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Southern Africa Report Archive

In Zimbabwe, there is the tense interplay between state and civil society. Familiar aspects of the autocratic urges of Mugabe and company surface from Iden Wetherell's account of the government's attempts to control discussion of a report on its past abuses of power in Matabeleland. (jbv)

vol 12 no 3

The Matabeleland Report: A lot to hide
Iden Wetherell


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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 3, June 1997
Page 21
"Zimbabwe"

THE MATABELELAND REPORT:
A LOT TO HIDE

BY IDEN WETHERELL

Iden Wetherell is assistant editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, a national weekly.

Zimbabwe's rulers have reacted defiantly to a report which implicates them in gross human rights violations in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces in the 1980s.

The report "Breaking the Silence" was compiled by two local non-governmental organisations, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) and the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF), and presented to President Robert Mugabe in March. It provides shocking evidence that thousands of innocent villagers were starved, tortured and murdered as the army's North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade rampaged through the western and central provinces in the mid1980s in a campaign to suppress veteran nationalist Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (Zapu).

While the target of the campaign, codenamed Gukurahundi after the first summer storm, was ostensibly ex-guerrillas loyal to Nkomo, the casualties were overwhelmingly Ndebele-speaking civilians.

Mugabe has yet to respond formally to the report, details of which have been leaked to the press, and the Catholic bishops are refusing to release it until he has done so. But this has not stopped him launching a vitriolic broadside against the CCJP, describing the report as "divisive." In a clear swipe at the authors, Mugabe criticised "people who wear religious garb and publish reports that are decidedly meant to divide us." "Let us remember," he said, "that there are those who are bent on mischief-making - persons perhaps who see in our unity and the history of the struggle that unites us, a force against their own machinations." "If we dig up the country's history in this way," the president warned, "we wreck the nation and we tear our people apart into factions."

The state media has obediently taken up the theme suggesting the report was part of a wider conspiracy to divert attention from the ruling Zanu-PF party's programme to redistribute land and localise economic ownership. One newspaper edited by a Mugabe relative invariably applies the prefix "alleged" to any mention of the atrocities.

But in Matabeleland itself there is outrage that Mugabe's government is attempting to exculpate itself under the cover of national unity. Roger Sibanda, a former guerrilla, reflects a widely-held view that "the souls of the Ndebele who were massacred during Gukurahundi will never rest until their families are compensated and traditional rites performed." There is growing pressure for full disclosure of wrong-doing.

Professor Welshman Ncube of the University of Zimbabwe Law faculty said people who were responsible for atrocities against civilians had no moral authority to occupy senior positions in the government and armed forces. "Mass murderers should not be entrusted with responsibility," he said, "especially where they are tasked with protecting human rights."

The authors see their proposal for a Reconciliation Trust to channel assistance to survivors and victims' families as essential to a healing of the wounds - psychological as much as physical - in Matabeleland where alienation is still strong.

The refusal of the Catholic bishops to release the report has caused friction with their co-authors, the Legal Resources Foundation, who are now threatening to publish it themselves. LRF spokesmen privately voice suspicion that the bishops are anxious to appease Mugabe and sweep the whole issue under the State House carpet. Archbishop Patrick Chakaipa presided over Mugabe's wedding to his former staffer Grace Marufu last August.

Amnesty International, who Mugabe labelled "Amnesty Lies" when the human rights watchdog asked him to investigate allegations of torture in 1984, has meanwhile urged the Zimbabwean leader to acknowledge that massive human rights violations took place and to remove those identified as having been involved. In a letter to Mugabe, who is the new Organisation of African Unity chairman, Amnesty International secretary-general Pierre Sané of Senegal said repression of discussion on the report would prevent reconciliation and was in itself a human rights violation.

"When a state continues to deny its responsibility for atrocities committed by its security forces and suppresses open dialogue about human rights violations, a sense of impunity is created as members of state agencies feel that they can abuse human rights without being punished," Sané said citing the examples of Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

He called on Mugabe to be more than just a figurehead OAU leader by promoting and protecting human rights among member states. Despite the furore, the majority of Zimbabweans still have no idea of what took place in Matabeleland in the 1980s thanks to a largely complicit state-owned media. Mugabe clearly aims to keep it that way.

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BOX

The following are unauthorized excerpts from "Breaking the Silence: Report on the 1980s Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands," compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, March 1997. The report is available electronically at http://www.mg.co.za/mg/zim.

5 Brigade was destined to become the most controversial army unit ever formed in Zimbabwe. Within weeks of being mobilised at the end of January 1993 under Colonel Perence Shiri, 5 Brigade was responsible for mass murders, beatings and property burnings in the communal living areas of Northern Matabeleland, where hundreds of thousands of ZAPU supporters lived.

Within the space of six weeks, more than 2000 civilians had died, hundreds of homesteads had been burnt, and thousands of civilians had been beaten. Most of the dead were killed in public executions, involving between 1 and 12 people at a time. The largest number of dead in a single incident so far on record was in Lupane, where 62 men and women were shot on the banks of the Cewale River on 5 March.

[In Matabeleland South], in addition to the food embargo, mass detentions became a deliberate strategy of 5 Brigade activity. At least 2000 men and women, including adolescents, could be held at one time in Bhalagwe Camp, near Maphisa (Antelope) in Matobo. People were detained for several days or weeks, in appalling conditions. Many people died, and others suffered permanent injuries. It is likely that around 8,000 civilians were detained during these few months, possibly many more. Once more, it was mainly innocent civilians who suffered.

The strategy of 5 Brigade varied in the two regions of Matabeleland, with Matabeleland North experiencing more public executions, and Matabeleland South experiencing more wide-spread detention, beatings and deaths at Bhalagwe camp: both areas experienced mass beatings in the village setting.

Victims from most areas report that 5 Brigade would forbid people who were badly injured by them from seeking medical attention. In some cases 5 Brigade would return the day after they had been in an area, to "execute" badly injured victims. Other interviews report victims who spend several days with agonising injuries, too afraid to leave their huts, before finally they were helped by fellow villagers to make harrowing journeys on back paths, with the victim in a wheelbarrow or scotch cart, to get medical attention.

TESTIMONIAL 1:

On 5 March 1983 four people were taken from our home. The youngest was myself, then a girl of fifteen. The 5 Brigade took us - there were more than a hundred of the. We were asleep when they came, but they woke us up, and accused the four of us - me and my three brothers - of being dissidents. They then marched us at gun point for about 3 hours until they reached a camp.

We were lined up and had to give our names, before they took us to a building where there were finally 62 people. Then they took us out one by one and beat us. They beat me with a thick stick about eighteen inches long all over the body. We were beaten until about 3 am.

Then the 5 Brigade marched us to the Cewale River, a few hundred meters away. All 62 of us were lined up and shot by the 5 Brigade. One of my brothers was killed instantly, from a bullet through his stomach. By some chance, 7 of us survived with gun shot wounds. I was shot in the left thigh. The 5 Brigade finished off some of the others who survived, but my 2 brothers and I pretended to be dead.

After some time, we managed to get home. The 5 Brigade came looking for survivors of this incident at home - they found my brother who was badly injured, but left him ... My brother had a gun shot wound in the chest and arm, and later had to have his arm amputated at the elbow, and then later at the shoulder. My brother had to have his food amputated because of a bullet wound.

TESTIMONIAL 2:

The uniformed 5 Brigade soldiers arrived and ordered my husband to carry all the chairs, a table, bed, blankets, clothes and put them in one room. They also took all our cash - we had $1,500 saved, to buy a scotch cart. They then set fire to the hut and burnt all our property.

They accused my husband of having a gun, which he did not have. They shot at him. The first two times, they missed, but the third time they shot him in the stomach and killed him.

They then beat me very hard, even though I was pregnant. I told them I was pregnant, and they told me I should not have children for the whole of Zimbabwe. My mother-in-law tried to plead with them, but they shouted insults at her. They hit me on the stomach with the butt of the gun. The unborn child broke into pieces in my stomach. The baby boy died inside. It was God's desire that I did not die too. The child was born afterwards, piece by piece. A head alone, then a leg, an arm, the body - piece by piece.

The impact of 5 Brigade in Matabeleland North and South was profound. In both regions, 5 Brigade enhanced the notion of "ethnic" difference, produced a widespread fear, and developed a conviction that political freedom of expression was not permissible in Zimbabwe. This conviction remains today. In both regions, rural government in the 1980s continued to be incapacitated and subject to attack, even once 5 Brigade was withdrawn.

As 5 Brigade violence in both areas was very sudden and very intense, it was perceived as worse than anything ever experienced before. People retain the perception that such state inflicted violence could occur again in the future: having once witnessed the completely unexpected and inexplicable, it is not unreasonable to assume it could recur, particularly as the events of the 1980s have never been publicly acknowledged and no guarantees that it will not happen again have been given.

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