Harare — A government spokesman's remark that he has no regrets over the masscare of about 20,000 people by Zimbabwean security forces nearly 20 years ago is reopening old wounds and pitting the country's deputy president against President Robert Mugabe.
ZANU-PF spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira made the comments during a recent workshop in Manicaland Province, bordering Mozambique, almost two decades after a five-year reign of terror in the southern provinces of Midlands and Matabeleland by Zimbabwean soldiers of Five Brigade, who were trained by North Korea.
"No, I don't regret the deployment of the Five Brigade - the brigade was doing a good job to protect the people. It was because the dissidents were killing people that Gukurahundi [Five Brigade] was deployed to try and protect the people," Shamuyarira said.
Gukurahundi, meaning 'the first rains of the season which wash away all the chaff' in the Shona language, was sent to the provinces two years after Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, following the liberation war against the white-minority government of Ian Smith.
The main opposition groups fighting the war against Smith's government were the late Joshua Nkomo's PF-ZAPU, which drew most of its support from the Ndebele people in southwestern Zimbabwe, and Mugabe's ZANU-PF, whose cadres were mainly drawn from the majority Shona people in the north.
The five-year Operation Gukurahundi, condemned internationally for the violence it unleashed on mainly rural Ndebele, ended in 1987 when the Unity Accord was signed and the two political parties merged under the banner of ZANU-PF.
Mugabe's government justified the operation by claiming that they were suppressing apartheid South Africa-backed dissidents destabilising the region, although many people believed it was a pretext for asserting ZANU-PF hegemony in Nkomo's stronghold. The PF-ZAPU leader was hounded into exile in Britain during Gukurahundi.
At Nkomo's burial in Heroes Acre in the capital, Harare, Mugabe described Gukurahundi as "a time of madness which should not be repeated again".
Shamuyarira's recent statement that he had no regrets about the killings raised the ire of vice-president Joseph Msika, whose politics are rooted in Nkomo's PF-ZAPU.
At a rally last week in Bulawayo, in the southwestern province of Matabeleland, Msika dismissed Mugabe's past apology for the killings. "When we asked him about the massacres he apologised, but I was not convinced about his sincerity," he said.
Msika further goaded Mugabe at the rally by claiming that ZANU-PF had been "lying" to the world about being the pioneers in the liberation struggle. "The true history of the liberation struggle should be told. I feel I have a duty to correct this blatant lie ... The struggle to liberate Zimbabwe started in Bulawayo at Stanley Hall, when we formed the African Youth Congress."
According to political analysts, the ruling ZANU-PF party government is becoming increasingly riven by political camps, with temperatures rising over the presidential succession battle ahead of Mugabe's expected retirement in 2008. The division between ZANU-PF and PF-ZAPU is the oldest faultline, which people fear could be used to ignite ethnic rivalries for political gain.
A grouping of people affected by the 1980s genocide issued a statement condemning Shamuyarira for trying to inflame ethnic divisions among Zimbabweans.
"By claiming that Gukurahundi soldiers were protecting the people, when exactly the opposite happened, is not only false but very provocative. The people of Zimbabwe cannot be blackmailed any more by such tribally motivated chauvinism, meant to mask murder, rape and brutality. It is our sincere belief that the crimes and sins of Gukurahundi fall squarely on the perpetrators and their apologists, and are not transferable to all Shona-speaking people - as the cunning tribalists would want in order to create ethnic animosities," the statement said.
David Coltart, a lawyer who defended PF-ZAPU's leadership, including Nkomo, against charges of treason by the ZANU-PF government during Gukurahundi, said, "The statements by Shamuyarira indicate that he is either exceptionally callous or that he simply does not know what happened in the Midlands and Matabeleland areas during that time, because a person with the slightest clue of what happened would not make such reckless statements."
Coltart recalled affidavits he had taken during Gukurahundi. "Women spoke of how their husbands, sons and relatives would be abducted or simply gunned down in cold blood. Others spoke of how their neighbours would be herded into huts, which would then be set on fire, while all people who were in the ZAPU leadership structures were killed."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]