By Bulawayo Correspondent
THE Zimbabwe Ex-Servicemen Association Trust (ZESA) has called on government to invent ways in which the country’s soldiers who participated in post-independence external war battles could be rehabilitated in the wake of their increased involvement in crime.
In 1998, government deployed thousands of Zimbabwe National Army soldiers to DRC to assist the then Laurent Kabila-led government from being toppled by a Hutu led insurgency.
Earlier in the 1980s, government also dispatched troops to neighbouring Mozambique to quell banditry activities perpetrated by the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) against civilians.
In both operations, Zimbabwe lost a significant number of troops and military hardware while in combat.
Many soldiers were also maimed in various battles with the enemy.
However, after going through the horrific experiences, soldiers who participated in these operations have not gone through any deliberate rehabilitation regime, leading to some of them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some of the soldiers have left the army and are said to be still haunted by the painful memories.
Lisani Nleya, an ex-soldier and veteran of the DRC war, recently appeared in court for allegedly killing his parents in cold blood and set their bodies on fire inside a hut.
In 2018, a soldier killed his wife, her two siblings and injuring his one-year-old son before shooting himself in a failed suicide attempt in Bulawayo’s New Magwegwe suburb.
Last year, a soldier stationed at 5 Infantry Brigade in Kadoma shot and killed his married lover with an AK47 rifle, before turning the lethal weapon on himself.
In an interview Friday, ZESA Trust secretary Moses Kumbweya, (ZESA) said the cited incidences could be linked to combat stress.
“A lot of soldiers who took part in the DRC and Mozambique wars were never rehabilitated or assisted with coping skills after witnessing horrendous events while in combat,” he said.
“I know some who have become mentally disturbed and some become alcoholics because of unspeakable situations which they encountered during the war.”
Kumbweya, a former soldier who participated in the DRC war, said since his resignation in 2008, he has been struggling to cope with trauma and stress associated with some of the battles which he fought on foreign territory.
“For me, the Mtotomoja battle will linger in my mind for the rest of my life,” he said.
“In that battle alone, we lost 33 soldiers. Imagine the trauma and experience of burying the decomposing bodies of these colleagues at a cemetery in a foreign land.
“This incident haunts me and I feel like crying whenever I recount this incident.”
Another soldier who participated in the famous Kabinda battle in eastern DRC where a significant number of Zimbabwean soldiers were also killed said he was also haunted by the horrific experiences.
“At times, I now experience hallucinations when sleeping because of the Kabinda battle.
“During that battle which occurred on 20 March 1999, blood was spattered all over and up to this very day, I do not eat beef because of that incident.
“I lost four close friends in that battle and we had to endure the agony of burying these people in Lubumbashi, thousands of kilometres away from home,” said the soldier who refused to be named for fear of victimisation.
He urged the government to rehabilitate the affected soldiers.
Dr Frances Lovemore of the Counselling Services Unit said her organisation was greatly concerned about the issue of battle-scarred soldiers in Zimbabwe.
“The lack of systematic mental health support to the military, particularly after active service has remained a concern to mental health practitioners in Zimbabwe.
“This vacuum has contributed substantively to family and community relationship challenges,” she said, adding that government should develop support and rehabilitation programmes for both serving and retired military personnel.
“The development of support and rehabilitation programmes is a challenge that both citizens and the government should meet to assist in the promotion of peace and tolerance in communities and to allow people who have served their country to return to normality,” she said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a major health challenge in any person who has experienced conflict in whichever role and manifests in various ways and with the inappropriate use of drugs and alcohol to attempt to control the debilitating symptoms of depression and anxiety.
If no mental health support services are offered, people tend to develop abnormal methods of coping, which further alienates them from family and friends and erodes their ability to re-integrate into society.