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Ghosts of Gukurahundi still haunt survivors, as Zimbabwe officials refuse to acknowledge
After trying twice to erect a memorial to victims of the Gukurahundi massacres on community land in the Maphisa area of Bhalagwe, Zimbabwe in 2018, a local civic group succeeded on 21 February, according to their community leader. The memorial was destroyed by vandals days later.
The memory of the massacres remains fresh in many people’s minds, especially considering the lack of closure for those still affected by the government-sanctioned brutality carried out in the 1980s, as well as Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s refusal to apologise for what some Zimbabweans call ethnic cleansing – in which the president himself is alleged to have played a key role.
“They don’t want that incident to be acknowledged. So by putting up that plaque, it will make people understand that this is the place …It’s a memorial site,” said Mbuso Fuzwayo, the Secretary General of Ibhetshu Likazulu, a civic organisation that represents the marginalised people of Matabeleland. The area, named after the Ndebele people, spans three provinces.
Although some reports indicate that 2,000 people were killed during the Gukurahundi in the 1980s, primarily in Matabeleland, a number of reports put the number of victims at 20,000 or higher.
The simple metal plaque, which was set in two columns of brick and cement, reads:
“In loving memory of defenceless children, mothers & fathers who perished during the Gukurahundi, Matabeleland genocide 1983 -1987. Siya likhumbula.”
Siya likhumbula means "we remember you" in isiNdebele.
The memorial shows a different date because Fuzwayo said police and government officials acting on orders from the authorities in Harare twice prevented the community from putting up the commemorative plaque.
Maphisa is a key district where mass killings were carried out in the 1980s; Bhalagwe is the site of a mass grave, some 430 kilometres southwest of the capital Harare.
Fuzwayo said the plaque was to honour those who died in the area during the series of massacres carried out by the National Army’s Fifth Brigade, targeting thousands in the Ndebele community.
The Fifth Brigade was a group of North Korea-trained soldiers who carried out ethnic cleansing, targeting Ndebeles primarily in the southwestern part of Zimbabwe during the 1980s.
Gukurahundi, a Shona word, means “the rain that washes away the chaff from the last harvest, before the spring rains” and is a chilling reminder of how a whole group of people was targeted.
“That’s what they are trying to cover up. The whole idea of removing the plaque is to say, we want this place to change the narrative,” Fuzwayo told RFI from Bulawayo.
In the heady days of November 2017, after former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa emerged as interim president of Zimbabwe following the military takeover, he pledged a new government distinct from his former boss, Robert Mugabe.
But in a seemingly uncomfortable interview at Davos in January 2018 with BBC journalist Mishal Husain, Mnangagwa repeatedly refused, when asked, to apologise for crimes committed during Gukurahundi, when he served under Mugabe as minister for national security.
“He’s so rude. He should have done this before. He is refusing to say ‘we are sorry’. He can’t,” said Phalaza Dube, a survivor of the Gukurahundi. “It was a well-planned thing, a calculated thing. I don’t expect anything from him,” he added.
While the Ndebele ethnic cleansing was rarely publicly discussed under the Mugabe regime, once he was removed from power, those who had witnessed and suffered during the Gukurahundi were more willing to speak.
The trauma of this period is not initially evident when speaking to survivors, until they move their socks down to show scars on their ankles from being tied up with barbed wire, or indicate how one side of their jaw is shaped differently from the other due to being hit in the face repeatedly with the butt of a gun.
Charles Thomas, who was in his early 20s at the time of the killings, remembers the era as if it were yesterday. He said that the threat of detention and torture was constant, so he and his neighbours frequently moved around to avoid the Fifth Brigade.
“We were rounded up, taken to Matendele, where we were beaten and tied with barbed wire, legs and hands,” said Thomas. After a four-day trip tied up without water or food that consisted of an overnight stay in a local police station and then a truck ride to Matobo (known as Kezi in the 1980s), they took the 50 men to the Antelope Mine shaft.
Each of these places figures significantly in the landmark report put out in 1997 by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ) in partnership with the Legal Resources Foundation, a charity helping the rural poor. It documented testimonies by victims and survivors of the Gukurahundi.
Due to the number of beatings, detentions and murders at Bhalagwe Camp near Maphisa, the CCJPZ report selected this place as a case study.
Thomas said that the men were left in the truck, but that they could see what the Fifth Brigade were doing. They were kicked and stamped on in the truck, but he pretended he was dead.
“Most of the people who were brutally killed were thrown in that mineshaft,” said Thomas. “They were thrown in alive. Some women were carrying their babies on their back,” he added.
Thomas said that if a whole family was pushed down the mine, “they tied the father to the children with a wire, put the child on the mother’s back, and pushed all of them in,” he said.
Beauty Ncube was 36 when the Fifth Brigade broke into her house in Bhalagwe in 1983. She still has scars on her legs from the barbed wire. “My brother and a cousin were taken by the Fifth Brigade,” she said. “They were thrown into the pit at Bhalagwe.”
The torture and human rights abuses were intended to dehumanise the victims. Thomas said that the Fifth Brigade had an obsession with making people eat the remains of their family.
One woman was two weeks away from giving birth. They bayonetted out the baby and roasted it on the fire, forcing the family members to eat it, he recalls.
“They started with the father, who said, ‘I don’t eat people'. They shot him five times," he said. “His wife, I don’t know, she was brave, jumped on the soldier and started biting him,” Thomas added. She was shot three times.
Another man who was a member of Zipra, the military wing of an opposition party, was killed in front of his family. They cut his private parts off, said Thomas, and roasted them over a fire, forcing his family members to eat them.
“It’s where they killed many people,” said Thomas. “Many resisted eating the meat of a person. It’s why they were shot,” he said.
The first-hand accounts reported by RFI are substantiated by the abuses laid out in the CCJPZ report entitled “Breaking the Silence: Building True Peace, a report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980 - 1988”.
Other forms of torture and extra-judicial killings laid out by the report included setting grass huts on fire with entire families inside, leaving them to be burned alive.
A medical witness to the violence
One of the witnesses to torture cited in the report was Dr Devee Boyd, an American physician working in Mtshabezi, about 40 kilometres north of Gwanda, the capital of Matabeleland South region. He was cited by the survivors interviewed in Bulawayo as someone who saved lives and also witnessed the violence by the Fifth Brigade in the area.
Although now retired in the US state of Oregon, Dr Boyd vividly remembers his experience in Mtshabezi, where he served as the only doctor in the area. His first day of work at the mission was in January, 1984, when a curfew was imposed over Matabeleland. With no vehicles allowed on the roads, it was very hard for those who were physically attacked to get to the clinic, he said.
“But the people who did come, walked. And they were in very sore shape,” said Boyd. “Lots of beatings, lots of rapes, lots of mutilations, lots of fractures,” he added.
The American doctor, who worked as a medical missionary, corroborated the victim accounts of people cut with machetes and tied with barbed wire.
“Cutting off ears, cutting off lips, cutting off noses, multiple beatings, multiple rapes, multiple fractures,” he said, reeling off a list of injuries he regularly treated during that time.
“And what we didn’t see,” he paused, “we didn’t see many corpses, because they were just lost, the people were murdered and buried. And those never showed up at the hospital, obviously,” he added.
His eyewitness testimony is included in the CCJPZ report.
“We still carry with us on a daily basis, the memories of Zimbabwe,” he said, referring to his wife, who lived with him in Mtshabezi.
ZIPRA connection … or not
Survivor Thomas’ own brother was killed by bayonet, one of the Fifth Brigade’s favoured weapons.
“They start stripping your clothes off with a bayonet, until you died,” he said, adding that most who died that way were ex-Zipras (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army), the military wing of Zapu (Zimbabwe African Peoples Union), an opposition political party.
Primarily isiNdebele-speaking Zipras were considered a credible threat to Mugabe’s government because they had been trained by Russians and Cubans, and the government feared Zapu would use Zipra soldiers against them. The Fifth Brigade and police worked to eliminate that threat, with many civilians caught in the process.
“If they found out that one or two were in the army, in the Zipra forces, they would attack the whole family,” said survivor Beauty Ncube.
Phalaza Dube, who was 24 when he saw his parents, relatives, and neighbours killed, said that this was the grand plan of the Mugabe government.
“The issue was to wipe out all the Ndebeles. Because we’ve got Shonas here who were all in Zipra, they haven’t been affected the affected people were the Ndebeles,” he said.
The impact of the Gukurahundi killings affected many Ndebele families in other ways. Beauty Ncube said she had a big family, but many left the country after the massacres. While some family members went to Zambia, others left the continent.
“My brother went to Malaysia, and that’s where he died, as a citizen of Malaysia,” said Ncube. “We all scattered because of the violence.”
The CCJPZ also points out that displaced people were yet another aspect of Gukurahundi.
Created bad blood
While the number of people killed during the Gukurahundi differs depending on who you speak to, the impact that it has on Zimbabwe will not be forgotten any time soon, creating a rift between the chiShona and isiNdebele speakers. ChiShona is one of the primary languages of Zimbabwe, spoken by Shona people and in the capital.
Retired Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company (Zisco) plant worker Win Moyo was 41 when the Fifth Brigade entered the ZISCO worker’s residences in 1981 from the Munyati River in Midlands province, a day he will never forget. The Fifth Brigade entered the residence area and stomped on one of his colleagues until his insides came out of this mouth. He was at the plant when they stormed the residences, but his pregnant wife was at home.
“They took my wife and beat her us until the baby came out-- she had a miscarriage,” he said, wincing as he recalled the story.
The Zisco employees and families then barricaded themselves inside the plant; ironically they all survived on the food some Fifth Brigade members smuggled in to them.
“Some of the Fifth Brigade guys who were carrying out the atrocities had relatives inside the Zisco premises, and they are the ones who brought food to them,” said Moyo. “They didn’t like what their colleagues were doing, and that’s how we survived,” he added.
This episode soured any good relations with fellow Shona workers after the Fifth Brigade left, said Moyo.
“There wasn’t the previous good relations when those guys came we saw the Shona as enemies,” he said. “We now looked at them with a rhino eye.”
Phalaza Dube agrees. “I will never forgive a Shona person in my life, no. That’s why I’m so bitter,” he said.
Lack of closure
Although those who survived Gukurahundi are finally beginning to speak out about the ethnic cleansing, they feel that their plight has been ignored.
Survivor Charles Thomas said that his head still has trauma due to the beatings he received, but he cannot afford a CT scan of his brain.
“When the doctors talk to me, they write, ‘this person is still traumatised,’” he said. “I don’t know who is going to help me, because they don’t know the Ndebele people.”
Others in the Ndebele community want not only recognition, but reparations for the loss of family members, land, and overall pain and suffering.
The Mthwakazi Republic Party, a small Bulawayo-based political group, goes one step further – calling for a separate state from Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa’s non-apology for the Gukurahundi further fueled their quest for independence, said Mqondisi Moyo, president of the party, considering the now-president’s significant role as minister for state security during the time of the killings.
“They are always talking about whites killing during the war, but from 1982 to 1987 it wasn’t a war,” said Moyo. “It was a simple matter of ethnic cleansing, whereby the government of the day was killing and brutalising innocent people,” he added.
Back at the vandalised memorial, civil society leader Fuzwayo said that he has not been able to file a police report in person yet, as he does not have transport to go to the police department in Kezi.
RFI spoke to the officer in charge, Inspector Magyise, who said only the Zimbabwe Central Police in Harare are allowed to comment.
Police spokesperson Charity Charamba in Harare was unavailable for comment.
Survivor Beauty Moyo summed up the feelings that many conveyed while speaking of their trauma.
“The wounds that were inflicted upon us were never treated. We want these wounds to be treated so that we will have peace in our hearts to forgive,” she said.