A harvest of thorns

A harvest of thorns

MASERU – ONE day in the mid-1970s Utloang Sello felt his life was in danger. He decided to flee to Botswana, fearing torture by the Basotho National Party (BNP) government led by the late Chief Leabua Jonathan.
Feeling safe, he decided to return home in 1987. Misery awaited him.
“I missed my family,” Sello, now 81, told thepost
There was no family to welcome Sello when he returned home to Lesotho in 1987. His wife had left together with their children.
“I had no home to go to,” he said.

Since then Sello has been living in the home of a nephew who felt sorry for him. He said he has never garnered enough funds to rebuild his home.
“No wife, no children and no home. I am old, I will die a disappointed man,” he said, summing up his situation.
The political history of Lesotho is characterised by turmoil, dictatorship and state sponsored torture and killings that forced many Basotho to skip the country.

In the 1970s, some people particularly those supporting the congress movement, fled Lesotho alleging that their lives were at risk.
Many left the country for South Africa for good but still retained Lesotho citizenship.
As political tensions soared, the leader of the Basotho Congress Party (BCP) Dr Ntsu Mokhehle skipped the country to seek asylum in Botswana and later in South Africa.

Hundreds of members of his party who felt the brunt of Chief Leabua Jonathan’s wrath left with him and later formed a rebel group called the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA).
Sello, from Ha-Makhathe in Mohale’s Hoek, was a combatant in the guerilla force fighting “a struggle for liberation”. Like many others, he ended up fleeing.

Leaving their families behind to live in a foreign land was one of the toughest decisions the guerillas had to make, he said.
“Our lives were full of suffering and agony,” said Sello, a former teacher.
From Botswana, where Sello and his group first sought refuge, they headed to Libya for military training.
Such training was also conducted in countries such as Uganda and Tanzania.

Sello recounted the time of hardships in Tanzania.
“We used to stay in a bizarre and wild environment,” he recalled, adding that they were not living in towns.
“You could see an elephant or lion nearby. But you were not allowed to shoot it,” he said.
He said they went through “massive military training” to topple Chief Jonathan’s government.

Sello said he was in the first group to return home in the southern districts of Mafeteng, Mohale’s Hoek and Quthing in 1987.
Others returned in later years after the army toppled Jonathan.
He said he went through Zambia to meet Dr Mokhehle who was holed up in that country.
Returning to the country was not a stroll in the park as he used an illegal entry point. He didn’t know the agony he was walking into.

Leaving the family behind when he went into hiding proved “disastrous and catastrophic”.
“My family disintegrated when I skipped the country. I lost responsibility of the family. There was no control while I was in exile,” he said.
He said the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU) supported the exiles “against all odds”.
Sello said he spent “a long time” coming in and out of the country spying on the movements of Lesotho security institutions.

His assignment was to work in the southern districts of Mafeteng, Mohale’s Hoek and Quthing.
“The work was dangerous because I could only walk at night,” said Sello.
“I toiled and suffered because I had to do this work with the utmost intelligence. I had to walk because taking a car would mean that some people could identify him.

“It was not easy to do the job. The world knows how hard it was,” he said. “Our efforts and sacrifices were however never acknowledged.”
In January 1986 Jonathan’s own army toppled him, opening the way for the exiles to return home starting from 1987 until 1992 when the country prepared for the first democratic elections since 1970.
Sello said he was expecting to be recruited into the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) together with his comrades as per the AU recommendation.
Unfortunately for people like Sello, their leader Mokhehle disbanded the LLA and it was no longer recognised as a military force at home and abroad.

Their dream of being incorporated into the national army died, and the BCP leadership did little to help the guerillas.
“Worse, Mokhehle made a public statement saying he never invited the guerillas to work with him. We got nothing in return. No benefits,” Sello lamented.
He said BCP disowned them at a time when they thought they would protect them.

It was only in 2012 when the government led by Pakalitha Mosisili, a former exile but who did not join the LLA, decided to pay the cadres M300 each monthly as their pension.
The government’s decisions to give the war veterans a pension came two months after the Lesotho Liberation Army Veterans Association (LLA-VETA) announced that its members would stand for election under the flag of the Lesotho People’s Congress (LPC).

The then LLA-VETA chairperson, Fusi Koetje, had announced that the association had resolved to go to parliament through one of the congress parties after they got a cold shoulder from the then ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), a BCP splinter party, when they wanted their plight discussed.
Sello said the ex-combatants tried to form income generating societies to help them escape poverty without much success.
He cited the formation of the LLA-VETA as an example of such societies.
One of the responsibilities of the LLA-VETA was to repatriate the remains of Basotho freedom fighters who died in foreign countries.

Sello said some of their responsibilities included teaching their loyal supporters about guerrilla warfare.
“A lot happened during the struggle,” Sello said.
Another ex-LLA combatant, Lebohang Sekotlo, 70, from Quthing in Masitise, said he was working in the South African mines when he joined the military movement under the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), which had ties with the BCP.
The PAC is a South African national liberation Pan-Africanist movement that is now a political party.
That was back in 1975.

“I was still a boy at that time,” Sekotlo said.
He said he was compelled to join the movement because his family back in Lesotho was being persecuted for being members of the BCP.
The LLA was a guerrilla movement in Lesotho, formed in the mid-1970s and connected to the anti-apartheid Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA), which was the PAC’s military wing.

The LLA was the armed wing of the BCP, a pan-Africanist and left-wing political party founded in 1952, which opposed the regime of Prime Minister Jonathan.
The PAC, he said, at the time was chaired by Potlako Leballo who was from Mafeteng.
Because the movement was supported by the United Nations, it was provided with some basic items to save them against starvation.
Sekotlo said Dr Mokhehle was part of the movement.

He said he trained under the umbrella of the PAC by the Azania People’s Liberation Army (APLA) in different countries such as Tanzania, Libya and Syria.
The LLA was fighting to restore the Lesotho constitution which Chief Jonathan had suspended and banned all political movements in the country except his own BNP, which formed its own militia called Lebotho la Khotso (Army of Peace).
“It was only Chief Leabua who had power,” Sekotlo recalled.
He said their mandate was to topple Chief Jonathan.

He said members of his family were in distress because of the persecution caused by his decision to join the armed struggle.
Sekotlo said Leballo was toppled as the chairman of the PAC and the PAC refused to support them afterwards.
Then they were forced to be independent from any other movement.
This saw the Basotho mine workers who were against Chief Jonathan coming together to form the LLA.

“The BCP had to be supported by its members,” Sekotlo said, adding that the mission was to topple the Jonathan-led government without any bloodshed.
“We had our people in the Lesotho army,” Sekotlo said.
He said the Afrikaners who were in power at the time in South Africa arrested about 30 Basotho who were returning from training.
The Afrikaners handed over those people to the BNP government that executed them at Setibing, the Lesotho army’s training camp.
A lot happened at that time, Sekotlo said.

“While we were still trying to see how we could remove Chief Jonathan from power, the military toppled him in 1986,” he said.
Sekotlo said it took about three to four weeks to inaugurate Dr Mokhehle after his BCP won elections because “there were a lot of conditions that were put by the Afrikaners in South Africa”.
He said one of the conditions was for Dr Mokhele to disband the LLA because the guerillas were trained personnel who were deemed a threat to South Africa.

The majority of the LLA ex-combatants have been wallowing in poverty after only a selected few were given jobs in different government departments.
“Many have died disappointed,” said Sello.
“I will probably also die a disappointed man like many of my comrades,” he said.

Majara Molupe

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