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Martyrs’ blood, relatives’ pain

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By Wisdom Ngwira:

LOST HIS FATHER — Thawe

Every March 3 reminds Benga Chiumia of the day he saw 31 unarmed civilians being shot to death in cold blood by the then colonial government at Nkhata Bay Jetty.

Chiumia says he still has fresh memories of fresh blood that gushed from the 31 dead bodies 60 years ago.

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“I was still in my youthful years when we heard that some leaders of the National African Congress (Nac) had been arrested and detained due to the growing popularity and influence of Nac.

“The colonial masters declared a state of emergency and at least 200 Nac leaders were arrested. In Nkhata Bay, the arrested Nac leaders were packed into MV Mpasa vessel, ready to be transferred to various prisons,” Chiumia recalls.

He adds that, in anger, some residents of Nkhata Bay mobilised and marched towards the jetty where the ship with the detained leaders had docked.

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“Upon arrival, the people asked the then colonial District Commissioner [DC] John Block to release the leaders or else they would riot,” Chiumia says.

He adds that tension rose when the DC refused to release the detained leaders as the demonstrators kept on pressing hard.

“After noticing that the demonstrators were adamant, the DC ordered the protesters to move away from the scene or he would command colonial forces to shoot and kill them. In no time, we saw the soldiers who were on top of buildings open fire on the protesters killing them on spot.

“Some of us managed to escape because we were young and had to hide under dead bodies,” Chiumia says.

Martyrs families’ cries

For a decade now, James Thawe has been standing on the podium, in front of either the country’s Head of State or their representative, to speak on behalf of families that lost their relatives.

Thawe, from Traditional Authority (T/A) Mkumbira, says he remembers March 3 1959 as the day he became an orphan.

“It is this day that I lost my father who happened to be the breadwinner not only for his children but also some extended family relatives. It is on this day that I sit down and recall how my dreams for a brighter future became shuttered with the passing on of my dad,” he says.

Since then, Thawe and other living relatives of the 31 fallen heroes bemoan that they are failing to live a life that they could have lived if their relatives were around.

“It also pains us most that we have been asking in vain to have an audience with the various State Presidents that have been around,” said Thawe during this year’s Martyrs Day commemoration.

He further complained that the country’s politicians have failed to truly honour the martyrs.

He bemoaned that changes in the country’s leadership have also negatively impacted on the welfare of the martyrs’ families.

“For example, during the one-party and early multiparty era, there were initiatives to support financially families of the martyrs. We also had the National Compensation Bureau which was helping the families in some aspects this abruptly stopped,” Thawe said.

Nkhata Bay thing or national event?

March 3 is a national holiday in Malawi. Main commemoratory events take place at three points in Nkhata Bay.

First, people gather at the jetty where the 31 people were shot dead. Then the people travel to Kakumbi Village where they lay wreaths at a cemetery where the dead bodies were buried.

Finally, they gather at Chirundu point where prayers are held.

But despite being a national holiday, chairperson of the organising committee for the 2019 Martyrs Day commemoration, Graham Paul Nazombe, wonders why government does not take over organising the function.

“To be honest, this whole thing is viewed as a Nkhata Bay event since every year, we organise the event by asking well-wishers especially around Nkhata Bay to help finance the event. But these people [martyrs] died for this country,” Nazombe says.

He reasons that government’s recognition of the day as a national holiday and that presidents either attend or delegate ministers to the event should automatically ignite more attention and funding.

“We find it very difficult to plan and finance the event. We ask the government to step in and take over full control of this very important event,” Nazombe says.

Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe, who represented President Peter Mutharika during this year’s commemoration, agreed that not much has been done by past and current governments.

Gondwe, however, proposes that a proper platform be created where stakeholders should discuss how best to handle the martyrs issue than dwelling on previous government’s alleged disregard for the relatives and the day itself.

“These people took too much courage to die for us and we are better off now than before because of them. However, there have been so many governments since 1959 and I cannot answer on behalf of all of them,” Gondwe said.

To help families of the 31 martyrs, private practice lawyer Ralph Mhone volunteered to take to court the March 3 1959 killings for the British Government, which colonised Malawi, to compensate the victims’ families.

The lawyer, who is also Nkhata Bay Central Constituency Member of Parliament, feels what happened to the weaponless Malawians at Nkhata Bay Jetty was an act of crimes against humanity.

To this effect, he says, just as the British Government compensated families of the Mau- Mau Movement in Kenya, the 31 families that lost relatives in the massacre at Nkhata Bay jetty deserve compensation. — Mana

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