BY TAPIWA ZIVIRA/EVERSON MUSHAVA
HIS camouflage uniform discharges a heavy stench of sweat, while his dusty face, dirty hands and dry mouth betray what he has been through lately. Yet he continues to toil in the sun, offloading packs of donated foodstuffs from an army truck for distribution to cyclone-hit families.
This is Joshua (not his real name), one of the hundreds of soldiers deployed to Chimanimani, doing all the dirty work to help the cyclone-hit community recover, and today (Thursday), they are stationed at Charter Bridge, where they are part of the team that is ensuring aid brought to communities gathered at the damaged bridge, is taken across the river to vehicles waiting to ferry them to Ngangu township, one of the hardest-hit areas.
“So with the help of local people, we have to offload the items, carry them across to the trucks on the other side,” Joshua said.
The soldiers, working together with civilians, have created a human chain, handing each other packs of food items across the river, standing in the knee-level water.
Throughout the day, the soldiers, police and civilians continue to harmoniously get aid — mostly food items — across the river, and once in a while, they crack a joke and laugh, deserved relief in the midst of the depressing disaster.
This harmony, for many, is an unusual thing given the bad image the army had assumed over the past year when they were accused of instituting terror on citizens in a disproportionate response to anti-government protests triggered by the country’s harsh economic environment.
Since assuming power in November 2017, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has not hesitated to unleash the army on civilians, and on two occasions — in August last year and January this year — a total of 23 people died and hundreds were left with injuries after the army fired live ammunition on protesters.
A simple Google search of the Zimbabwe National Army brings images of soldiers shooting at and beating up civilians on the streets.
But down in Chimanimani, Joshua and hundreds of his colleagues deployed here portray a completely different picture.
Joshua does not look like a killer, neither does he wear a hideous black mask associated with those who pounced on protesters last year and this year. He is an angel of humanitarian work together with his team.
Instead, his eyes are soft, his uniform is clearly marked to show his brigade and rank, and when he speaks, it is with a strong commanding, but very humane voice.
From the day disaster struck Chimanimani two weeks ago, the soldiers deployed to the cyclone-ravaged area have worked round the clock, sometimes with limited resources.
As photojournalist Anthony Zinyange recalls, after realising that all the roads leading to the most affected zones were inaccessible after roads and bridges had been destroyed, while the sky was still foggy, the men in uniform — made up of mostly junior officers — walked several kilometres into the heart of Chimanimani.
“They were full of energy and they eagerly wanted to get to Ngangu to rescue any survivors, and they jogged all the way, hoping to get there early enough to avert further loss of life, but they were deeply-troubled and dejected when they discovered that all they could do was recover corpses,” Zinyange said.
“The gravity of the matter, which had been seriously understated in the media, left them ripped apart, but they continued to do their best, assisting those that needed to be taken to safe zones.”
Even as efforts to clear the roads began, there were challenges.
“At some point, a grader failed to move a huge pile of mud that had slid onto the road, and we had to use shovels to clear the way. All we wanted was for the affected areas to be accessible” Joshua said.
As the day ends at Charter Bridge, Joshua and his colleagues get into one of the army trucks, ready to travel back to Skyline, one of the campsites established to co-ordinate relief efforts.
It is the end of yet another day of unwavering dedication to serve the nation under difficult circumstances, and another side of Zimbabwe’s army.
At Kopa, where an entire suburb was washed away by floods and over 300 people are still unaccounted for, soldiers have built a makeshift bridge and spend the whole day managing crowds and at times repairing it to make it continuously passable.
“I came alone, I got foodstuffs for their victims, but I am old and could not carry my load. A soldier came and helped me cross the makeshift bridge and carried my load straight to my home over there [about six kilometres]. My fellow villagers refused saying I should wait for my grandson to help me, but the soldiers did,” an elderly woman, Gogo Dhliwayo said.
Soldiers apart from maintaining order to ensure fair distribution of aid, also spend their day helping children cross the makeshift bridge, digging up for missing bodies and making roads passable.
“They are very good when doing humanitarian work, but when it comes to political issues, ummm, they are something else. I think the problem is the political leaders themselves who send them. Alone, they are humane and helpful, like a people’s real army,” one motorist remarked as he sped off at Skyline.