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Importance of memorials


Eddie Cross

ONE of my uncles, Havelock Cross was killed in 1916 in World War I. I am sure that somewhere in Europe is a blank white cross placed by a grateful nation in his memory. Today it is 77 years since the Allied Forces landed in Normandy (part of France and Channel Islands) to start the process of liberating Europe from Nazi tyranny. On plain white stone are 22 000 names engraved with the dates on which they were killed and their ages. So many young people died, the world lost a whole generation in that conflict. Many of the names are from this and other Commonwealth nations.

In 1989, I travelled to Germany with our late former Home Affairs minister Dumiso Dabengwa. Germany had just recently united after decades under the divided State administration that the World War II left behind. The highlights of that trip for me was meeting a young Christian Democrat called Angela Merkel and buying a hot dog from the former East German ambassador to Zimbabwe, who was now working in a fast food outlet in Berlin. The other memory which will stay with me until I die was a plain white marble memorial to the German soldiers who fought in the World War II in what had been East Berlin.

This memorial is virtually unknown outside Germany, but there can be no doubt that whatever you think of the Nazi party and its leadership and the way Adolf Hitler dominated Germany and led the country into suicidal conflict on the basis of racial supremacy, the one outstanding feature of the war was the German soldier. All those young Germans who carried out amazing military feats in obedience to their leadership. Everyday, a large truck had to be brought to this memorial to take away the flowers and memorabilia that visitors deposited at the site.

I lived through the Vietnam war when America tried to halt the tide of Communist expansion in the far East. It divided the US like no other war after the civil war. Veterans came home in coffins and in wheelchairs many deeply troubled by the horrors they had experienced only to find out found that they were not regarded as heroes. Despite this, the US leadership decided that a memorial should be created in Washington in memory of the more than 50 000 men and women who died in this failed war.

An architect was appointed and the result, when it was unveiled, was very controversial — just a deep trench in the ground lined by black stone, on which every name of those who died was inscribed. At one end was a simple statue of ordinary GI in a fight. As I walked through that trench, I was struck by how real the sacrifice of every man was made clear. In the same place were dozens of families, parents with small children, looking for the names of their relatives. Toys, flowers and tears were all over the place. It felt like sacred ground, no different to the German memorial to the millions of young Germans who died in World War II.

Here in Zimbabwe, just two weeks ago, President Emmerson Mnangagwa unveiled a memorial to Mbuya Nehanda, who was executed in 1896 by my forefathers for her role as one of the leaders of the first revolt against white colonial settlement.

This was very controversial in what is a predominately a Christian country today and many criticised the action because Nehanda had been a spirit medium. I watched the ceremony and noted that Mnangagwa had asked a Christian pastor to open with a prayer and then a selection of chiefs participated.

Mnangagwa highlighted that they were celebrating those who had fought and died in the First Chimurenga.

That brings us back to the need for memorials to the men and women who died in our own internal struggle for independence, democracy and freedom. In South Africa, the Afrikaner people built a memorial to those who died in their own history in Pretoria in the form of a Voortrekker memorial. I have visited this and seen how Afrikaner families bring their children to the monument and show them the murals depicting their history.

In Zimbabwe, we have war memorials to those who died in the two World Wars and their graves are looked after by a Trust. We also have a memorial in the Matobo Hills to Cecil John Rhodes as well as the men who died in the attempt to capture King Lobengula during the occupation. There is no memorial to the men who died in that same battle protecting their king. The Rhodesian memorials are protected and respected as is the Voortrekker memorial in South Africa.

But, 41 years after the end of the Second Chimurenga, there are no memorials to the men and women who died in what had really been a civil war. I think this is a serious oversight.

What I would like to see is a commission to oversee this process and to undertake the creation of memorials to the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, Zimbabwe National Liberation Army and Rhodesian Army soldiers who lost their lives in the struggle. Such a commission should run a competition to select a suitable design for each memorial. Then to raise the funds for construction from the public and oversee construction at selected sites. Families should be invited to submit the names of those they want remembered.

These sites should be open to the public and to the families of those being remembered, to visit and remember their heroes. It gives us as a people and a country a place where we can remember the people who made the ultimate sacrifice which is to “give up their life for others”. Young Zimbabweans need to know and understand that what they enjoy today in terms of freedom, democracy, dignity and opportunity was won through sacrifice.

That is exactly what the British are doing today at Normandy, overlooking the beaches where thousands died for the freedom of Europe. As the Germans and the Americans have shown, it does not need to recognise or even celebrate victory — just courage and sacrifice. Whatever cause is involved it is cathartic and healing and allows us all to remember the sacrifice of others who did not come home.

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