Looking after our Veterans

In 1980 at the end of our civil war, or the war of liberation as it is known, we had many thousands of combatants who were suddenly unemployed. They had been fighting each other for many years and the fighting had been no holds barred – all sides had committed atrocities.

Source: Looking after our Veterans – The Zimbabwean 05.10.2017

In such conflicts – termed by the Americans as a low level guerilla conflict, there were many casualties – people killed and their families, the perpetrators themselves and the people who were wounded and maimed. This week we remembered 100 years after the end of the First World War in 1917 and I watched a very moving hour long programme on the BBC which covered the conflict.

I am also of that generation that lived through the Vietnam War – not as a participant but as a concerned observer. The one thing I observed from that conflict was that the soldiers who fought in the Jungles of Vietnam, did not come home as hero’s – they suffered a second trauma in returning to find that their society regarded the war as unjust and unwarranted and in the end the “enemy” won.

In our case our veterans were demobilized and sent home and very little was done to help them adjust to normal life in our society. The Canadian Government financed a rehabilitation Center at Ruwa and the new Government enhanced the role of the Rhodesian Army rehabilitation Center in the Eastern Highlands. A bit of work was done on any physical disabilities and some Veterans were put on the pension system and given small disability pensions. But to the best of my knowledge nothing was done for the great majority and virtually nothing was done in terms of providing psychological counseling and help.

In the past few weeks two friends have died at a comparatively young age, I think both were to some extent casualties of a war that ended 37 years ago in April 1980. When I travel I often meet veterans from the war and in many cases they are struggling and still suffer from war related trauma and poor adjustment. Very few are successful and reintegrated into normal societies. The sorry state of many Vietnam Veterans is a well known and recorded fact, despite the many billions of dollars that the US Government spends on Veteran Affairs each year.

In the case of the veterans from the liberation Armies of Zanla and Zipra virtually nothing was done for them until eventually in 1997 the Veterans threatened the State and the Government responded in a panic with the payment of Z$3,5 billion in war related individual payments plus a commitment to pay a small pension to each recognised Veteran. But rehabilitation for the psychological and physical wounds of the war, nothing or very little. The fact that this plus the cost of an unbudgeted entry to the war in the Congo; crippled the country is another matter; the real problem was that we had no planned and properly organised plan to deal with the problems of the Veterans from our own war.

Dealing with the wounds of war we need to recognise a number of factors. Perhaps the first and in some ways the easiest, is that we need to recognise the sacrifices that all who were involved made in defense of what they were told was the “national interest” or the “attainment of our Independence” or whatever pretext the combatants took up as the flag under which they were fighting.

So when the Americans decided that the men and women who died in the Vietnam conflict should be recognised they put out a tender for a design and those of us who have visited Washington and the Vietnam War Memorial will know how emotive that long black wall of granite with those thousands of names is. Every day the caretakers have to collect the memorabilia left by families and friends and the quantities of flowers left in memory of those who died in a senseless war thousands of miles away. Even today, and every day, you can see people weeping in front of that memorial. It is cathartic and in a way, healing for the country and the communities and families involved.

Similarly when I visited Berlin for the first time after the Wall came down in 1989 and was able to visit the Memorial to the German soldiers who fought in the Second World War I found it fascinating. Not many westerners visit the memorial and it is not widely publicized but it is a very moving place and every day the Municipality has to haul away tonnes of flowers. They might have been the “enemy” when our fathers were in the World Wars, but there is no doubt that they were among the best soldiers in the world and they achieved remarkable things in pursuit of the false vision they were sold as being in the best interests of Germany.

We have our Heroes Acres – a national one in Harare and Provincial ones in all Provinces, but where are our memorials to the thousands who died for our Independence or to the memories of those who fought to defend what they were taught was a just struggle. When I move around the country I find many memorials to the Rhodesian men and women who fought in the two World Wars or even in the first Chimurenga in 1893. The Heroes Acres are by and large political and represent burial grounds for people who were the main contributors to national Independence or national life.

I think this is an important issue and would like to see a national debate on this matter. We need a memorial to the Zipra and Zanla forces – separate memorials with perhaps a museum attached to each to tell the story of the war. I think we need a memorial to the Rhodesian soldier so that families and friends who lost sons and daughters can come to remember their sacrifice. Such memorial would be part of our healing as a nation that is proud of its past.

I remember once visiting the Voortrekker Memorial in Pretoria and watching as a father took his children from one section to another, explaining the history of his people and their sacrifice. That is what is needed here and it would be so easy to effect. If required and once official approval is given then we could fund such memorials by public subscription. I was interested to learn this week that the memorial to the 2,5 million Commonwealth soldiers who served in the 1914 War has only in the past decade been constructed in Europe so that fact that this initiative is 37 years late is no excuse.

Then there is the need for a properly organised and funded Veterans Administration here. One that would be responsible for the needs of War veterans, irrespective of the group they served. The Administration to be responsible for pensions, medical aid and the support of widows. In addition the Administration to take over the institutions responsible for rehabilitation and to meet the needs of amputees and other injuries, counseling services would be essential. Funding could be from both public and private sources.

We need to close the door on our past conflicts to pave the way to the future, dealing with the veterans of our war of Independence is an essential part of that process. I attended the annual parents weekend at Plumtree school as the guest speaker a number of years ago and it was a deeply moving experience. On Sunday at the Chapel service the Head Boy led the school in reading the roll of honor of all those Old Boys who had served and died in conflicts in which the country had participated. We as a Nation need to recognise those same men and women; it’s a proud part of our heritage.