Read of the Week

Murder in the Zambezi

Ian Pringle

Createspace Independent Publishing

Review: John Harvey

There’s an age-old trope that states history is written by the victors. It has stood the test of time because for the most part it’s true.

In conflict, particularly that of a political nature, nine times out of 10 it is the winner’s version of events that is broadcast far and wide, eventually finding a permanent home in the history texts taught to generations of schoolchildren.

The key players are portrayed as heroes who stood up to the villainous tyrants, through sheer force of will overcoming their oppressors. Sadly, in such exchanges it is the innocent civilians who are lost to the past, nameless except to those friends and families who cared for them.

The brilliance of this work by Pringle lies in its countering of that position. Through interviews with loved ones and meticulous research, he has humanised everyday people who for too long were considered no more than “collateral damage” on Zimbabwe’s fraught road to independence.

The book centres on the attacks on two Air Rhodesia Viscount passenger planes flying from Kariba. Guerrillas from Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPLA) lay in wait armed with Russian-made Strela 2 missiles, and literally blew the aircraft out of the sky.

Eighteen people survived the first crash, thanks in the main to the expert piloting skills of captain John Hood who himself succumbed on impact. However, for 10 of these survivors, their miraculous escape was short-lived. Within hours the rebels descended on the crash site and brutally executed this small group, which had huddled together against the cold.

Tragically, Air Rhodesia failed to heed the advice of veteran pilots and engineers who suggested mechanisms that could be fixed to the Viscounts that could retard the heat-seeking capabilities of the Strela missiles. The result was that a second passenger plane was lost, killing all 59 passengers on board.

Nkomo claimed responsibility for both incidents, bringing to the world’s attention that the bush war had intensified and entered its most terrifying phase.

Rhodesia at this time had already been sanctioned by the international community, so for those residing in the country it was a case of making do with whatever was available, while still trying to carry on with daily life. The pilots, cabin crew and passengers epitomised ordinary folk who yearned for a peaceful existence and hoped that the warring forces might come to an accord that was in the best interests of the country. This is something that Pringle successfully gets across to the reader, going into painstaking detail about the victims’ family holidays and how they liked to spend their free time.

He also provides testimonies from those who managed to cheat death, simply by extremely fortunate turns of events or being placed at the rear of Air Rhodesia Flight RH825. Experiencing the emotion of these survivors adds a chilling element to the storyline.

The book gives considerable pause, not only pertaining to how conflicts evolve in southern Africa, but also how easily innocent people can be left behind by history.