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Since its release in 1995, Flame, the first feature film made in Zimbabwe about the country's war of liberation, has been immersed in controversy. By revealing the often unspoken experiences of female freedom fighters, Flame has unearthed stories of pain, violence, bitterness and a history of broken promises. (jbv)

vol 12 no 2

The forgotten soldiers: Women in Zimbabwe's liberation war
Tanya Lyons

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 2, February 1997
Page 12



Tanya Lyons is a graduate student at the University of Adelaide, presently at the University of Zimbabwe researching Zimbabwean women in the national war of liberation.

Since its release in 1995, Flame, the first feature film made in Zimbabwe about the country's war of liberation, has been immersed in controversy. By revealing the often unspoken experiences of female freedom fighters, Flame has unearthed stories of pain, violence, bitterness and a history of broken promises.

Directed by Ingrid Sinclair, the first woman to direct a Zimbabwean film, Flame tells the story of two women who join the struggle for Independence. "This story of two friends is one of many," narrates Liberty - the film's central character - conjuring up images of the many women who left their families and schools to travel for days by foot before reaching refugee and training camps.

Flame has been produced at a time when the struggle of female ex-combatants has only just begun. It offers a story that has not been told publicly in Zimbabwe, allowing the younger generation to see for themselves the many sides of the struggle and giving those who survived the war an opportunity to celebrate their achievements and commiserate their losses. But the story of Flame is not only a story of its characters, it is a story of the film's production itself and old wounds re-opened.

Negative depictions of war

Flame was initially conceived as a documentary project detailing women's experiences in the Zimbabwean war of liberation. When none of the women interviewed agreed to appear on screen Sinclair decided to develop a fictional representation of their experiences.

The film explores the experiences of two young Zimbabwean women, Flame and Liberty, from their arrival at a training camp, through their experiences in the war, to their suffering after Independence as their war efforts remain unrecognized.

Since the producers of Flame first introduced rough cuts to a group of observers - in acknowledgment of the film's politically sensitive nature - it has been criticized by certain offended parties for "not depicting anything positive about the liberation struggle." Such "negative depictions" include: new war recruits being locked in underground dungeons for interrogation (a scene which was eventually cut from the film), graphic scenes of rape and sexual harassment, girls exchanging sex for food, camps being bombed by Rhodesian jets, and freedom fighters burning down a shop for revenge and fearing to engage a truck load of Rhodesian forces at an ambush. The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association [ZNLWVA] also spoke out against the film's representation of women in actual combat, arguing that their role was simply to carry war equipment and ammunition.

Following the great tradition of public censorship on sensitive issues that call for debate in Zimbabwe, the ZNLWVA even went so far as to attempt to have the film banned. But while they were not intending to provide free publicity for the film, in their attempt to control the production of knowledge about Zimbabwe's liberation war they have highlighted the need to re-address women's roles and experiences in the liberation war and to duly compensate them for their efforts.

Women in war

Certainly, not much has been written about female combatants' experiences in the war or about their treatment since. Even where some writers have explored the role of women in the war, Sinclair claims that the stories of the women she interviewed do not always correspond. Still, not all female ex-combatants agree with what is presented in Flame. Even 16 years after Independence some of these women maintain that no rape took place in the camps. They maintain that men and women were treated equally in the camps.

But others, including Freedom Nyambuya, one of the more outspoken female ex-combatants, maintain that they were raped. Nyambuya believes that it is time that Zimbabwe accepts this truth and reveals what really happened during the war. Another woman who does not want to be identified has said that she was raped often by her male comrades, as were other women. A female ex-combatant in Harare stated that in the ZANLA training camps in Mozambique it was usual practice for some senior comrade to request a female to "come and sweep his tent."

Among female ex-combatants the topic of rape is still a sensitive issue, and women in particular are not enthusiastic to discuss it. Moreover, many female ex-combatants do not readily talk about the war at all. Often based on their own experience, they fear that by talking about forced sexual encounters they will be labelled prostitutes.

Certainly, when female combatants returned from the war they faced a society which did not welcome the freedoms they had known. Many women found it difficult to marry or stay married. At home they found men and in-laws ready to label them murderers or prostitutes, while their male comrades were deemed "heroes." They were seen as too tough, too liberated and not good enough to be wives.

And, while many women felt that in the bush training camps they had - for the first time - been treated as equals to men, many had suffered unspeakable abuse. "In that respect," says Sinclair, "the women just stopped talking about it because it had become synonymous with a bad experience." Even today, Sinclair found that many women ex-combatants have not told their husbands or families that they fought in the struggle. Hence, Sinclair adds, "to then stand up and admit it is quite dangerous. People might think they have lied to them in the past. They couldn't say the sorts of things we want them to say because they are too contentious; they are not part of the glorious history."

A glorious history of war

In Zimbabwe, the pain of war lingers. In Harare, female ex-combatants showed me their wounds: napalm, bullets, thorns and scars from training in the bush often without uniforms. These are the inscriptions of pain on their bodies. Time has not healed the violence of war. They are the women of the struggle. They do not talk about how many people they shot at, or how many people they saw being killed. These women talk about human frailty; of trying to catch bullets in their hands as they whistled past their heads. They talk of falling in love with comrades; of making friends and losing them; of having no water to wash with and no cotton wool or pads for their menstruation or of stopping menstruation altogether due to hunger; of getting pregnant and having babies in foreign lands with no husbands or families for support. If anything, Flame may not go far enough in portraying the suffering conditions of these camps.

Today, most female ex-combatants do not read what is written about them in academic circles. They do not go to see movies and many will not go to see Flame. They are busy surviving, making business deals, growing maize or ground nuts, or selling vegetables on street corners. Some are even poorer. Demobilization payments are long spent and they wait patiently for compensation from the government but - even if compensation were available - many couldn't afford the bus fare to town centres to register for such compensation.

The "symbolic payment" - parades, memorials - is also long past due. At the National Heroes' Acre in Harare there is only one woman buried: Sally Mugabe, late wife of the President. There has been some public debate as a result. But most discussion of "what it means to be a hero in Zimbabwe" has focussed on whether soccer heroes should also be buried there. While there are quite a few empty plots left, there has not been any talk of whether women ex-combatants should receive burial at Heroes' Acre.

Flame's release

Despite protests from the ZNLWVA and threats to the film's producers, Flame was finished in time to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival and was approved for release in Zimbabwe. John Gwitira, President of ZNLWVA, has stated that the only reason he "let the film go ahead" was because of its final scenes. Indeed, notwithstanding their general indifference, the ZNLWVA does support equal compensation for female ex-combatants. Gwitira was apparently moved enough by the scenes at the film's end - where the comrades who fought together in the war are seen watching the ceremonies and parades at the national stadium on television but are not invited to attend the parades or publicly acknowledged for their efforts - that he and his association were willing to let the matter go.

Since then, Flame has had greater box office success in Zimbabwe than any other Zimbabwean-made film. It has been awarded the prestigious OAU award, and won Best Director and Best Actress at the Southern Africa Film Festival. And, of course, while it is not possible to say that Flame has made female ex-combatants more visible in a particularly glorified or heroic way, it has opened up the space for debate.

The women's movement in Zimbabwe has often used female guerrilla's experiences, fighting side by side with their men, as the basis for arguments to gain gender equality in legislation. To some extent this has been realized with the Age of Majority Act and changes to inheritance laws. However the women's movement today has not yet dealt with the specific needs of female ex-combatants. Women who fought in the struggle remain bitter about their treatment by society and government but remain hesitant to criticize the government which they fought so hard for. While female ex-combatants remain unable to organize themselves as a vocal group with special needs, the disparities in compensation based on gender widens.

Meanwhile, the stories told in Flame bring the struggle of female ex-combatants to a new audience - to young people who have little or no memory of war - and to others who have spent the past seventeen years trying to forget it. Perhaps this is why the war veterans are worried about Flame's content and want to control what it portrays. Flame challenges the conventional histories of war, lifting the smokescreen over women's war roles and experiences.

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