With each passing day, there are new signs that white institutions and law and order are crumbling in Rhodesia's countryside even though the cities remain islands of peace and normality.
Scores of schools, hospitals, churches and rural councils are ceasing to function. Slayings of blacks and whites are taking place with increasing frequency and seeming deliberateness.
Hundreds of missionaries are fleeing from the rural areas under threat of assassination and dozens of white farmers are pulling out of the guerrilla-infiltrated areas along Rhodesia's eastern border. One small town, Cashel, is on the verge of being abandoned altogether.
An atmosphere of gloom is settling over this war exhausted country and its central issue is fast becoming how to avoid total chaos in the painful passage from white minority to black majority rule that appears to lie ahead.
Contrary to white hopes, the multi-racial transitional government set up in March has failed to produce either a cease-fire in the war. Western recognition or support, or the lifting of economic sanctions. Instead, the guerrilla war has escalated and is taking an ever heavier toll on white and black civilian lives.
A number of the 200 odd reserves set aside for the African population, the so-called tribal trust lands, have been more or less taken over by the guerrillas and about 50 of the 250 rural councils disbanded. But there is scant evidence to date that the guerrillas are setting up their own institutions. Instead, it appears from most black accounts they are ruling right now by the gun alone.
Meanwhile, nationalist guerrilla leaders and white moderates as well as extremists are hardening in their attitudes toward each other. The guerrillas now talk as if an outright military victory is just months away while diehard white supremacists are beginning to speak of "taking a final stand," carrying out a "scorched earth policy" and "going on a rampage."
It is all too reminiscent of the talks in Angola, Mozambique and Algeria in the twilight of colonial rule where large white populations produced extremists preliminary groups bent on revenge and destruction before leaving.
Within the Rhodesian Army, there are said to be elements pushing for a total mobilization of the white population for a final campaign to wipe out the 7,000 guerrillas operating inside Rhodesia and to carry out massive raids on their camps in neighboring Zambia and Mozambique.
All this may just be talk, but it may also be the harbinger of things to come in this increasingly tense country of hardened and bitter people.
Bandit activity, another sign of the possible chaos ahead, is growing and many believe this is primarily to blame for the recent spate of mass murders by guerrillas of both white missionaries and blacks. Nationalist leaders based in Zambia and Mozambique are disowning these ghastly deeds. One of their top representatives here blamed them on "rogue vigilante groups" roaming the countryside.
Missionaries and farmers say that at least some of the trouble is coming from undisciplined teenagers who run with the guerrillas and act in the name while robbing stores and missions. This may explain the lack of any pattern in the attacks on mission stations. In some cases, the guerrillas have ordered them to close down and go without harming anyone. In others, they simply shot the missionaries.
Within the white-led Rhodesian Army, there are also disturbing signs that discipline is slipping. On at least three separate occasions recently, jittery soldiers have opened fire on African crowds or villagers indiscriminately.
There are other signs of the crumbling of law and order across the land. More than a million of Rhodesia's 6.5 million Africans have now been uprooted from their abodes and hundreds more are fleeing daily either to neighboring countries or the towns and cities to seek refuge from the killing and shooting.
Far more whites than the figures officially show have also fled the country. Rhodesian officials now concede that instead of the roughly 260,000 whites indicated in government statistics there are probably only around 230,000. Just two years ago, the white population was 277,000.
All the elements for a white-against black and black-against black civil war seem to be present in the current political and military scene. While white rule is slowly crumbling, the black nationalist leadership destined to take over this mineral-and farm-rich land is badly fragmented into five feuding factions. Three of them are in the transitional government now trying to run the country and two others are fighting to destroy it.
Like Angola, there is no single nationalist figure in Rhodesia strong enough to dominate or unite tha entire black population behind him and tribalism is becoming a major factor in who backs in the race for power.
An the same time, there are three separate armies at war here. Two of them being to opposing nationist factions and each has 10,000 or more guerrillas. One is armed and partly Cuba and the Soviet Union
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While they are allies in the Patriotic Front dealing with the Western and African powers, inside Rhodesia tthe two are jostling for control and influence the African population and occassionally clashing with each other.
The third army, that of the Rhodesian government, is still by far the largest, with 30,000 to 40,000 men, and better equipped than those of the two national guerrilla combined. Although made up 80 percent black volunteers, its officers are white and it has hundreds of "professional European and American soldiers" recruited from abroad to serve in special commando units.
In addition, virtually every white family has its own automatic weapons to defend itself against guerrilla attacks and women as well as children are trained to shoot.Rhodesian-made machine pistols, similar to the Israeli Uzzi, are standard household equipment.
Thus, in the absence of a negotiated settlement involving the guerrillas, there is every reason to believe the passage from white to black power in Rhodesia will be far bloodier than it was even in Angola, also consumed by civil war at its independence. Unlike that former Portuguese colony, however, there is no colonial army here to simply withdraw to the home country and allow the contending African nationalist factions to fight out.
The Rhodesian Army has nowhere to go and with its bombers, jets, helicopter gunships, armored cars and artillery could easily wreck massive death on the two nationalist armies and destruction on the country before falling apart or retreating into South Africa.
Fully aware of the danger of a massive white blacklash, Prime Minister Ian Smith last week sought to reasure the jittery white population that he will keep his promise to hold a special referendum on the March 3 agreement providing in principle for a transfer of power to the black majority at the end of this year.
If it is defeated, he said, well and good. Then the white minority government would go back to "square one" in its negotiations with the nationalists. But who would it then talk to? It is highly unlikely that even the three moderate black nationalists now in the interim government's executive council - Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole and chief Jeremiah Chirau - would be willing or able politically to talk to Smith.
Meanwhile, the two leaders of the Patriotic Front, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, are indicating strongly the only thing they are prepared to discuss with the Smith government now are the terms for its surrender.