The investigative nun

Rhodesia’s war to maintain white minority rule was raging in 1977 and so was the government’s effort to control the press. Following the collapse of Portuguese colonial rule in 1975, the Mozambican government allowed Robert Mugabe’s nationalist guerrillas to be based in the country and the fighters infiltrated the long, mountainous and porous border with Rhodesia. Attacks in Rhodesia increased dramatically and casualties mounted, both of white soldiers and civilians but especially of the country’s black rural farmers. Prime Minister Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front regime maintained strict censorship of the domestic press and considerable controls over the foreign press to prevent coverage that suggested the African nationalists were gaining momentum or that they had a justified cause. Rhodesia’s newspapers were directly censored by government officials. The Rhodesia Herald, for instance, had numerous blank spaces where stories had been taken out. The empty columns became so glaring that the Rhodesian government ordered that the spaces should be filled by uncontroversial articles. Rhodesian censorship even extended to controlling what was written about Great Zimbabwe, the stone walled city in the country’s southeast that thrived between the 12th and 15th centuries. Archaeologists determined that the structures, the oldest and largest masonry constructions in precolonial Africa, were built and inhabited by the local Shona people. But the Rhodesians did not want it known that blacks had created the impressive structures and promoted the myth that the walls had been built by followers of the Queen of Sheba or the Phoenicians. Peter Garlake, the senior inspector of monuments for Rhodesia, who did well-respected work which showed that Great Zimbabwe was built by the local Shona people, was censored and forced to leave the country in 1970.

The domestic publication most critical of the Rhodesian government and which described the aims of the African nationalist parties was Moto, which means fire in Shona, a weekly published by the Catholic Church. It was a thorn in the side of Rhodesian Front government, which in 1970 deported its editor, the Swiss priest Father Michael Traber. Moto continued with a local staff until it was banned by the Smith regime in 1974. Foreign correspondents were also restricted. Journalists who went on rare trips with Rhodesian forces were required to submit their work to censors. Many reporters working for the foreign press found themselves staying in the capital Salisbury (now Harare) and speaking to a limited group of sources and writing carefully about the war, in order to avoid being thrown out of the country. Several journalists were forced to leave. The ground-breaking book, None but Ourselves, by Julie Frederikse highlights with wide-ranging interviews the Rhodesian regime’s efforts to control the flow of information about the war. Into that repressive environment came a modest, soft-spoken Catholic nun from the United States. Sister Janice McLaughlin, of the Maryknoll order, came to Rhodesia in 1977 to do work for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. As part of her work she wrote dispatches for a newsletter published by the London-based Catholic Institute for International Relations.

Taking advantage of the Catholic Church’s network of sources across Rhodesia, McLaughlin gathered information about brutal aspects of the war that the Rhodesian government had tried to gloss over. One of those was the creation of ‘protected villages’, created by the Rhodesian regime to prevent black rural farmers from interacting with, and giving assistance to, the nationalist guerrillas. The villages were ostensibly to protect the civilians from the violence of the guerrillas, but they were large rural camps behind barbed wire. McLaughlin described how rural families saw their homes destroyed by Rhodesian forces and were forced to build new homes, at their own expense, in the camps. With inadequate water and sanitation, and far from their fields, the camps were very unpopular. Gathering figures of the numbers of protected villages across the country and how many people were in them, McLaughlin showed that there were more than 580,000 people in the ‘protected villages’, more than twice the official number given by the Rhodesian government. McLaughlin also documented the difficult conditions in the camps. And she provided information for a map that showed the cluster of protected villages along Rhodesia’s border with Mozambique.

McLaughlin also wrote that the Rhodesian army was perpetrating systematic torture of people suspected of supporting the nationalist cause and that the Rhodesian forces could do so with the knowledge that they would be granted immunity from prosecution. After interviewing people who had survived abuse, McLaughlin wrote harrowing accounts of how rural black Zimbabweans were severely beaten and burned by Rhodesian troops. Even though she was writing for small Catholic publications, McLaughlin’s work caught the attention of the Rhodesian authorities. She was arrested in August 1977 and accused of being a ‘communist and self-confessed supporter of terrorism’ and was refused bail. She was held in solitary confinement in Chikurubi Prison on the edge of the capital for three weeks, when she was released and deported.

‘The Rhodesian regime was trying to silence my work. But the international attention surrounding my arrest created a lot of interest in my work,’ said McLaughlin. ‘My articles were in small, relatively unknown publications. But after I was thrown in jail, all kinds of publications reprinted my work. Many more people saw my exposés as a result.’

Following her deportation, McLaughlin worked for the Washington Office on Africa, a church-based lobby group to educate the American public and Congress about African affairs. In 1979, McLaughlin started work for the Zimbabwe Project, an initiative set up by a consortium of Catholic donors to assist refugees from the war in Rhodesia. She was based in Mozambique for two years, visiting refugee camps for which she raised funds and purchased supplies.

After Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, McLaughlin worked with the government to build nine schools for former refugees and war veterans and to develop a system of education that linked academic subjects with technical training. ‘On the frontline: Rural Catholic missions and Zimbabwe’s liberation war’, her thesis for a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Zimbabwe, was published by Baobab Books in Harare in 1995. In 2008 McLaughlin was elected president of the Maryknoll Sisters in the US. After retiring from that position in 2015, she returned to Zimbabwe where she continues community development work, including efforts to stop human trafficking from Zimbabwe.

Protected villages on the increase

Janice McLaughlin, Catholic Institute for International Affairs
newsletter (London), August 1977

At the last count (30 May), there were approximately 203 protected villages [PVs] in Rhodesia, housing more than half a million people. These figures from informed sources on the spot are double the official government estimates of 250,000, or ‘a twelfth of the local tribal population’. The figures continue to climb as the government steps up its programme to establish protected villages in almost all operation areas. During the past rainy season (March) more than 100 new villages were established which would involve about 20,000 people, according to the government’s estimates of 2,000 people per village.

Nineteen tribal trust lands in Mashonaland and Manicaland are already affected, and two in Victoria Province. The people in the Wankie area of Matabeleland have also been told they are to move into PVs. Chweshe TTL, just 45 miles north of Salisbury, where the first village was established in 1974, continues to have the highest village population with 120,000 people living in 21 villages. It is difficult to get accurate figures of the villages, not only because they are going up fast, but because they also come down as quickly. They are popular targets for the guerrillas who cut the fences, liberate the people inside and burn down the huts. At the end of May, the Provincial Commissioner for Internal Affairs, Mr Geoffrey Henson, admitted that since the beginning of the year there had been 70 guerrilla attacks on the villages. This is probably an underestimate.

The guerrillas have also played havoc on the village administration by attacking personnel of the Minister of Internal Affairs who are responsible for running the villages. On July 1, the Minister, Mr Jack Mussett, stated in Parliament that his department had suffered high casualties with 114 killed, 25 missing or abducted and 243 wounded. He interpreted this to mean that the villages were successfully disturbing the guerrillas and said, ‘protected villages are proving to be a thorn in the side of the enemy’.

(He said:) ‘I will not try and pretend that the exercise has been without hardship or difficulties for the African men, women and children involved. It is a tremendous upheaval for any person to have to leave his or her home and to change from a traditional easy-going rural way of life to an urban type of existence with the constraints imposed by the needs of security. However, these temporary disadvantages must be balanced against the over-riding advantages of being able to live in comparative safety …’ The people affected to not think much of this advantage. Few have anything to fear from the guerrillas and feel no need to be ‘protected’ from them. They are still in danger from the security forces and can be submitted to interrogation which includes torture and beating. There have been many cases of rape in the ‘keeps’, as the villages are called locally, and District Assistants are now to confiscate the passes (situpas) of the women which allow them to move in and out of the village, and to force the women to sleep with them in order to retrieve the passes.

The ‘urban type of existence’ mentioned consists of a small amount of space (often 15 square metres per family), lack of sanitary facilities, clean water and sufficient food. People must build new houses from whatever they can salvage from these former dwellings and receive no compensation for the property they lose. Families are moved up to five kilometres from their fields and are often unable to produce enough to feed themselves. Their cattle are kept outside the village and are frequently stolen. The education of children is interrupted and sometimes terminated for good (47 schools have been closed because the population was moved into protected villages). The people are kept behind fences almost like prisoners and must call out their numbers and be registered when entering and leaving the village … ‘The protected villages are completely unacceptable to us,’ said one man from Chiweshe TTL. ‘A person can’t like living in 15 square metres.’ Another man explained: ‘The people really hate this government for making them leave their homes and move to a crowded place with no shelter. They would rather starve than accept help from the government.’

‘If we are asking to be put into the villages, then why does the government have to come and burn our houses to force us to move?’ asked another man who described what had happened recently in the Tanda Tribal Trust Land. The people there had been given notice to move. They refused, saying they were quite safe, and there was no reason to leave their villages. On 4 July 1977, the security forces came and burned down six villages containing approximately 60 families each – Dzikit, Shuwa, Ngurune, Nufunde, Chatambudza and Huta. As a result of this incident, an estimated 2,880 people are now living in the bush. They maintain that they are prepared to stay in the bush rather than live in a protected village.

The chairman of the Chiweshe Residents Association … described some of the problems in the PVs, including lack of clean water, lowering of education standards, increases of venereal disease and the depletion of natural vegetation … While the government has rejected claims of starvation within the ‘keeps’ … it is a fact that voluntary agencies and organisations have often had to come to the rescue. Last year, the Emergency Relief Committee of Christian Care spent more than $60,000 providing food, clothing, blankets, accommodation, education and health services to residents of the protected villages … Another report from Dande TTL in the north says, ‘Aid of any kind is most urgently needed for Mabomo and Chapoto. Mabomo was resettled in the bush without clinic, school, stores, post offices, etc. No cattle Chapoto is cut off from the outside world through war activities … Malaria is rampant …’ From Chiweshe a report states, ‘Most desperate need of the people is safe sanitary facilities. Insufficient and polluted water poses a related problem to health and Chishewe has been noted for the incidence of typhoid in the past.’

More than half a million people have been forced to live in such difficult conditions and to create new lives from nothing. The real irony is that in many areas the guerrillas move in and out of the villages freely … If the villages fail to cut off the guerrillas from the local population, what purpose do they serve except to make life miserable for their inhabitants?

Rhodesian army pursues policy of systematic torture

Janice McLaughlin, Catholic Institute for International Affairs
newsletter (London), August 1977

Reports of torture at the hands of government security forces continue to be the rule rather than the exception. Furthermore, under the provisions of the Indemnity and Compensation Act, a soldier or other government official can torture or kill a prisoner and the matter cannot be brought to court if the Minister certifies that the action was committed in good faith to suppress terrorism or to maintain public order … There is a realisation by the commanders of the security forces that they cannot win the war. This realisation appears now to be shared by some ordinary soldiers … The practice of torture has become a common event in the lives of people in the rural areas. Schools are frequent targets of interrogation campaigns. One common method of torturing students which leaves no tell-tale marks is the towel and hose method. The students are stripped naked, a towel is put over their faces and running water is sprayed in their mouths and noses through a hose …