The Gukurahundi was a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987. To ward off evil spirits, Jochonia Moyo picks wild herbs as he returns to Bhalagwe detention camp, the site of unimaginable brutality during a series of massacres more than 30 years ago that still haunts Zimbabwe today.
Here, Moyo was detained, beaten with clubs and forced to abuse other prisoners as Robert Mugabe’s soldiers embarked on an orgy of killing that left an estimated 20,000 dead in just two years. The massacres occurred in the early 1980s but for decades were discussed only in hushed voices.
Ons aanvalle en moorde in Suid-Afrika wat ervaar word, is soortgelyk as wat in Zimbabwe plaasgevind het. Die wat hom destyds nie gevolg het en sy beleid verontagsaam het, is eenvoudig uit die weggeruim.
Onmenslike martelings en uitwissings. Die 5de Brigade het ‘n groot rol gespeel. Niemand vergeet hoe geliefdes vermoor is nie, dit word ‘n daaglikse herhaling in enige een se gemoed. Weens al die massagrafte word dit beraam dat 20000 vermoor is.
Natuurlik is alle blanke boere ook daar verwilder, ook grusaam vermink, gemartel en vermoor.
Not only did the Fifth Brigade, the regiment responsible for the massacre, kill the Ndebele randomly, it also burnt huts with people inside. Further, it would round others up and take them to open fields where they would force them to sing Shona songs while beating them. Usually, these ended up as public executions. Pregnant women’s tummies were also cut open so that “people should see how a baby of a dissident looks like.”
Following a unity accord in 1987 between ZANU and ZAPU, the killing stopped and an amnesty was extended to dissidents and pardons to many, including the officers who committed human rights violations.
The blame of the massacre has been placed on former president Robert Mugabe (then prime minister) and current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was then in charge of security intelligence, according to an investigative report by INK Centre for Investigative Journalism .
The letter was part of the new information released indicating how the atrocities were carried out. The information was compiled by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) led by British-based Oxfam International and was recently obtained and corroborated by Botswana’s INK and the Zimbabwe Independent.
The document also included a list of people killed in Nkayi, Lupane and Tsholotsho as well as photos showing the gross human rights violations, which was sent to Mugabe back in 1983.
“All government food aid was stopped. This left many families without food supplies for an indefinite period. Most storage bans were empty. The little grain they have can only be stamped or boiled before they can eat it as all grinding mills are closed. Buses and other means of transport have been stopped to cripple movement of people and transportation of food,” part of the report said.
When he became president after ousting Mugabe last year, Mnangagwa announced that he would put the issue of the massacres to rest when he got into power.
Gukurahundi Documentary (1980 – 1988)
Now, the end of Mugabe’s iron-fisted rule has revived calls for justice – and renewed accusations that the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, played a key role in the bloodshed.
“I remember perfectly the day, 8 March 1984, when they arrested me and brought me to Bhalagwe,” Moyo, now in his 60s, told AFP as he surveyed the scant remains of the camp.
“While we slept, the soldiers urinated on us and new detainees were even forced to lick women’s menstrual blood,” he said.
Moyo had been targeted for attending meetings of ZAPU, a rival political party that Mugabe was determined to crush as he strengthened his Zanu party’s grip on power.
Troops from the notorious Fifth Brigade, trained by North Korean advisers, committed mass atrocities during the crackdown on a supposed rebellion in southwestern Matabeleland province.
Zapu supporters, plus many other villagers, women and children, were rounded up, tortured and killed in the massacres, called “Gukurahundi” which loosely means “the early rain which washes away the chaff”.
A chance for truth?
Amnesty International has backed the estimated death toll of 20,000 compiled following an investigation by the rights group the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe.
Amnesty says it first heard reports of killings in 1982 and has described them as “bloody and brutal”.
Many Zimbabweans hope that Mugabe’s shock November ousting after 37 years could be a chance to confront those responsible for the bloodbath.
But many also say that Mnangagwa, who was one of Mugabe’s closest long-time allies, was guilty of the worst crimes under the old regime.
At the time, Mnangagwa was minister of state security, leading the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) spy agency, which methodically gathered names and addresses of those selected for torture or death.
“He was in charge of the CIO that conducted the most targeted aspect of the massacres, such as assassinations of key political leaders,” Stuart Doran, author of a new book covering the killings, told AFP.
Mnangagwa denies any culpability and has again declined to apologise since coming to power.
Doran, who describes Mnangagwa as one of the “architects” of the killings, also points to Perence Shiri, a former general who currently serves as agriculture minister.
Shiri was the commander of the feared Fifth Brigade and “oversaw the indiscriminate massacre of civilians,” said Doran, whose 2017 book “Kingdom, Power, Glory” unearthed new evidence about the carnage.
“It was the darkest period in Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history,” he said.
For Zimbabweans who campaign for justice over Gukurahundi, the new government is tainted with the deaths of thousands.
“The perpetrators are still in leadership, they are in authority,” said Mbuso Fuzwayo, head of the Ibhetshu Likazulu pressure group.
Shocking eyewitness testimonies emerged only slowly under Mugabe’s authoritarian rule, with survivors like Charles Thomas reluctant to share memories that still give them nightmares.
“There was a woman who was nine months into her pregnancy. The Fifth Brigade accused her of carrying a dissident’s baby,” he said.
“They ripped her belly open using bayonets … they sliced the foetus and roasted the flesh while the family was forced to sing and dance around the fire. They forced the family to eat the flesh.”
The family refused and two of the grandparents were shot, he said.
Monica Ndlovu, who was in her 20s at the time of the massacres, says she lost her innocence as well as her father in the death camps.
“I wish it was like mud that I can easily wash off my hands, but I can’t,” she said.
“These were men carrying machine guns, they could do as they pleased. They would take turns having sex with us.
“How do you escape from that? All I can say is that the Fifth Brigade was sent from hell by the devil himself.”
The end of Mugabe’s rule has encouraged Gukurahundi activists to be more vocal.
At the end of last year, families held an unprecedented protest in Bulawayo city in Matabeleland, demanding their loved ones be exhumed from mass graves and given proper burials.
“We will never beg Mnangagwa to apologise because he knows what he did. He was there. His hands are dripping with blood,” said one marcher, Patricia Tshabalala.
At a public appearance by Mnangagwa in the city, protesters held up placards denouncing the massacres.
Eight protesters were arrested but released without charge, with local media reporting they were beaten while in custody.
Mugabe, now aged 93, has previously dismissed the massacres as “a moment of madness”.
Mnangagwa this week brushed off suggestions that he should apologise and questioned the 20,000 death toll estimate, though he said he had already set up a commission to address the allegations.
“What has happened has happened,” he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, admitting it was “a bad patch” in Zimbabwe’s history.
The government declined to comment on allegations against Shiri.
No rush to justice
Mnangagwa, who took over after Mugabe was forced to resign by the military and lawmakers, has vowed to revive Zimbabwe, saying that foreign investment is key to creating jobs.
For Bulawayo-based opposition politician David Coltart, it is an opportunity to push for justice.
“If Mnangagwa and Shiri are to gain credibility in the international community, they have to acknowledge and apologise for the role that they played,” he said.
Doran, though, is unconvinced that the victims will have an early chance of redress.
“The perpetrators remain in control as they have since 1980,” he said. “I think Gukurahundi will remain a taboo subject in Zimbabwe for the foreseeable future.”