Lesotho is a country of only about 2 million people and it has had a series of coups, with frequent rumours of uprisings, since independence in 1966. The capital Maseru is the size of a large clan gathering. A year ago, soon after the launch of The Journalist we ran this story. In the wake of fresh tensions in the Mountain Kingdom, it is as valid this week as it was then.
A policeman who was under attack, a woman who is still in pain after being wounded by a soldier in a previous coup attempt, a youngster who thought she heard machine guns and a couple of students all agree that even by Lesotho standards calling it a coup is a bit of a stretch.
In a world where body counts determine the size of headlines, Lesotho causes only a ripple. But the events of this past week have been extremely painful for some. Lerato Molisana who writes for the University of the Free State campus newspaper Irawa, says her family can hardly speak about some elements of this turbulent history.
“I was supposed to go home on Saturday morning for a family celebration but got a call from my uncle at around 6.30, instructing me not to come because there was turmoil. He told me the army and the police were fighting. Alarmed and worried about the safety of my family I sent messages to everyone. We have a family Whatsapp group so it was easy. Some were in panic mode.”
Lerato says it is ironic that the last time the Molisanas were thrown into a state of shock by an attempted coup in 1994, they were also planning a family gathering. She was a little girl of five years old at the time but remembers the details vividly.
“It’s still a very sore topic so whenever I bring it up, people start crying and such. In 1994 we were going to be together because there was a state of emergency and also my grandmother was seriously ill in hospital. My father had gone to see my grandfather who lived outside Maseru at the time, to take him the news about my gran’s deteriorating condition. A soldier came to our house asking if we sold alcohol. It was dark, after 8 o’clock. I was on my mother’s back she was carrying me. We were outside and she spoke to the soldier across the wall in front of our house. She was already in her nightdress because we were getting ready for bed. When my mother turned to go inside he started firing. One of the bullets hit me. There were bubbles and blood on my left leg. I was crying hysterically.
“There was a curfew from 6 pm to 6 am at the time, so there was nobody out on the streets. Our neighbour came to help. He had to break the curfew to risk taking us to the hospital. At the robots he insisted on stopping. I remember my mother screaming; ‘Why are you stopping, do you not see that this child might die! Just keep driving.’ She was red in the face, crying and screaming, very hysterical. Usually my mother keeps her cool all the time. She’s a very calm person.
“My mother was still in her nightie. It was white with pictures of balloons and little orange carrots. She still has it. That picture keeps coming back. I remember concentrating on those small things. The pain obviously I don’t remember.
“My grandmother died the same day I was shot. My father still can’t talk about that day. He blames himself, saying that as the father he should have been here to protect us. He was with my grandfather when they got the news of her death and then shortly after a phone call to say I had been shot. At first he thought; ‘Oh no, she’s also gone’. It was a trying time for him.”
Lerato was in preschool at the time. For many years she was in and out of hospital. She missed two years of schooling and had to undergo several operations. Her left leg is still shorter than it should be, the muscles in her foot do not work properly and it is painful to walk or stand sometimes.
“I still have the bullet in my body right now. Metal fragments had to be removed. My toes are all curled up because there is nerve damage and I can’t really move my foot properly. One time they were ready to amputate my leg. I was on the operating table. They had found that there was no more blood flow to my left leg. They had their saws and whatever they use, ready. But when the doctor touched my leg it was a bit warm somehow and they decided to wait a few more days. This is the part my family is comfortable talking about. They say this is one of those miracles. It’s how we knew that God was behind us. Everyone was praying for me.
“But soon I might have to have another operation because there is still pain and discomfort when I walk. My mother doesn’t like how my disfigured body looks. She still gets upset and says; ‘You were not born like this.’ That’s one of the things that always hurts me. I’ve had so many plaster casts and operations. I’m due for another one,” says Lerato, a third year Bachelor of Science student at the UFS.
History Is Repeated
She says given that they were planning to have a farewell celebration for a cousin who was leaving to study abroad this weekend, there was a feeling in their family of a painful history coming back to haunt them. And it’s a sense of déjà vu for the whole nation.
“The 1994 shooting happened on the 4th of September. This week I couldn’t ignore the parallels. Family gathering and coincidental timing… it was history repeating itself. Scenarios of trigger-happy soldiers and military tanks roaming the streets played in my head. The 1998 mutiny also flashed through my mind. Just four years after being shot. Four years of missing out on a childhood and having amputation scares and physiotherapy all the time as if it were normal. Then our capital city Maseru went up in flames, literally. Many lost their lives. More were injured.
“I remember side by side with the small footprints of us children, the military tanks left zigzag tracks in our school grounds. Looking back it feels as if the rough impressions in the ground were there to mock the confusion in the hearts and minds of the Basotho people. I was confined indoors, not allowed out of sight. My parents are very, very protective of me after the shooting in ’94.
“Now in my twenties, many kilometers from home, I had to face this panic alone. In my mind I was reliving those horrific periods of my life. History keeps repeating itself in Lesotho. If our political history is a record, we’re stuck on the same spot with a hole that cuts through the record. Even if you flip it, the same hole is going to cause the record to skip or get stuck,” says Lerato in a heart-rending piece she has written specially for The Journalist.
Close to the Molisana family lives a policeman who does not want to be named. He says this was his first personal experience of a coup attempt in Lesotho. He lives about 100 metres away from his place of work, the Mabote Station that is the headquarters of the Special Operations Unit of the Lesotho Police Force.
Gunshots At 4 am
“I woke up at about 4 am with the sound of gunshots. In a few seconds my colleagues arrived at my place. They were from the police headquarters in town. There was an attack there. They were coming to get backup from me and we were going to take the guns. But we couldn’t go anywhere because those soldiers were shooting like children.
“It was dark, we couldn’t see clearly. We were watching from just outside my house. We could see them from a distance shooting at our office. There was nothing we could do. They were having heavier arms than ours and they were in armoured cars. They were using GPMG’s, it’s bigger than AK47’s.”
The GPMG or general-purpose machine guns are belt-fed weapons with full power rifle cartridges. The policeman and his colleagues did not move from his home until they heard the gunfire die down a few hours later. That night when I called him he refused to talk on the phone in case he might be under attack. But the following morning he was less tense.
“There was about half an hour of shooting. Police officers in the guardroom were shooting back. Then they took some police officers hostage. Around 9 o’clock we took a chance. We went to the office because the soldiers were gone. One police officer had been shot. He was taken to hospital but he is OK now. As for the soldiers, we don’t know but there was blood outside the area there. We suspect that some of them may be hurt. We waited for the forensic specialist to gather evidence for the case. We also had to go looking for our vehicles because some of them were missing.
“Two months ago they attacked the house of the Commissioner of Police as well as our head office. So after the attack on Saturday I took my family away. Somewhere else in Maseru where they might be safe. They couldn’t go to church on Sunday and for now my children are not going to school. I’m worried about my family but also about the public at large because our duty is to provide safety to all the people of this country.”
The policeman says there was considerable damage to buildings and police vehicles.
Police Buildings Damaged
A photo gallery posted on the eNCA site shows police vehicles with windows shattered and considerable damage to buildings.
The University of the Free State has a large contingent of Lesotho nationals as students. One young woman in her third year, happened to be home in Maseru for the weekend. Amohelang Keneuoe Kosene’s family also lives close to the Mabote Police Station.
“At 4 am I was awoken up by gunshots that sounded like they were right next to my window. They were very loud and sounded different. Like different kinds of machineguns and a bunch of other handguns in retaliation. I later went outside, around 6 am, because the shooting had stopped for about 30 minutes. There was a police taxi parked right next to my gate. I asked my neighbour, a policeman, what was happening. I was close to tears.
“He told me they were attacked by members of the military. At that time he knew about five injuries. I went back inside and stayed indoors. Just after 7 am I went out again and spoke to another neighbour. He alleged there were three kidnappings as well. All I could think of was whether we were going to have a repeat of 1998. My friend in Bloemfontein sent me a message telling me to stay indoors but when to get to the border as soon as I can.”
Some Maseru residents say there was a news blackout for a short while. But in the 21st Century this hardly hampers anyone, as people flocked to news sites on the internet and social networks.
“I was glued to Twitter and radio as my main forms of news at all times. The instability had to spark something. This has happened before. Egos seem to be flying in the air and the country’s shape isn’t good. And, while the big guys are tussling each other, the beautiful citizens will be caught in the mix,” says Makate Maieane, a third year Media Studies & Journalism student.
Bonang Michael Mochochoko, a first year science student, says calm turned to panic for him in the early hours of Saturday morning.
“Initially I wasn’t holding any emotions as I was trying to tie the pieces together and understand the whole situation and why it was happening. But eventually I became anxious when I discovered that there are those who are willing to resort to violent means in order to resolve matters. It told me that we are still immature in terms of understanding good governance and the rule of law.
“It is going to be challenging now for the prime minister to lead, considering there is a lack confidence in him and he has to work with those who were willing to remove him violently. It is going to be difficult for him.”
The leaders of Lesotho’s coalition government have agreed on a timetable for resuming sittings of the nation’s parliament. The Prime Minister Tom Thabane who allegedly fled to South Africa, said he was going back home. And all is sort of quiet in the Kingdom clan again. Till the next time.