"On the radio they say all these things about us," protested the young black man, the sun glinting off the stainless- steel bayonet affixed to his rifle. "But as you can see, we are ordinary people."
The speaker calls himself only "Comrade Nobbie."
For the past six years, he has been one of the PAtriotic front guerrillas fighting for control of this southern African nation.
Since the bush war started here in 1972, guerrillas such as Comrade Nobbie have led shadowy existences, launching attacks by night and vanishing into the leafy Rhodesian woodlands by day.
Consequently, surprisingly little was known about the fighters who forced a white-minority government in Rhodesia to capitulate to black-maority rule. Only now that some 18,500 Patriotic Front guerrillas have gathered in cease-fire camps to await majority-rule elections here is a somewhat clearer picture of their group beginning to emerge.
Perhaps the most striking thing about te guerrillas is their age: Most are startingly young. In random visits to guerrillas encampments, few persons above the mid-twenties were encountered. One "colonel" in the front's army was only 23. Another officer began fighting at the age of 14 and is considered a veteran at 20.
Yet despite their youth, many of the guerrillas are well- traveled. Patriotic Front cadres recount tales on their training in such countries as China, the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Libya, as well as neighboring African nations.
Some guerrillas at Magadzi, an African settlement area northeast of Salisbury , still retained a few words of Chinese learned during a training stint in Peking. Their multinational backing is reflected in their weaponry and uniforms.
One guerrilla at Magadzi, calling himself "Comrade Mao," trooped about in an East German paratrooper's uniform. Another guerrilla nearby had a Russian-made AK-47 rifle, with a distinctive red star on its stock, slung carelessly over his shoulder. And a third sported a Cuban camouflage cap witha bright red "Drink Coca-Cola" button pinned incongruously over the brim.
Most of the guerrillas have taken "chimurenga" (the word for "war" in the Shona language) names, such as "field marshal challenge destroyer" or "son of the struggle." Those who retain their given names often put "comrade" before them.
Military experts here say the adoption of pseudonyms is typical of East-bloc guerrilla training techniques. A new name and the bestowal of a weapon "gives them status," says one military officer. One reason that the British government turned down proposals to disarm the guerrillas, he explains, was the likelihood of provoking strong psychological resistance.
Many of the guerrillas are not particularly inclined to glorify the war itself, however. In fact, they are often reluctant to talk about the conflict, in which at least 20,000 people lost their lives. "That is over now, said one guerrilla, cutting off questions about his role in the fighting. Others reportedly have conceded, however, that anyone who was a "sellout" (a traitor to the Patriotic Front) was quickly eliminated, be they civilians, missionaries, or even members of the guerrillas' own families.
Most of the guerrillas interviewed said they want to stay in the military, even after February's majority-rule elections. "I'll remain a soldier," predicted Comrade Nobbie.
"I want to protect the masses," said another guerrilla at an assembly point near Mrewa.
Whether they have that opportunity depends largely on whether the Patriotic Front wins in the February elections. Will the guerrillas accept the results of the elections, no matter who wins?
On this question, there is little consensus. "Yes," claimed a private called "Comrade Tim," adding, "We have been fighting for the people, not for a person." But a more typical reply came from a youthful officer who simply stated, "I don't know."
The British government says it will provide aid to Zimbabwe (as Rhodesia will be called after the elections) to help in retraining the guerrillas for civilian life.
Of course, there also are large numbers whites who will need similar help. Many have been forced to delay educational or employment opportunities because of compulsory military service in the Rhodesian war.
What, then, are the prospects for a peaceful, multiracial Zimbabwe emerging from the embittered, divided Rhodesia of today?
Judging by some of the guerrillas' comments, the prospects are somewhat encouraging.
The enemy in the war was "[former Prime Minister Ian] Smith and his government " said "Comrade Challenge." STanding next to him, "comrade Nathan" added, "We were not fighting color."