Zimbabwe: Elusive Closure 37 Years After Soldiers killed 20,000

Military forces chasing after protestors in Harare (file photo).
14 September 2020

Charles Thomas recalled one afternoon, three years after Zimbabwe got independence in 1980, when nearly 20 soldiers stormed his village in Matabeleland with bayonets. He was 24.

The soldiers were hunting down former Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (Zipra) combatants.

Terrified villagers fled from the rampaging soldiers, but Sifiso Ndlovu, a cousin of Thomas, was not so lucky. Thomas recounted this week that Ndlovu, a Zipra combatant, was killed that night. So was Jacob Maphosa, another relative.

They were among an estimated 20,000 murdered during the ethnic attacks in 1983 by the North Korea-trained 5th Brigade soldiers deployed by Mr President Robert Mugabe to crush the uprising by former guerillas loyal to liberation war rival Joshua Nkomo.

Nkomo later became vice-president of Zimbabwe until his death in 1999.

Thomas, now 61, was captured and subjected to a harrowing ordeal evident in ugly scars on his body nearly four decades later.

"I was tortured and lost family members during this period," Thomas said, showing scars from the torture.

Kennedy Dube, another cousin, survived the attack only because security forces thought he was dead.

Mugabe who described the atrocities as a "moment of madness", died last year aged 95. Thomas is bitter that the long-time ruler never apologised for the horrific attacks. No one has ever been brought to justice for the massacre. Yet Thomas says some of the perpetrators are known.

"It's painful to see the perpetrators walk scot free. When will justice be delivered?" Thomas asked in an interview with the Nation.

And what pains him more is that over the years, the ruling party's security forces have attacked victims who attempted to commemorate the massacre at the sites of mass graves.

In Bhalagwe, nearly 100km outside Zimbabwe's second largest capital Bulawayo, are mass graves of victims of the indiscriminate purge of predominantly Ndebele-speaking provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands.

The atrocities came to be known in the Shona language as Gukurahundi: "the early rain that washes away the chaff".

State agencies and the governing party's youth members are always on the lookout for who visits the sites.

"When we try to lay wreaths and honour the victims at mass graves where the remains of some of my relatives lie, we often clash with authorities and Zanu PF youths. The wounds remain fresh," said Thomas.

Denied closure, the State has also robbed relatives of the victims of their identity in an apparent attempt to muzzle them. They are yet to get basic documentation such as birth certificates, 40 years after Independence.

Thomas has heard of renewed efforts at truth and reconciliation, but he doubts Mr Mugabe's successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is the right person to lead the process.

Mnangagwa, nicknamed the crocodile, was the security minister during the 1980s ethnic attacks.

"It is so painful to see government having a half-hearted approach towards this issue. An apology should be made by Mnangagwa," he lamented.

President Mnangagwa could have buckled to pressure by starting an emotive conversation on one of the country's darkest chapters. But victims and political analysts say the road to truth and reconciliation remains a labyrinth nearly four decades after the tribally-driven atrocities.

Human rights groups such as the Catholic Commission on Human Rights, which jointly produced a report titled "Breaking the Silence" in the 1990s estimate as many as 20,000 people died in western Zimbabwe, most of them Ndebele.

Historians and political scientists say while Mnangagwa has shown some commitment in closing the chapter, his efforts could go down the drain if government lacks the political will to pursue truth and reconciliation.

In the wake of a severe clampdown on last year's demonstrations that were triggered by a 150 per cent rise in fuel prices, and soaring food prices, Mr Mnangagwa travelled to Bulawayo, where he met a group of more than 60 civil society organisations under the umbrella Bulawayo Collective in his quest to address the thorny issue.

But fissures have emerged within the non-governmental organisations on how to seek redress. A few weeks ago, Zimbabwe's leader made another trip to the city where he met about half of the groups. The government has since stopped hearings that were set to begin this month, a development that highlights how deep-seated the Gukurahundi atrocities remain etched on the minds of many living in the southern African nation.

Germany-based history professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, who edited a book on Mugabe's leadership style, said while the atrocities affected mainly two out of the 10 provinces in Zimbabwe, addressing the yesteryear transgressions requires a national approach.

That was the darkest hour for the new regime

"Operation Gukurahundi was supposed to be an alarm bell for all of us to say this regime or this popular government, which we voted into power, 'is it really for us and does it respect black lives?' That was the darkest hour for the new regime when it began to do what it did in Matabeleland and the Midlands regions and we see that being replicated over and over every election time and even outside election time," said Prof Ndlovu-Gatsheni.

"One of the major things that we must say squarely and clearly is that there was always silencing on Gukurahundi for nearly 40 years, but those who were affected did not accept to be cowed. So they agitated and ensured that this thing continues to be alive -- politically, internationally and locally. And now that the "Second Republic" has decided to react to the cries of the people for justice, I think the credit must be given first of all to the victims and the allied organisations, which kept these human rights abuses, the question of genocide, alive to the extent that it can no longer be ignored 40 years after."

The new government, said Gatsheni, had failed to break with the past as it continues to embrace Mugabe's political philosophy and ideology.

'Mugabe phenomenon'

"The concept of Mugabeism was supposed to be an umbrella of so many things (such as the philosophy of governance and ideology). It wasn't about a biography of President Robert Mugabe. It was supposed to be about Mugabe phenomenon--what is it that he stands for? Because of that, it is not about Mugabe the person; it is about the system of political culture and political governance that developed around him. The major problem is that because it is a system and a culture, it actually outlives the person and we can see it continuing after November 2017 (when Mugabe was ousted through a military-assisted intervention) into the present and some people are saying it had actually degenerated into something else ... I cannot say there was a break, if anything, there was intensification of Mugabeism."

Prof Ndlovu-Gatsheni said Zimbabwe should take stock of progress in healing the wounds.

"It is not something where you can go to Bulawayo and think you have resolved it. You need to promise the people that it will never happen again. The only way you begin, as civil society and the people who were affected are demanding, is that there must be acknowledgment that something wrong happened. Secondly there is need to institute truth and reconciliation."

Gukurahundi is a thorn in the flesh for Zimbabwe's polity.

Piers Pigou, a consultant at the International Crisis Group, said bringing closure on Gukurahundi will be a Herculean task for authorities in Zimbabwe.

"Gukurahundi is a thorn in the flesh for Zimbabwe's polity and it will not go away," he said.

"It certainly will not go away, judging by the way it is being dealt with. Since the production of the Catholic report, Zimbabweans have been busy exploring how best to address the past -- not only in terms of Gukurahundi, but in terms of a whole range of other violations in the colonial as well as post-colonial period. Gukurahundi has been at the centre of those discussions for the last 20 years under the auspices of what is now known as transitional justice on how to deal with the past.

"The Mnangagwa administration inherited a fairly weakened effort to an undertaking to deal with the past that we saw come out of the Global Political Agreement (which gave birth to the Zimbabwe coalition government in 2009) -- the establishment of an organ on national healing, which never really got off the ground with these issues but fed into the constitutional process and the establishment of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission."

Inked agreement

After nearly a decade, Mugabe, who was then prime minister and his erstwhile archrival Nkomo, inked an agreement that brought to an end the violence. Some of Nkomo's lieutenants died in detention while others joined the coalition government, which was dominated by the majority Shona tribe.

Zimbabwe's first non-executive president, Canaan Banana, said the accord would end hostilities among Zimbabweans.

Zimbabwe's co-vice president Kembo Mohadi, who was in the trenches with Nkomo's men during the liberation war, said it was time for the country to close this chapter. The how and when remains contentious though.

"There are some people who say there has been Gukurahundi, there has been that, but who has not wronged the other?" Mohadi, who also holds the National Peace and Reconciliation portfolio in Zimbabwe's Cabinet, said recently.

The spokesperson of the country's main opposition party Fadzai Mahere, however, differs.

"It is impossible to shelve Gukurahundi and move on. The truth must be told. The perpetrators must account. Justice must be done. The victims must be compensated. It is important for the nation to heal from this trauma," she tweeted after Mohadi's remarks.

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