Belfast Telegraph

My own brush with violence in volatile state still haunts me

By Paul Hopkins

When I was cutting my teeth in journalism, I decided one day to take myself off to Rhodesia, the former Zimbabwe, where a war was being waged by the majority black people against their white minority rulers.

There were six million blacks, the whites just 250,000. The Patriotic Front guerillas of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo were engaged in a bloody conflict with the soldiers of Premier Ian Smith, a veteran British Second World War fighter pilot who had unilaterally broken from British rule in the early Sixties.

I can still recall the sounds and the smells and the scorched red earth that first day I set foot on African soil in 1977.

All I had back then was a raw enthusiasm and 'some' nerve to venture into a war zone, with a token guarantee of work for Ireland, Scotland and the odd stint for Associated Press (AP).

This 40-year-old photo of a very young me (right, forefront) covering the downing of an airplane found me in the thick of it.

Look closely and you can see part of the fuselage on the left, soldiers in the background. Air Rhodesia Flight 825 was a scheduled passenger flight shot down by guerrillas on September 3,1978.

The Viscount, named The Hunyani, was flying from Victoria Falls to the capital Salisbury (now Harare). Guerrillas scored a hit to its starboard wing with a Soviet-made Strela 2 surface-to-air missile, critically damaging the aircraft and forcing an emergency landing. An attempted belly-landing was foiled by an unseen gully, which caused the plane to cartwheel and break up.

Of the 52 passengers and four crew, 38 died on impact. To this day, I still have the odour of burnt and putrefied flesh in my nostrils.

Insurgents then rounded up the 10 survivors they could see and massacred them with automatic gunfire. Three passengers survived by hiding in the bush, while a further five lived because they had gone to look for help before the guerrillas arrived.

I remember the Rhodesian Army officer who led the journalists' convoy to the scene was ex-British Army, had served in Belfast, and did not count Catholic Paddies among his favourites - but we hit it off.

Earlier in 1978, in the middle of this war one day arrived Conor Cruise O'Brien. The Cruiser, as he was known, was no stranger to controversy and as onetime Minister for Posts & Telegraphs in the Republic had put a gag on Sinn Fein members being interviewed by RTE.

Seventeen years previously, in September 1961, a company of 155 Irish UN troops found themselves surrounded by a force of heavily armed warriors outnumbering them 20 to one in what was then Belgian Congo. This was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission: instead they found themselves ordered on to the offensive by the UN's most senior diplomat on the ground, Cruise O'Brien.

The Irish held out for six days in the Siege of Jadotville before then spending months in captivity.

When they arrived home, they were dismayed to learn that the UN and Dublin were anxious to sweep the sorry episode under the carpet.

In 1978, a so-called internal settlement was reached between Ian Smith and the moderate Bishop Abel Muzorewa, with a concessionary nod to a future, unspecified, independence. Cruise O'Brien was then editor-in-chief of London's Observer.

In the Press Club at the Ambassador hotel in Salisbury (Harare) I got wind that he was coming out to write an overview on this internal deal. The Irish Press in Dublin asked me to interview The Cruiser, given his legacy in the Congo. As it happened, he decamped at the Ambassador, where I had had a brief dalliance with the young woman in reception.

I got The Cruiser's room number and rang him. No interviews, he said, he was there as a working journalist.

I said to my friend, I'll be in the Press club. If he calls for room service, let me know.

He ordered Earl Grey tea and cucumber sandwiches.

At the pass, I cut off room service and knocked on The Cruiser's door. He was expecting a black face.

Please sir, I pleaded, just give me 20 minutes of your time. He objected to my intrusion quite vociferously but eventually relented.

I got my story - and half a cucumber sandwich - and sold it halfway around the world.

About a year before that I was in a convoy travelling from Salisbury to Bulawayo in the southern region of Matabeleland when we came under fire.

We hit the decks of our 4x4: I peed my pants and, in the fire, was hit by shrapnel.

Nothing dramatic, I hasten to add, and the shrapnel was only about a quarter the size of the nail of your little finger. But it was lodged in my chest and occasionally caused me irritation and you could see the tiny hole where the skin had never fully healed.

In 2010 I underwent open-heart surgery for a congenital murmur and the good surgeon afterwards presented me with a clean bill of health ... and also the said shrapnel.

Belfast Telegraph

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