Muscat: “I am the Field Marshal Okelo. Wake up, Black Man. Let each of you take up arms and ammunition and fight the remnants of imperialism on this island. Never retreat from your decision if you want this island to be yours.”
These powerful words were uttered to all the Omanis and Arabs in Zanzibar, the ‘Andalusia of Africa’ by the Ugandan John Okelo, a member of the Afro-Shirazi Party. People were woken up that night to the sound of bullets and terrible screams mixed with the darkness of the night, a night that was not expected by many ordinary people, whether Omani or Arab.
Yes, this marked the beginnings of the sad fall and an eternal disgrace to the whole world, which deliberately kept its silence and ignored all the massacres that had occurred in a few hours on this island. This island was actually ruled by the Omanis through Said bin Sultan Al Busaidi and his grandchildren; their reign continued for more than 131 years through which Zanzibar was the pearl of countries as all people from all races, such as the island’s own people, Arabs, Shirazians and Indians lived in harmony.
After the independence of Zanzibar - with a glorious celebration - from British protection in 1963, during the reign of Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah bin Khalifa bin Harib bin Thawaini bin Said bin Sultan Al Busaidi, members of the Afro-Shirazi opposition party and dissidents from the National Party were angered by their loss to the Arab-Omani race, represented in the National Party and the People’s Party, which on July 8, 1963 won the elections to form a government after independence and acquiring the right to self-rule.
This independence ceremony was not well received by Britain and Israel, as the new National Party contradicted their economic and political interests at that time.
And the pleas of Ahmed Al-Lamki Ambassador of the Sultanate of Zanzibar in Cairo, calling for help for the Omanis and Arabs in the country, went unheard.
On the 11th of January, 1964, the police station and the weapons depot fell into the hands of the aggressors against the legitimate government in those horrific moments of mob rule.
The brutal attacks on the Omani and the Arabs began without any deterrent. The legitimate government had to surrender immediately to stop the bloodshed. Prime Minister Mohammed Hamad Shamati, along with his Foreign Minister Ali Mohsen Barwani, Alawi Al-Abrawi resigned and surrendered themselves to the attacking forces, and were received with severe beatings and faced imprisonment and torture as criminality against the unarmed civilians continued.
The smell of the blood was everywhere and the vile criminals, attacked with their mercenaries, who came from outside Zanzibar.
Anyone who wore an Omani dishdashah and had lighter skin or had the characteristics of Islam or placed in his house images of the Sultans became subject to extermination, torture and imprisonment, along with those African Swahilis affiliated with the elected government as well as anyone who had an Omani passport.
The barbaric attack intensified on the simple and unarmed Omanis and Arabs in the countryside. It became so devastating that they and their children were burned to death after the women were raped in public in Bemba in front of parents, husbands and children before entire families were killed.
The members of the elected government were sentenced to death penalty and were shot in front of their parents after torture, and some of them, may God have mercy on them, were dragged through the streets by vehicles at full speed, such that their bodies ultimately were mutilated, which was what happened with the martyr brothers Mohsen and Sulaiman, sons of Badr Al-Barwani and Suleiman bin Sultan Al-Riyami.
The mobs led by John Okelo and his followers used the method of dumping the victims in wells, feet tied together, and they also burned their victims, but as they approached their death, the fire would be extinguished so they would remain alive and suffer longer.
Their barbaric killings against the unarmed included ordering the victims to dig their own graves before they were shot and then they were buried by their companions, the witnesses, as was the case with the martyrs Mohammed bin Salem Al Barwani, Mohammed bin Hamoud Al Barwani, Amer bin Zaher Al Ismaili and Hamza Muhammad - may God have mercy on them all.
There are also other horrific killings, such as that of the martyr Muhammad Salem Al Skeiti and his pregnant wife. They slit his wife’s stomach while she was alive, and took out her foetus, as she died slowly, and then brutally murdered her husband. In the village of Bambi, the mobs brought together Omani and Arab women with their children and pro-government Zanzibaris and threw them into dry wells filled with burning materials and led them all to a merciless death.
So much pain I did feel writing about what happened to the martyr Sheikh Nasser bin Isa bin Salim Ismaili, whose demise speaks volumes of the injustice inflicted upon victims. When he was attacked by invaders joined by Joseph, whom he adopted as a son since childhood, raised him and taught him Islam, Sheikh Nasser defended his home and the honour of his family with all the courage he had, but he was defeated by the enemy and they mutilated his body, dumped it in the well of his home, and burned him and his mother who was also killed by suffocation.
These mortifying examples of torture, killing and violation of our people reflect the ethnic cleansing that occurred in a few hours while the international community was watching, unable to protect them or even condemn the criminals who came to power and the joints of the state after bloodshed had wrecked the lives of around 17,000 victims, among whom were Omanis, Hadhramis and Swahilis loyal to the Arabs.
It is worth mentioning that some of these horrifying moments in this painful day in the history of Zanzibar were documented after they were filmed by the Italian photographer Gualtiero Jacopetti, who published them to bring the world’s attention to the massacre. His videos can be found on platforms such as YouTube with the title “Massacre of Zanzibar in 1964”.
This tragic and shameful event in the history of mankind overthrew the rule of the Omanis by toppling the last Sultan, namely Sultan Jamshid Al Busaidi, who survived the massacre along with his sons and was able to leave Zanzibar forever, heading to Britain to reside there to this day.
The rest of the Omani and Arab survivors of the massacre were looted, ripped from their property, dismissed from their jobs and arrested. More than 21,000 people were tortured and imprisoned. Most of the clove trees died in Zanzibar with the death of their owners, and worsened the financial situation of their families. The women of Arab origin were forced to marry the leaders and soldiers of the Tanzanian invaders and any family that refused this mating was punished. The Omanis were also prevented from returning to Oman. Later, they adopted harsh procedures for those who wanted to leave by ordering them to pay huge sums of money that were impossible for many ordinary people.
The suffering of those stranded there continued as they were denied Omani citizenship despite their Omani origin after the Omani government’s deadline to return in the late eighties. That brought to my memory the heartbreaking crying of an old woman I met in the Palace of Wonders in Zanzibar with whom I had a short conversation
She said, “I wish I could enter Oman without a visa so that I can die and be buried there.”
Translated from Arabic to English - Rabab Ali
Reference: Zanzibar personalities and events (1828 - 1972), Nasser bin Abdullah Al Riyami, third edition 2016, Beit Al Ghasham for journalism, publishing and translation.