Terror in Seychelles – Zimbabweans in crossfire Part 3

This is the third and final part of the hijacking incident of an Air India Boeing 707 in 1981 with majority Zimbabwean passengers on board during an aborted coup attempt in Seychelles by Mike Hoare and his band of South African and ex- Rhodesian mercenaries.

By Miriam Majonme
The story is told through the perspective of my father Kenneth Rambakupetwa Majome who was one of the passengers on that fateful flight. He gave himself that middle name which simply translated means one who refuses to be folded or bent or more deeply one who refuses to be defeated. He enrolled for a Bsc Economics and Sociology degree in 1964 at the then University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland now University of Zimbabwe.

As he and other African students lined up for registration in the hallowed corridors of that grand university in Mt Pleasant they joked and laughed about giving themselves new names. It was an act of boyish rebellion emboldened by the concept of student freedom they were only discovering and experimenting with. It was also a nationalist protest prank of sorts to wind up the university’s white officials who could scarcely pronounce let alone spell ‘native’ names’ but there was nothing they could do unlike the colonial District Administrator’s officials who routinely gave Africans new names if they did not like their names or could not spell them.

At university if a Shona student declared his name was Dzvatsvatsvarinotswinya then that was his name. With barely any material possessions except a few change of clothes my father reunited with his school mates from Goromonzi High School and they discussed the nationalist politics of the day and their new names with other black students mostly from Fletcher High School. Out of that era emerged absurd names like Gabarinocheka, Mhosvahaiwori, Chimedzanemburungwe and others which mortified their parents when they heard about them. When it was his turn my father wrote Rambakupetwa a name he has lived up to in every respect to this day. At 80 he looks 70 and remains defiant and stubbornly unbendable against the odds of life.

Memories like these flashed through his head as the seized aeroplane took unsteadily to the sky at the command of the unpredictable armed desperados on board- a real life enactment of snakes on a plane. The mercenaries stowed away their AKs, Uzzis and 9mm pistols into their fake rugby kit bags but never far from their reach. Upon besieging the plane they did a roll call using code names to account for each other but six of them failed to make it and were arrested by the Seychelles forces. My father always carried a portable Sanyo branded cassette voice recorder for his meeting notes.

During the endless waiting as the battle between the mercenaries and Seychelles soldiers had raged on for control of the aeroplane he had switched it on to record the sound of gunfire and explosions. Despite the grave danger he was in he had stealthily recorded the voices of the mercenaries during the roll call then switched it off and hid it before the mercenaries took seats including beside him. Eventually after the ordeal and his safe arrival home in Harare thinking it was the right thing to do he had taken the recorder to KG6 army barracks and handed it over thinking it would be useful in investigations. He regrets this because nothing was done about it and it was the last he saw or heard of his recorder.

The flight was rough because of the damaged plane wing but it plied stubbornly southwards over the Indian Ocean back to the African mainland. The mercenaries had been tense at first but slowly relaxed the further they moved away from Seychelles airspace. The hairy mercenary on father’s side had even attempted to strike up what he believed to be friendly conversation with a fellow passenger. He asked my father about his occupation but my father never one to shy away from a conversation could think of nothing to say to a hijacker. He simply mumbled that he was a business man and the hijacker left it at that and they were silent for the rest of the flight. When my father needed to go to the toilet the mercenary politely obliged him to jump over his legs & awkward baggage. The mercenaries soon raided the bar and guzzled all the drinks with gusto offering none to the nervous passengers who were more preoccupied with their fate than drinking with their captors.

As they entered Southern African airspace Hoare changed his mind probably thinking Harare would be a softer landing than South Africa for his mercenaries so he directed the plane to land in Harare. However, the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe refused to clear it. The very idea of it made the new Prime Minister Robert Mugabe catatonic with rage especially the prospect of dealing once more and so soon with heavily armed South African and ex-Rhodesian military men. Facing his own internal post war political problems he could not fathom an international hijacking incident on his turf.

However, drama of the same kind was to revisit him two decades later in 2004 when another Briton Simon Mann was caught at that very airport trying to smuggle weapons out to lead a coup in Equatorial Guinea. Rebuffed by Harare the aeroplane continued further south to Jan Smuts International Airport (OR Tambo now) where too it was turned away. So it moved on to Louis Botha Airport (now Durban International Airport) its original intended destination.

In anticipation Louis Botha airport had been closed and tightly sealed off to the public. As soon as the Air India plane touched down in the very early hours of 26 November it was quickly swarmed and surrounded by heavily armed South African army soldiers. Snipers were posted around the airport and all guns pointed in unison ready to fire at the plane on command. Once again and in a matter of hours the abused passengers were in the middle of another tense military situation waiting for a trigger for gunfire to start again. At the sight of pointed guns passengers by the window seats stayed crouched low. The mercenaries had been expected to give themselves up to the South African army immediately upon arrival yet strangely they did not. It was uncertain what game they were playing because they were completely surrounded and their Seychelles coup misadventure had been a disaster of international proportions. Instead there was only more uncertainty, waiting and tense hours ahead for the weary passengers in the deadly stand-off which would result in a blood bath if something went wrong. The international press gathered in Durban and around the world could only wait and speculate. It became clearer why the passengers had been tagged along this dangerous journey back to Durban and why they continued to be held against their will. If Hoare’s plan had only been to escape arrest in Seychelles the passengers would have remained there while the plane flew them out with just the crew. Ever the brilliant tactician to the end Hoare had thought very quickly ahead in the aftermath of his coup disaster when the radar announced the surprise arrival of the Air India passenger plane at Pointe LaRue Airport. The passengers on board that descending plane were to be the last card he played aware that his mercenary career in Africa had come to its inglorious end right there.

The tension grew inside the plane and the exhausted hungry children on board began to wail and holler unbearably. Just after 8;30am some women and the wailing children were let out for a brief walkabout just outside the plane with a stern warning that any sudden move would result in instant shooting. It was short but a relief because it was the first time any passengers had left the plane in almost 48 hours. Negotiations between the mercenaries, the airport security, SA army and government officials dragged on for the rest of the morning until finally the mercenaries surrendered to the army. None of the passengers was harmed.

Hoare and his gang were eventually tried and convicted in South Africa and Seychelles. During his trial Hoare stunned the crowded courtroom with his numerous antics. He told the court that the Captain Umesh Saxena had volunteered to fly them out of Seychelles as gratitude for saving his life and that he had always longed to fly to Durban. He also disclosed to the shame of South Africa that the SA apartheid government had sponsored the coup attempt. Hoare was sentenced to 10 years in prison but served only 33 months before being released on a presidential Christmas amnesty. He died aged 100 on 3 February this year.

As for my father he lives on happily in retirement from government service. After they were finally released all passengers were flown to Johannesburg for onward conveyance home. Air Zimbabwe was on standby to fly the Zimbabweans back home but my father unbending and unyielding as ever refused to give up just like that. He decided to continue with his original mission to New Dehli and was soon on another Air India flight.

Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer at Veritas and she writes in her personal capacity. She can be contacted on mtmajome@gmail.com and Twitter @MajomeMiriam

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