Robert Mugabe’s ‘moment of madness’

Of all the stains on Robert Mugabe’s tumultuous 37-year rule of Zimbabwe, the bloodiest, most indelible was the Gukurahundi, or what many call the Matabeleland Massacres. The Gukurahundi, derived from a Shona word for ‘the early rains that blow away the chaff ’, happened from 1983 through 1987 when the Zimbabwe National Army’s Fifth Brigade rampaged through the south-western provinces of Matabeleland North and South and parts of Midlands province and attacked rural Ndebele communities, killing an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 civilians. The residents of rural villages were rounded up and forced to attend allnight rallies for Mugabe’s ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Community leaders were beaten and sometimes killed in front of the gatherings. Men, young and old, were forced to dig graves, then shot and buried in them. Surviving community members were made to dance on top of the fresh graves. Some families were pushed into huts that were set on fire and they either burned to death or were shot dead when they tried to escape. The troops spread terror, destruction and death across the home area of Zimbabwe’s Ndebele ethnic minority, which makes up about 20 per cent of the country’s population.

The Fifth Brigade consisted of 3,000 troops, virtually all Shona speakers. The brigade had received special counter-insurgency training by North Korean advisors and were known as Mugabe’s elite praetorian guard, directly answerable to his office. Their arms, equipment and uniforms were different from the rest of the army, including distinctive red berets. With the prolonged, deadly brutality of the Matabeleland campaigns, the Fifth Brigade was trying to stamp out rural support for anti-government rebels who had carried out a series of violent protests and killings. Peace and stability flourished throughout the rest of Zimbabwe and in the capital, Harare, in the 1980s, so it was hard to comprehend that Matabeleland was in the grip of the horrors of the Gukurahundi.

Journalists, both Zimbabwean and foreign, played a significant role in exposing the killings and bringing the atrocities to the attention of the world. Despite the widespread violence and large number of people affected, it was not an easy story to uncover. The government denied the army’s abuses and placed a curfew over the area, curbing travel by civilians and making it difficult and dangerous for journalists to investigate. The state-controlled media, comprising all Zimbabwe’s television and radio broadcasters, the daily newspapers and the national news agency, dismissed the reports of massacres as fabrications. Those who spoke out about the killings were excoriated by government officials. Some foreign journalists who reported on the killings were expelled.

Within days of the Fifth Brigade being deployed into Matabeleland in January 1983, reports of murders began to surface. Early accounts of the mass killings came from the Bulawayo Chronicle and local magazines also reported some incidents. Opposition leader Joshua Nkomo and members of his Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) party, who represented Matabeleland, spoke out in parliament. ‘People are daily being killed like chickens,’ said William Kona, a ZAPU MP, on 26 January 1983. Nick Worrall, the correspondent for The Guardian, was one of the first of the international media to report on Gukurahundi, publishing stories in early February 1983. By the end of March, Worrall had been thrown out of Zimbabwe. I was a young, idealistic American journalist, who had come to report about the transformation of the country from white minority-ruled Rhodesia to majority-ruled Zimbabwe. I was committed to illustrating how Zimbabwe was a beacon of multi-racial democracy showing South Africa the way out of apartheid. I had not anticipated reporting on atrocities perpetrated by Mugabe’s army against the minority Ndebele people, but the insistent accounts of the killings convinced me to investigate.

The stories from individuals were horrific, but difficult to verify. It was also hard to confirm the bigger picture, that the incidents reported were part of a larger campaign. The Catholic church was an important resource because of its network of churches, mission schools and medical clinics across Matabeleland and its commitment to human rights in the country. In mid-February 1983, I went to Bulawayo with three other journalists. A Zimbabwean Catholic priest took us to a church and told us that hundreds of people had fled Matabeleland North for Bulawayo, hoping that they would find safety in the city, the provincial capital. He led us to the basement and as we went down the stairs we saw the space was filled with scores of people. We asked who would speak to us on the record about the killings and virtually all raised their hands. They wanted their stories to be told.

We four journalists divided up and each interviewed between 10 and 20 people, taking down names, ages, places, dates and the names of those killed. Each interview was harrowing as people told of family members and neighbours being murdered by the Fifth Brigade. The people’s faces showed the shock of fresh trauma, with some speaking of killings just days earlier. After nearly two hours, we had notebooks full of accounts and together we had the names of nearly 100 people who had been killed, according to the eyewitnesses.

The next morning we drove into the cordoned off area of Matabeleland North on the main road to Victoria Falls. We stopped at a Catholic hospital where the wards were full of people with severe burns, broken bones, bullet wounds and stabbings. The staff showed us people sleeping outside, behind the hospital, who were also receiving treatment. As we were interviewing them, a doctor rushed in, saying that army troops had arrived and were searching for us. The four of us hid in a closet and held our breaths as we heard the heavy boot steps through the wards. They left and we departed quickly afterwards. We were convinced that the killings were being carried out on a massive scale across the Matabeleland North province. Soon our dispatches were being published in the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Agence France-Presse and other media outlets.

The Catholic bishop of Bulawayo, Henry Karlen, compiled a series of accounts of atrocities in Matabeleland and travelled to Harare to deliver the report to Mugabe, who agreed to investigate. In April 1983 the army lifted the curfew it had imposed over a large part of Matabeleland North and the reports of killings ebbed. It seemed that the bishop’s meeting and the press reports persuaded Mugabe to pull back the Fifth Brigade. But in January 1984 there was a second wave. This time the army troops concentrated on Matabeleland South where a curfew was imposed. Hundreds of residents were rounded up and held in mass detention centres. In addition to the violence that occurred behind the curtain of the curfew, the army banned food deliveries to the province, on the grounds that food was going to anti-government rebels. Zimbabwe was in the grip of a three-year drought and the peasant farmers of semi-arid Matabeleland were some of the worst affected.

The troops manned roadblocks and seized bags of the staple maize meal. The ban on food meant that families, villages and entire districts became desperately hungry. Journalists were barred from going in. Despite the ban, I managed to drive into the area and saw soldiers stopping vehicles and confiscating food. I spoke to mission priests who told of the hunger and the arrests. Zimbabwean journalist Peter Godwin wrote dramatic stories for Britain’s Sunday Times, describing how he snuck into Matabeleland South disguised as a priest and discovered a mine shaft where bodies had been dumped. Godwin’s stories caused a sensation and captured international attention on the violence. The brigade’s campaigns in 1983 and 1984 were the most severe and deadly but the military continued to impose a harsh repression over the Matabeleland region through 1987.

The Gukurahundi came after 150 years of rivalry between the Shona and Ndebele peoples. The antagonism between the two ethnic groups was evident in the nationalist struggle against white-minority Rhodesian rule. Ndebele leader Nkomo and his ZAPU movement received support from the Soviet Union and its military wing was based in Zambia to the north. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF got Chinese support and was based in Mozambique to the east. In the 1980 elections that brought Zimbabwe to independence, Mugabe and ZANU-PF won the support of the country’s Shona majority while Nkomo and ZAPU were confined to about 20 per cent of the vote. Mugabe brought Nkomo and ZAPU into an uneasy alliance in 1980, but Nkomo balked at Mugabe’s moves to create a one-party state. This set off a chain of events that led to the Gukurahundi. In February 1982 Mugabe’s then security minister Emmerson Mnangagwa announced the discovery of large arms caches that had been hidden by Nkomo’s military wing to be used against Mugabe’s government. Nkomo and two other members of his party were sacked from their Cabinet positions. Top leaders of Nkomo’s military wing were arrested and charged with treason.

Unhappy to see Nkomo fired from government and their military leaders jailed, several thousand members of Nkomo’s military wing deserted from the army. Some violently protested against the Mugabe government. Six foreign tourists were kidnapped and killed, some 20 white farmers in the Matabeleland area were shot dead. In response to this sporadic anti-government violence, the Fifth Brigade was sent in to Matabeleland. The brutality against the civilian population was to eradicate local support for the rebels, called dissidents by the Mugabe government.

Historian Stuart Doran, in his book Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, ZANU and the Quest For Supremacy 1960–1987, makes a compelling argument that the Gukurahundi was an attempt by Mugabe to dismantle support for Nkomo and ZAPU in order to create a one-party state. The bloody campaigns of 1983 and 1984 did little to change the political allegiance of Matabeleland’s people who voted solidly for Nkomo and ZAPU in the 1985 elections. The troubles in Matabeleland did not end until December 1987 when Mugabe and Nkomo signed the Unity Accord merging the two parties and bringing Nkomo back into the government.

Mugabe commissioned an investigation into the Matabeleland killings, chaired by Simplisius Chihambakwe, but the report was never made public. To right that omission an independent investigation was commissioned by two Zimbabwean non-governmental organisations, the Legal Resources Foundation and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. ‘Breaking the silence: A report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands’ was published in 1997. The authoritative investigation drew on more than 1,000 interviews and many documents to piece together an account of the abuses. The Gukurahundi has had a lasting impact in Zimbabwe. More than 35 years later it still has a bitter influence on Zimbabwe’s political life and ethnic relations. Those at the head of the chain of command have not been held to account. When Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe as Zimbabwe’s president in November 2017, he was questioned about his role in the Gukurahundi, as the country’s security minister during the deadly campaigns. He refused to accept responsibility and avoided committing to a new investigation, saying that old wounds should not be re-opened. Perence Shiri, the head of the Fifth Brigade during the killings, rose in power to become the head of Zimbabwe’s air force and Mnangagwa appointed him the minister of agriculture. Robert Mugabe has never accepted responsibility or apologised for the killings, calling them a ‘moment of madness.’

Mugabe troops leave trail of death
Nick Worrall, The Guardian (London), 2 February 1983

I watched yesterday as the body of school teacher Austin Ngwenya was buried in Bulawayo. Relatives said that he was bayoneted and shot dead on Tuesday last week by soldiers of the Fifth Brigade. Later, at the village of Fingo, in a poor peasant farming area 30 miles east of this city, I was shown the fresh graves of three other young men, all murdered, their relatives say, by fifth brigade troops. These are among the perhaps dozens who have been killed by this special army unit, recruited from the northern trial area of Mashinaland and trained by North Korean instructors in isolation from the rest of the regular army, which went through training schemes managed by Commonwealth officers. Ominous indications that the death toll may be higher still are provided by alleged ‘death lists’ which Zapu officials here say have come into their possession. One such list I was shown contained 38 names, including that of a local councillor. Allegations made last week by the Zapu leader, Mr Joshua Nkomo, that the brigade was out of control were dismissed at the time by the Government as rubbish.

Yet yesterday a stream of people was reported to be fleeing the soldiers, flooding to Bulawayo from rural areas … Wellinformed sources here yesterday said that Mr Gumede, who wore dark glasses for his TV appearance, had been attacked by soldiers who burst into his house last week. He was severely beaten and is now preparing a report for Mr Mugabe. He refused to make any public comment. … In each case, bereaved relatives named the killers as men of the Shona-speaking fifth army brigade, which was formed in 1981. The brigade has acquired a reputation for poor discipline and linked politically to the majority Zanu (PF) party. Part of the brigade, possibly up to 2,000 men, was deployed in Matebeleland during last month to bolster a combined policearmy anti-dissident force of about 5,000. The unit, sources said, was sent at a time when desertions of Ndebele soldiers from the army had reached worrying proportions and when dissident activity was on the increase.

People questioned in Bulawayo and Fino, however, said they had no idea why the unit operated in Mbembezi district for more than a week except to ‘harass’ the population for tribal and political reasons. No dissident activity has been reported there, nor does the open rocky terrain provide suitable cover for them. The ruthlessness of this new phase of the anti-dissident operations is shown by lists of people missing, people believed killed and people confirmed killed by the soldiers. The list I was shown by a Zapu official had been compiled by a man who had fled from the town of Tsholotsho, north of Bulawayo, the headquarters of the security forces’ operation. Another list names seven women killed in Nkai Forest … A young man I gave a lift to into Bulawayo said he was moving to Harare before everybody in his village was killed … In a statement last Friday, the Minister of State for Defence, who is in charge of the operation in Matebeleland, Mr Sydney Sekeramayi, said it would be ‘regrettable’ if innocent people were caught in crossfire between dissidents and security forces. No one at Fingo yesterday was aware of any crossfire. ‘Their targets are Zapu officials, teachers, nurses and young men suspected of fighting with Zipra (the former Zapu military wing) during the war,’ said an old man …

The fifth column that is shaking Zimbabwe
Nick Worrall, The Guardian (London), 3 February 1983

The killing of civilians by soldiers of Zimbabwe’s fifth army brigade has revealed a considerable dilemma facing Prime Minister Robert Mugabe in tackling the problem of dissident violence which has terrorised Matebeleland for the past year. On one hand Mr Mugabe and his security advisers believe that only military force can quell the actions of gunmen who have kidnapped, killed and violently robbed indiscriminately in the province. On the other, the military force he employs must be loyal to the Zimbabwe government and Mr Mugabe’s majority Zanu (PF) party. At the same time they must be disciplined and trusted not to violate a sensitive tribal and political situation by alienating the Matebeleland people – almost one-fifth of the country’s seven million – in the process of eliminating the dissidents, many of whose aims are no more than banditry.

Unfortunately, in less than two weeks after the fifth brigade was deployed in rural parts of the province, that trust appears to have been violated in a grim and brutal manner. Many in Matebeleland believe it is an outcome that might have been foreseen. When a meeting of white farmers at Nyamandhlovu … (was told) this brigade was being moved, the news was received with stunned silence … The farmers’ apprehension arose out of the reputation for indiscipline the brigade has earned – right or wrongly – since it was formed – under a 10-man North Korean military training team in late 1981 … The 5,000 men of the brigade were dubbed by a newspaper ‘gukurahundi’ – a Shona expression which roughly means ‘the winds that blow away the chaff’ …

Hundreds Reported Killed in Attacks by Zimbabwean Troops

Jay Ross, Washington Post, 26 February 1983

Zimbabwean soldiers have killed hundreds of civilians in the past month in an offensive against dissidents in the southwestern part of the country … The North Korean-trained 5 Brigade, as it sweeps through rural districts, has created a climate of fear worse than what the people experienced during the country’s bloody war for independence, veterans say. At least five independent reports by church groups and relief workers have been sent to the government detailing killings, rapes and beatings by the 5,000-man brigade, composed mainly of troops from Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s former guerrilla army. … the reports cite reliable estimates totaling more than 1,000 civilians killed in Matebeleland Province, the stronghold of opposition leader Joshua Nkomo’s minority Ndebele tribe. Mugabe told a rally last week that ‘5 Brigade would not leave Matebeleland until every dissident has been routed’ …

Nkomo denies any link with the rebels … Military units and police have been excluded from the area during the 5 Brigade operations, more than 100 miles away from the area toured by the Zimbabwean press today. The government has clamped a dusk-to-dawn curfew on most of the area between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls. Only government and military vehicles are allowed to enter …

Zimbabwe curfew ‘cuts off food to
Andrew Meldrum, The Guardian (London), 8 March 1984

The month-old army curfew in southern Matebeleland has cut off almost all food supplies to the drought-stricken area, bringing hunger to the estimated 450,000 people there, according to Church and international aid officials here. The army is also carrying out a campaign of harassment of young people to dissuade them from helping the area’s anti-government dissidents, villagers who have fled the curfew area claim. Tensions and bitterness has grown as, on one side, accounts of army brutality come in from the curfew area and, on the other, atrocities by dissidents are reported. Last week, an opposition MP, Mr Sikwali Moyo, said he was badly beaten by soldiers for representing Mr Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu party. … ‘Both the government troops and the dissidents have perpetrated atrocities.’

After the worst drought since the turn of the century, Matebeleland people rely on shops for food. The result of the curfew is that many have gone hungry. One clergyman said people were eating grass. An interdenominational group of Bulawayo churches sent a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Robert Mugabe, warning of imminent widespread starvation and calling for an end to the hunger policy towards civilians. The Church leaders say they have received no response. The new Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Simbi Mubako, said in Parliament last month that ‘food is flowing easily’ into the curfew area. ‘They (the Government) know that is not true,’ said a pastor here. ‘They know what’s going on and they are not going to stop it.

Zimbabwe massacre bodies found in mine

Peter Godwin, Sunday Times (London), 15 April 1984

A disused mine shaft, five miles from a Zimbabwean army camp in southern Matebeleland, has been used for the disposal of bodies in a three-month ‘clean-up’ operation against ‘dissidents’ who oppose the government of the prime minister, Robert Mugabe … every night for ‘many weeks’ trucks arrived at the shaft from the direction of the army camp at Balaghwe. Corpses were unloaded and thrown in. Some bodies got snagged on cross-supports inside the interior. After each night’s dumping, the locals say, explosives were used to cover the bodies with debris …

Stench of death everywhere in Mugabe’s siege of Matebeleland

Peter Godwin, Sunday Times, 15 April 1984, London

The heavily armed soldiers at the roadblock, five miles south of the city of Bulawayo, seemed unsure. They checked my identification thoroughly and after a brief discussion waved me through – the first journalist to enter southern Matebeleland after nine weeks of strict curfew … The curfew was ‘relaxed’ last week on orders from the minister of state security in Harare … Shops and stores have been allowed to open normally, and traffic has been permitted to flow in and out of the curfew zone. However, the minister then appeared to change his mind. In a second statement, he stressed that the dusk-to-dawn curfew remained in force and that no journalist would be allowed into southern Matebeleland for the time being. Between statements, I slipped into the area …