blood to his death, but he never gave up, nor did he shout for help. He soldiered on to tell a real survival tale.
Whether true or not, the ‘super hero’ of the time would become former president Ian Khama who was portrayed as capable of turning himself into a bird and claims that he possessed supernatural abilities were abound.
Just around 1978, reports were that Khama had turned himself into a bird and flown there (Zimbabwe) and landed at the Rhodesian army camp where he single-handedly wreaked havoc in the then Rhodesia; killing almost the same number of soldiers that had been killed in Lesoma.
He further reportedly warned Smith not to dare do it again. That’s how in Palapye, where Yours Truly originates, we were made to ‘worship’ Khama and his purported supernatural abilities.
On Valentine’s Day, when the BDF protocol office dropped an invitation letter for the fallen heroes commemoration day at Mmegi offices penciled for February 27, memories of how we used to relate with the BDF were quickly evoked.
When we grew up in Palapye, especially following the Lesoma massacre, BDF members were elevated to hero status and true defenders of the country as Botswana was one of the frontline states and surrounded by countries that were fighting for their respective liberations and incessantly tormented by civil wars. Angola, Rhodesia, Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique amongst others, were characterised by internal strife. Botswana was always at the receiving end accused of harbouring guerrillas or people fleeing the law from their respective countries.
Upon seeing BDF Land Rovers, which were very popular at the infancy of the military, we used to shout BDF! BDF! the Botswana Defence Force acronym. BDF was corrupted to mean Banyana Dumelang Fela, as army men were associated with ‘promiscuity’ at the time.
Young boys sent to fetch water, which in the late 1970s was commonly done at the Botswana Railways yards commonly known as kotoise, would choose to wait by the then gravel road leading to the Old Mall in Palapye just to have an opportunity to shout at the passing BDF Land Rovers and trucks carrying troops. But, it was the Land Rover vehicles that elicited more excitement and caught the attention of the villagers.
It was common that young people will rush home to report to the parents: “ke bonye koloi tsa BDF (I have seen BDF land rovers.)” As for the police who at the time used Bedford trucks, often referred to as sekele le bolaose because of their designs, they were out of fashion at the time since they were deemed to be ‘troublesome’ as they used to raid homesteads and arrest people especially in stock theft cases.
Today, pilgrimages honouring this day are held in five areas across the country. As explained by Ragalase, the commemorations will be held at Thebephatshwa, Gaborone, Selebi-Phikwe, Francistown and Lesoma. At the Francistown commemoration, guest of honour will be Ombudsman chief legal investigator, Tebogo Lepodise.
Ragalase told Mmegi that a decision was taken to commence the commemorations for the 15 massacred heroes on February 27, 2011. “During the day of the commemoration in Francistown, BDF and national flags will fly at half mast in all the army camps to honour and recognise the selfless efforts of the departed soldiers,” Ragalase said, adding that the guest of honour will also lay a wreath at the Donga camp in honour of the fallen heroes.