17 January 2014

Zimbabwe: Commemorating Gukurahundi


There are many things that Zimbabweans are still too scared to speak about in public and that the government is very keen to keep buried. But the most sensitive issue by far is Gukurahundi - the codename for a brutal military operation in Matabeleland in the 1980s that left over 20,000 civilians dead.

This is why the call by a pressure group, Ibetshu Likazulu, for President Mugabe to declare a public holiday on the 20th of January - the anniversary of the start of the massacres in 1982 - and for the government to compensate all the victims of Gukurahundi is so brave. And so forlorn.

President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF government are not going to suddenly break the silence that they have imposed on Gukurahundi. They are not going to suddenly start talking about how the notorious North Korean-trained 5th Brigade carried out the massacres of thousands of people between 1982 and 1987 - dumping their bodies in mass graves or in abandoned mines.

Mugabe's government has always claimed that the operation was a legitimate means of crushing a rebellion by dissidents, who were mostly supporters of the opposition ZAPU. And Mugabe, himself, has steadfastly refused to apologise for the killings - or even to allow them to be discussed. He did call the operation a "moment of madness" at the burial of the ZAPU leader, Joshua Nkomo, in 1999 - whose decision to merge his party with ZANU in 1987 had brought an end to the massacres - but Mugabe has shown no desire to say anything else.

And there is no hope of any additional official inquiries. The government has already established two inquiries to 'investigate' the disturbances - one led by then chief justice Enoch Dumbutshena and another by lawyer Simplicius Chihambakwe - but their findings were never made public.

Instead, the government has used all its considerable powers to successfully keep a lid on the issue - intimidating and harassing anyone who tries to discuss Gukurahundi. The authorities are clearly hoping that silence will make people forget. But they are just fooling themselves because Zimbabweans still want answers - still want the truth.

"January 20th is the day when the Gukurahundi genocide started and it should be recognised with a public holiday and we also want the government to set up a fund to compensate relatives of people killed and injured during the massacres," said Mbuzo Fuzwayo, coordinator of Ibetshu Likazulu. "We are sending a petition to government with these demands and on 20th January this year we are holding a memorial service for the genocide in Bulawayo and some survivors will attend the event."

And it is critical for Zimbabweans to have open discussions about the Gukurahundi massacres as these would help to bring national healing and start to move the nation forward. Thirty years after Gukurahundi started, almost a quarter of the country's 13 million people are still angry and traumatised by the killings. Gukurahundi left thousands of families poorer and undermined the development of Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, which still lag behind other parts of the country. Thousands of people, who were born during that time, remain stateless as their parents were killed and they have no proof that they were born in Zimbabwe.

These people will not forget. But they are willing to try and move on. But for that, they expect the perpetrators to apologise and for the truth to come out. They also expect compensation from the state as they know very well that the government army was behind the massacres.

And it is very worrying that Mugabe and his allies still seem to believe that if Zimbabweans are allowed to openly discuss Gukurahundi it will merely open old wounds and cause an uprising. This is rubbish because Zimbabweans are peace loving people and only want the truth so that they can put the past behind them.

It is high time that Mugabe swallows his pride and sets up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Gukurahundi as demanded by opposition MDC. South Africa created a TRC after apartheid and while it has many critics, it certainly shone a spotlight on some of the crimes of the past and helped to move the country forwards. In Zimbabwe, there can be no national healing and reconciliation if the truth about what transpired during Gukurahundi is never told.

It is very difficult for ordinary Zimbabweans to believe that there will ever be justice for the many other crimes against humanity that have taken place in our country, especially in relation to the bloody 2008 presidential election, if Gukurahundi remains clouded in secrecy - and if none of the perpetrators of the massacres are ever brought to book.

But the campaign by Ibetshu Likazulu shows that ordinary Zimbabweans are not going to give up. They might not talk openly about Gukurahundi but they will not forget and will not stop seeking answers to all the many outstanding questions. They will not get those answers any time soon but one day, they believe they will.

However, that might only be after President Mugabe is eventually buried in Hero's Acre. Maybe then we will start to talk about our collective Gukurahundi-inspired trauma. Only time will tell.

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