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Nightmare of Mugabe's Matabele atrocities

Mail and Guardian (South Africa) : 2 May 1997

The first details of a shock report of Zimbabwe's government troops' atrocities in camp Bhalagwe and elsewhere has emerged despite Mugabe's curtain of silence, writes David Beresford.

One of the untold horrors of Africa - the atrocities perpetrated by Robert Mugabe's troops in the southern province of Matabeleland after independence -can finally be told.

The nightmarish story of how Mugabe's Korean-trained troops put down an insurrection in the early 1980s has been detailed in a report drawn up by Zimbabwe's Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

The shock findings were presented to Mugabe in March, but the country's eight Catholic bishops have backed off a pledge to release it publicly. A copy has, however, been obtained by the Mail & Guardian.

The report is based on testimony gathered from more than 1000 people over a five-year period. It sweeps aside a curtain of silence which has seen families being refused death certificates for corpses of their loved ones, because officialdom refuses to recognise their murders. Only one member of Mugabe's Cabinet has ever expressed the slightest regret for the atrocities.

The commission focused its investigation on two case-study areas, the Tsholotsho and Nyamandlovu districts in Matabeleland North and Matobo in Matabeleland South.

Matabeleland in the early 1980s was the centre of antagonism between Joshua Nkomo's Zipra and Mugabe's Zanla guerrilla armies. Tensions were exacerbated by a South African-backed destabilisation campaign. Dissidents carried out atrocities in the region - including the killing of missionaries - but on a minuscule scale compared to those of state security forces acting in the name of law and order.

In August 1981, 106 instructors arrived from North Korea and began training what was to be known as Five Brigade, or Gukurahundi - Shona for "the rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains". Made up mostly of Shona-speaking recruits from Zanla, wearing distinctive uniforms including red berets, armed with AK-47s and driving Korean vehicles, which quickly fell to pieces in the rough Zimbabwe terrain, the crack unit was to terrorise Matabeleland.

The government introduced a series of curfews in Matabeleland, journalists were prohibited from leaving the provincial capital of Bulawayo and Five Brigade set to work. In the words of the report: "Within weeks of being mobilised at the end of January 1983 under Colonel Perence Shiri, Five 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.

"Five Brigade passed first through Tsholotsho, spreading out rapidly through Lupane and Nkayi, and their impact on all these communal areas was shocking. 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 one and 12 people at a time."

The report offers a chilling recitation of atrocities, describing how villagers would be assembled at a central point - such as a school, or borehole - harangued and subjected to mass beatings which were often followed by killings of those whose names were read from death lists.

"Villagers frequently report being forced to sing songs praising Zanu-PF while dancing on the mass graves of their families and fellow villagers, killed and buried minutes earlier." Five Brigade would regularly forbid the badly injured from seeking medical attention, in some cases returning the day after the initial assaults to finish them off.

There is a tribal belief in Matabeleland that the tears of the living need to be spilled to release the souls of the dead and allow them to be at rest. Five Brigade made a practice of forbidding mourning and the commission says there were instances of relatives being shot because they wept.

Burial was also often forbidden, so families were forced to watch the corpses of their loved ones rotting in the sun and being mauled by scavengers.

The commission reports that there were some exceptions to the depravity and cites, as an example, an instance in early 1983 when a commander at Ndawana village in Tsholotsho ordered all the inhabitants into a hut and then set fire to it.

"As the burning thatch began to fall in on screaming villagers the commander left and another member of Five Brigade immediately opened the hut door and released the villagers before any were burnt to death. He took huge personal risk . "

But otherwise the report contains a litany of atrocity reminiscent of Rwanda, or the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Some examples from the Tsholotsho and Nyamandlovu districts in Matabeleland North:

* Neshango line. February 3 1983. Mass beating of villagers and shooting of two young pregnant girls, followed by their being bayoneted open to reveal the still moving foetuses.

* Kumbula school, Pumula village. February 13 1983. Whole village beaten and seven shot dead, including a teacher, after digging their own graves. Witnesses refer to a fountain of blood from the pit.

* Gulakabili. February 12 1983. Whole village abducted from nearby to the Pumula mission area where they were beaten. Some were then forced to dig a mass grave, made to climb in and were shot. They were buried while still moving and villagers were made to dance on the grave and sing songs in praise of Zanu-PF. Number of dead given as 12.

* Tangahukwe. February 1983. All the villagers were rounded up and severely beaten. Twelve were selected and shot after being forced into two mass graves . One of the chosen managed to run away, so his younger brother was killed instead.

* Korodziba. February 1983. Five Brigade came to the school and took about 60 pupils aged over 14 years. They were all beaten and asked abut dissidents. Twenty to 30 girls were raped and then ordered to have sex with some of the boys while the soldiers watched.

* Soloboni. February 23 1983. Five Brigade rounded up entire village to the borehole. Six people were chosen at random and were bayoneted to death and buried in one grave. Everyone was then beaten. Five people were beaten to death ... [one] man who wept to see his brother killed was severely beaten and died a few weeks later from his injuries. One old lady who was found in her hut was raped and Five Brigade then set fire to a plastic bag and burned the old lady with it, setting fire to her blanket. She died three weeks later from the burns.

* Egagwini. March 1983. One young man was taken by Five Brigade, badly beaten, returned and while his parents were washing his wounds, the Five Brigade came back and shot him.

* Mkhonyeni. January 1983. The first woman to die in this area was accused of feeding dissidents. She was pregnant and was bayoneted open to kill the baby. She died later.

February 1983. All the villagers were forced to witness the burning to death of 26 villagers, in the three huts of Dhlamini.

* Bonkwe/Nyanganyuni. A young woman from Bonkwe going to buy mielie meal was beaten for wearing her husband's watch. Her husband was summoned to Nyanganyuni and beaten to death. Every bone in his body was broken - he is referred to as being "like a cloth".

* Tshomwina and Dzokotze. January/February 1983. All the villagers of Tshomwina were forced-marched to Dzokotze nearby. They were beaten and five were killed. One man died after terrible mutilations which included having his jaw broken and his tongue cut out. This man ran away and was found by his family in a neighbouring village. He took eight days to die, without medical care.

* Mpungayile. 1983. The Five Brigade shot dead a mentally retarded boy and then shot three other men. Because the women wept they were shot too, four of them.

* Nkwalini. February 1983. A man from here, trying to take his wife away to Bulawayo, was shot dead at Mlagisa siding and so was his wife when she cried when she saw him shot.

* Sipepa Area. February 1983. Whole village forced to dig roots, some were then beaten and two schoolboys who looked too old for their class were shot dead.

The commission says that killing was less widespread in Matabeleland South, but many "horrific atrocities" were recorded. "A four-month-old infant was axed three times and the mother forced to eat the flesh of her dead child. An 18-year-old girl was raped by six soldiers and then killed. An 11-year-old child had her vagina burnt with plastic and was later shot. Twin infants were buried alive."

Other specific incidents reported in the south included:

* Dry Paddock area. February 1984. A young woman and her father-in-law were asked about dissidents and beaten. They were then stripped naked and told to have sex with each other. The father-in-law said he would die first. A shot was fired, missing them, and the two were then severely beaten and left for dead.

* Donkwe Donkwe. February 1984. Five Brigade rounded everyone in the area to a local school. There were about 200 men, women and children. Everyone as beaten and kicked from sunrise to 10am. Then some were made to dig two graves, while others were made to fight each other. Six men were chosen at random and placed in two groups of three. They were then shot dead. Everyone else was told to sing songs praising Mugabe and condemning Nkomo . While some sang and danced, others were beaten. Some of the villagers were made to bury the six dead and then had to join in the singing while being beaten. At 4pm about 19 young men were taken away and another man was shot as they departed.

* Mloyi area. February 1984. Approximately 100 adults and schoolchildren were rounded up . they were told they were in for a treat ... People were then beaten, including a 12-year-old girl and her sister and their father. The two girls were so badly beaten they were later hospitalised. Their father was then shot dead in front of everyone and his children were made to search his pockets to see if they could find any evidence that he was a dissident.

* Mbembeswana area. February 1984. An ex- Zipra soldier was taken from his home in nearby Silonkwe to Mbembeswana. He was badly beaten and then his family were summoned to fetch him. He had both arms broken and no teeth. He refused to leave, saying he was dead already. Five Brigade then shot him in the head.

Zipra was the military wing of Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African Peoples' Union and Zanla was the military wing loyal to Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (PF).