To give the dead names

who are the good? Where does the truth lie?


I first heard of The Musami Martyrs when I stumbled upon a document titled “THE MURDER OF MISSIONARIES IN RHODESIA”, a press release by the “Ministry of Information Rhodesia, July, 1978”. (

Predictably and almost irritatingly, that weblink led back to one of those pathetic “when-we” conservative websites, with a fluttering green and white Rhodesia flag gif: it collapses all hope of any objectivity or decency.

It’s sad that an attempt to examine the past through anything but the lens of a politically correct narrative (the goodies and the baddies, the saints and the devils) immediately places you in one of two camps: the glorious liberators who did no wrong, or the nefarious reactionaries defending the indefensible. But the reality is less clearly defined: one easily finds oneself amongst competing devils in the darkness.

The massacre of course was not unique: I remember stories my parents told of “The Copper Belt” – the mining region in the north of Zambia where I was born. My father was an officer in the Northern Rhodesian Police, and my mother was a young nursing sister in Kitwe during the late 50’s/early 60’s, and witnessed bloodied refugees fleeing the Congo with the bodies of their children in their cars. Pregnant women had been slashed open with machetes. Missionaries were commonly the victims of guerrilla atrocities.

Yet for some reason it was the names of the Jesuit and Dominican victims of the Musami massacre, the names of the dead – and imagining their deaths as if they had been my own or my loved ones – which arrested me, and made me dig beyond the reactionary cant and the self-congratulatory liberation rhetoric which cynically deflected the blame for the killings.

The Jesuit website has a short but valuable memorial piece to the martyrs:

A memorial for the Martyrs at Musami

St Paul’s Mission Musami, about 60 miles northeast of Salisbury, Rhodesia  (now Harare in Zimbabwe) had been founded in 1923. It achieved its most impressive development in the 1950s and 60s, thanks to the efforts of the superior, Fr Tony (Jeep) Davis, who had built schools, a hospital and sports’ facilities, including a large sports’ stadium and a swimming pool. It was the largest mission station in the Archdiocese of Salisbury, catering for over 2,000 students – mostly boarders. The key personnel on the mission were the Jesuit fathers and brothers, the Dominican sisters and a local sisterhood, the Little Children of Our Blessed Lady.

On the night of Sunday 6 February 1977 shortly after 8.00pm, a party of men in various types of uniform entered the mission and forced one of the Dominican sisters, Sr Magdala, to call the priests and brothers out of the rooms. Sr Anna was going to call one of the oldest sisters from her room but she fell and an armed man took pity on her and told her to stay behind and close her door. So she missed being killed through his kindness.


The four Jesuits and four Dominican sisters were marched out by the armed men. They thought they were going to attend a pungwe (a nocturnal meeting which was a favorite ploy of the liberation movement) but they were taken to the road near the church and lined up. The armed men pointed their guns at them and argued who should shoot and then it was quite obvious that they were going to be shot.

But they gave time for the priests to hear each others’ confessions and those of the non-priests. They told Fr Martin Thomas to take off his nice trousers and hand them over as they didn’t want them spoiled by blood. Fr Thomas complied and the gang opened fire on the missionaries. Fr Myerscough dropped to the ground when the firing started and was not hit. Fr Martin Thomas aged 45, the acting Mission Superior and an “English gentleman in Africa”, Fr Christopher Shepherd-Smith, aged 34, very dedicated to his parishioners but “sometimes a person not easy to live with” and Br John Conway, aged 56 and a sort of Pied Piper for the children around the Mission were killed. They were all members of the British Province of the Society of Jesus.

In addition, four members of the Dominican sisters were killed, These were:

Sr Magdala Lewandowski (43), Sr Epiphany Schneider (73) and Sr Ceslaus Stiegler (60) – all German sisters – and Sr Joseph Wilkinson (55) who was from England.”

There were claims and counter-claims about the incident: Robert Mugabe “strongly denied that his men, ZANLA, were the perpetrators, claiming it was the work of the Selous Scouts, a part of the Rhodesian army composed mainly of local blacks who used to disguise themselves as guerrillas and commit atrocities. The Rhodesian government of Ian Smith denied their involvement, though they were later known to have been involved in such incidents for propaganda purposes.” (From Memoirs, TED ROGERS Jesuit, Social Pioneer and AIDS Activist in Zimbabwe, Cluster Publications, Dorpspruit, South Africa).

Naturally the Smith government blamed the ‘freedom fighters’, while Mugabe’s ‘freedom fighters’ blamed the Selous Scouts of Ian Smith’s maverick UDI regime. As with so much evil, the devils are cowards who take no responsibility for their acts but slink away into the darkness.

In South Africa we know from our own tortured past that finding the truth of a matter can be almost impossible. I remember the Boipatong massacre[2], and the reports in the press of innocent people being thrown from trains, and the political assassinations and the “necklacing” of “spies” during the 1990’s[1]. It was the work of The Third Force – as it was called – (“… a term used by leaders of the ANC during the late 1980s and early 1990s to refer to a clandestine force believed to be responsible for a surge in violence in KwaZulu-Natal, and townships around and south of the Witwatersrand) (Wiki).

Who were they? Who were they working for? What motivated their atrocities? What kind of people would murder innocents?

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that while little evidence exists of a centrally directed, coherent or formally constituted “Third Force”, a network of security and ex-security force operatives, frequently acting in conjunction with right-wing elements and/or sectors of the IFP, was involved in actions that could be construed as fomenting violence and which resulted in gross human rights violations, including random and target killings.” (Wiki)

Zimbabwe never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so we will never know who the killers were.

Yet this human tragedy in the middle of Africa in 1978 was, at least,  remembered.

How many more human tragedies are forgotten, remain unseen?

At the scenes of other atrocities, this signification of the victims was precisely the intention of Clea Koff – “The Bone Woman” –  in her book of the same name: A Forensic Anthropologist’s Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.[3]

To remember. To pursue justice. To memorialize the dead.

To give the dead names.

I’m not sure why I keep returning to Africa’s brutal recent past. To understand? To atone? To make sense of discredited narratives in which I was inextricably involved by virtue of fate and circumstance? To throw the brutality of man in the face of God? To augment my cynicism, my misotheism? To say, you see God, and turn away from Him? To wallow in disgust at the lies and terrors of colonialism and the lies and terrors of what followed?  I visited Zimbabwe once only, as a teenager, in an armed convoy through what was then Rhodesia in the mid ’70’s. I remember the baobabs, and men with guns. We were visiting old friends at Llewellyn barracks in Bulawayo: a major in the Rhodesian army who’d been my schoolmaster in England.

I suppose I’m trying to understand how I was perpetually on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of whatever ethical standard one might hope to apply in these matters. And I seek to understand how it is that what were ostensibly “my people” did such heinous things, defended such heinous regimes, and yet at the same time how it is that marxist revolutionaries who murdered, raped and butchered civilians come out of it all looking like paragons of freedom and virtue. Yet rather than dismissing the accusing voices, I masochistically invite them all in, let them condemn me as they will. A babble of demons reactionary and revolutionary, all self-justifying – even the most violent of them reminding me their cause was the right one, their atrocities justified. A maddening chatter, like insane prosecutors in some surreal courtroom with a blood-drunk judge, and a jury ripping each other apart.



[1] The Historical Significance of South Africa’s Third Force” by Stephen Ellis | Journal of Southern African Studies Vol. 24, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), pp. 261-299 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL:

“Accounts of South Africa’s transition from apartheid differ markedly in the role they attribute to violence. The most influential narratives of negotiations tend to portray the violence of the transition period, including that perpetrated by those networks within and without the security forces which have become known collectively as the Third Force, as a reaction to events, doomed to failure and rather disconnected from the main narrative of history. Newly available evidence shows the degree to which the Third Force was integrated into the policy of the National Party over a long period, and played a crucial role in determining the nature and outcome of constitutional negotiations in 1990-1994. The consequences of the tactics used by the Third Force, and the legacy of the war for South Africa in general, continue to have an important influence on politics and on society. Analysis of contemporary South Africa can benefit from consideration of the manner in which politics, military activity and crime became enmeshed during a long war.”

[2] “On 17 June 1992 the Joe Slovo Informal settlement in Boipatong outside Vereeniging was attacked by a group of about 300 armed men from Kwa Madala Hostel in nearby Sebokeng Township. The armed men were affiliated to the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and observers suspected that the attack was aimed at undermining the delicate process of negotiations between the Nationalist Party (NP) government and the African National Congress (ANC). In response to the massacre the ANC withdrew from the negotiations, blaming the NP government for the attack.

The Boipatong massacre is one of the bloodiest and brutal moments of popular violence that engulfed South Africa in the decade between 1984 and 1993. Beginning in nearby Sebokeng and Sharpeville Townships, popular violence spread across South Africa, passing Boipatong by. Just when an end to popular violence appeared in sight, machete and spear-wielding “Zulu impis” struck, generating widespread condemnation for the IFP and Chief Mangosutho Buthelezi….

The rage displayed by hostel inmates )the killers) has been the subject of heated debates in townships and academic discourses. Township legends often invoke the use of the potion known as “intelezi” administered by traditional doctors before the “Zulu warriors” set out to attack. It is believed the potion numbs the warriors of any feeling of compassion for the victims. This is often used to explain why one of the attackers drove a spear through the body of a two year old toddler in the arms of his mother. Other attacks, described in the TRC are even more gruesome.”



[3] “One morning, early in January 1996, a 23-year-old anthropologist called Clea Koff found herself on a grassy hillside in Rwanda, surrounded by banana trees – and by skulls. One of a team of forensic experts sent by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to investigate the mass graves of Tutsis, murdered during the genocide of 1994, she had the job of reuniting the heads with their bodies, scattered down the hill, and in so doing to determine their age, sex, stature and the manner in which they had been killed. The notes she kept at the time, and those she wrote later describing mass graves in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, have become The Bone Woman: both a detailed account of what her work entails, and a deliberation on the nature of such investigations.

“… Even as a student at Stanford University reading anthropology, she knew that what interested her were not the long dead and properly buried of ancient archeology, but the recent dead: victims of violence, whose identities she could help to prove, whose killers could be brought to justice.

Koff… volunteered to work among forensic teams collecting evidence for the prosecutors seeking indictments on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In Rwanda, the massacred lay in single graves, the corpses were usually those of women and children; in Bosnia, the graves contained men, their hands tied behind their backs; in Kosovo, it was family groups, burnt together.

Everywhere, it was her task to pick away muscles and flesh, saw up bones, fit parts of bodies together to make entire corpses, and eventually to conduct relatives on visits of identification. The work was physically exhausting, the smells excruciating, the sights upsetting, but Koff, as she repeats several times, loved it. She loved the precision of her job, its satisfactory scientific and forensic dimensions, and she loved its implications, the sense that the bones could speak to her, help provide the clues that would condemn their killers. It was human rights work, of a most practical kind.

Not long ago, a collection of autobiographical pieces by front-line aid workers who run refugee camps, negotiate truces, take food to famine areas and dress wounds on behalf of organisations such as Medecins sans Frontières and Oxfam appeared as Another Day in Paradise. Despite the title, there was nothing ironic in the contributions: they were matter-of-fact personal records, written by mostly young men and women engaging in lives of unimaginable toughness, moving from one terrifying job to the next, with very few breaks.

Koff belongs among these modern mercenaries of the human rights and humanitarian world. Like them, she exudes restlessness, a sense of pleasure in risk, a need for this kind of adrenalin, as well as an obvious enjoyment in the camaraderie of working friendships as colleagues, befriended in Rwanda, are encountered again in Bosnia and Croatia. Like them, she is drawn back, again and again, by a feeling that it is still possible in the world to do something worthwhile and by a belief that witnessing is all that keeps the world from sinking into barbarity. She is part of what Michael Ignatieff has called the “expanding moral imagination” of our times.

Koff is a clear and precise writer, and her accounts of the slow and meticulous uncovering of the mass graves, body by body, of different forensic steps, and of the teamwork that goes into the process are fascinating. There is a postscript, listing the names of those brought before the International Tribunals. Though pitifully small in comparison with the numbers slaughtered, it gives purpose to the intensely unpleasant work that she describes.
– By Caroline Moorehead, The Independent

Addendum: to the reader who naively believes the Rhodesian forces were incapable of gross human rights violations, this review of a book about the atrocities perpetrated by the Selous Scouts makes disturbing reading:

The Elim mission massacre in the Eastern Highlands in June 1978: “On a cold winter’s night six armed men wearing balaclavas entered the students’ dormitory at the mission which lies high up in the Vumba mountains on the Mozambique border. They identified themselves as guerrillas loyal to Robert Mugabe and told the students that the school was closed. They then woke the nine British missionaries and their four children, bound them, and herded them into the freezing night. The women were raped, the men beaten and all were finally hacked to death and chopped into pieces. No single incident during a 15-year war led to such international con- demnation of the guerrillas. The white community was revolted and the internal settlement involving Bishop Muzorewa given fresh impetus.”

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