THIS is the second in a series of articles of a detailed research paper by British academic Hazel Cameron on the state-sponsored killings of civilians by Zimbabwean security forces between 1982 and 1987 under the pretext of suppressing dissidents in the atrocities now widely referred to as the Gukurahundi massacres.
Hazel Cameron British Academic
After Independence, longstanding tensions between the two main organisations that had fought the Rhodesian regime — namely the liberation armies of Zanu and Zapu — intensiﬁed.
By early 1982, political relations between the political wings of both nationalists had rapidly deteriorated and armed activity against Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s government developed. Zimbabwe was experiencing its most marked security problems in the western half of the country where armed “dissidents” were reported to be responsible for the killing of civilians and the destruction of property.
According to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights report of 1986, “the so-called ‘dissidents’, an amorphous amalgamation of disaffected ex-combatants, disillusioned radicals, and more than a few common criminals, have been waging a campaign of killings and economic sabotage aimed at destabilising the country’s economy and undermining support for Mugabe’s government”.
These armed insurgents also targeted certain groups of civilians. The dissidents had no acknowledged leadership and no avowed political aims.
Some commentators describe the rationale for this dissident violence as being “the product of an ill-judged bid on the part of Zapu to claim the victory it had failed to gain through the ballot box”.
For others, land was a priority. Alexander notes that “dissidents’ goals were restorative, a return to the status quo ante, to the 1980s’ brief peace: they wanted the release of their political and military leaders, the return of conﬁscated property, a return to ethnic co-existence”.
Equally, apartheid South Africa sought to exploit tensions between Zanu PF and Zapu, as well as between white and black Zimbabweans, so as to undermine its newly independent neighbour.
That the apartheid regime armed and controlled “Super-Zapu” insurgents as part of a wider strategy of destabilising its neighbours is indisputable.
However, the scale of the problem in the west of the country was greatly exaggerated by Harare, who viewed it as an opportune justiﬁcation to wipe out Zapu, the only real limitation to Mugabe’s total hegemony. Thus, the government responded to the dissident activity with the major security crackdown on Matabeleland and parts of Midlands between 1982-1987.
The Fifth Brigade was deployed to Matabeleland North and Midlands on January 20 1983.
The sea and enemy ﬁsh
From the outset, it was clear that Fifth Brigade were not interested in seeking out dissidents and that their actual target was the civilian Ndebele population.
Indeed, US Secretary of State George Shultz noted “the Fifth Brigade military operations in Matabeleland have succeeded in terrorising, intimidating and alienating the people of Matabeleland, but have had little, if any impact, on dissident activities (sic). The problems the Fifth Brigade were sent in to dispel still persist”.
From late January to mid-March 1983, the Fifth Brigade murdered and tortured thousands of civilians, burned hundreds of villages, and raped and pillaged entire communities.
On many occasions, soldiers would arrive at villages with lists of people afﬁliated to Zapu. Those identiﬁed from the list would be executed. On other occasions, entire families were herded into grass-roofed huts, which were then set alight.
At the end of January 1983 in Mkhonyeni, a pregnant woman “was bayonetted open to kill the baby whilst pregnant girls were bayoneted to death by 5 Brigade in Tsholotsho in Feb 1983”, also killing the babies within their womb.
Young Ndebele men between the ages of 16–40 were particularly vulnerable and were frequently targeted and killed whilst others were forced to perform demeaning public sex acts.
At Korodzibam in February 1983, “5B (Fifth Brigade) came to the school and took about 60 pupils aged over 14 years.
They were all beaten and asked about dissidents. Twenty to 30 girls were raped and then ordered to have sex with some of the boys while the soldiers watched. They were beaten for three hours”.
Interviews carried out for the report of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ) and the Legal Resources Foundations Zimbabwe (LRF) revealed: “There was mass physical torture … intense brutality … and (village members) were frequently forced to watch others close to them dying slowly from injuries sustained from beating, burning, shooting or bayoneting … Villagers were warned not to seek medical help.
“Many who were beaten were left with permanent disabilities, ranging from paralysis, blindness, deafness, recurrent miscarriage, impotence, infertility and kidney damage, to partial lameness and recurring backaches and headaches …
“In addition to the physical injuries, it is clear from interviews that large numbers of people in Tsholotsho suffered some degree of psychological trauma, leading in extreme cases to insanity, and in many cases to recurring depression, dizzy spells, anxiety, anger, or a permanent fear and distrust of government ofﬁcials …
“Children were left without one or both parents, and with the trauma of having witnessed appalling violence against those they loved. Families were left without the consolation of truly knowing the fate of their kin, or their burial places.”
Many families have had to face practical problems arising from the number of dead for whom death certiﬁcates were never issued. This has meant problems gaining birth certiﬁcates for children, or drawing money from bank books in the name of the deceased.
The Shona-speaking Fifth Brigade repeatedly used a blatantly tribal and political discourse, and, in the execution of their extreme violence, appeared to be militarily unmotivated.
Dr Cameron teaches International Relations at the University of St Andrews in Britain. Her main research interests include state crime; external institutional bystanders and international criminal law; state and corporate complicity in genocide, war crime and crimes against humanity; intersection of criminality and the extractive industries in the DRC; and Rwandan state violence. She has written a monograph of her doctoral research titled Britain’s Hidden Role in the Rwandan Genocide.