HomeAnalysisUS department of State was warned about Gukurahundi

US department of State was warned about Gukurahundi

THIS is the fourth 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

Top military officers, including former army commander the late retired general Solomon Mujuru (left front), were advised that the policy of military repression has dangers and requires careful handling to avoid excesses. Mujuru, before his death, had not openly spoken about the Gukurahundi massacres carried out by the North-Korean trained Fifth Brigade.
Top military officers, including former army commander the late retired general Solomon Mujuru (left front), were advised that the policy of military repression has dangers and requires careful handling to avoid excesses. Mujuru, before his death, had not openly spoken about the Gukurahundi massacres carried out by the North-Korean trained Fifth Brigade.

Documents obtained from the United States Department of State indicate that the US government was in receipt of similar warnings as the British regarding Fifth Brigade. In developing a strategy on policy in response to the issue, the US government noted the “wisdom (of) letting the British take the lead — and the heat — on Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, based on the UK’s historical, colonial role and its political and economic influence in Zimbabwe.

The UK is presently still the very predominant foreign influence on the Zimbabwean army, through a large and active military mission there (BMATT).

Further reporting of atrocities such as those that appeared in the Newsweek publication heightened US concerns “of 5 Brigade brutality in Matabeleland”, resulting in Washington raising these concerns with the FCO, London.

The FCO Secretary, Francis Pym, immediately contacted Byatt in Harare noting “we are considering our recommendations on what action we and the Americans might take to bring our concern to the notice of Mugabe”, and thereafter asked Byatt for suggestions. Despite a wealth of credible intelligence, Byatt minimised the situation, reporting back to London that: “it is extremely difficult to get a really accurate picture of the extent of Fifth Brigade brutality . . . I have not seen the Newsweek article, but I understand that its author, Jensen, has a reputation for sensational reporting.

“He claims to have been to a number of “operational” areas in Matabeleland and received first hand reports. However, he is based in Johannesburg and journalists based there habitually over-colour reports from Zimbabwe . . . The behaviour of the Fifth Brigade has certainly been brutal but it is Shortis’s (BMATT commander) impression that they are not out of control.”

Byatt continued that: “The other side of the coin is that the white farming community (a substantial portion of which is British or dual) are being treated scrupulously correctly by the Fifth Brigade and, while they dislike the methods being used, are relieved that their own security has improved very considerably as a result of Fifth Brigade deployment.

“Sir Humphrey Gibbs’ son told me last night by telephone that people in his area now felt safer than at any time in the past nine months. Shortis had the same message from other famers there. This is clearly an important element from our point of view.”

The cable also advised London that Garfield Todd, a progressive White Zimbabwean and member of the Zimbabwean Senate held a conversation with US Ambassador Keeley, voicing his deep concerns for the Ndebele people and relaying information on the atrocities being perpetrated by Fifth Brigade. Todd reported to Keeley that he had also met with Deputy Prime Minister Muzenda and “gave him a dossier of cases. Keeley has since heard that Muzenda was shocked by this and passed it to Mugabe (reaction not known)”.

Of note, the US government intimated that “the UK is presently still the very predominant foreign influence on the Zimbabwean army, through a large and active military mission there”.
On the weeks commencing February 7 and 14 1983, Major General Colin Shortis was presented with valuable opportunities to use this “predominant foreign influence on the Zimbabwean army” to challenge its leaders on the mounting evidence of atrocities being perpetrated by the army on the Ndebele in an effort to reduce or stop the violence.

During these two weeks, Major General Shortis met with Zimbabwean defence minister (Sydney) Sekeramayi, and senior army commanders, Rex Nhongo (Solomon Mujuru) and Gava. However, despite this opportune occasion, Shortis merely advised them that “the policy of military repression has dangers and requires careful handling to avoid excesses”.

Commenting upon this exchange, Byatt advised London that “our best course is to continue as we have been doing, proffering ‘sympathetic’ advice in our working contacts, rather than making a specific formal demarche”.

That Major General Shortis should be so reticent to lay bare the concerns of both the British and American governments is perhaps explained by Byatt who notes in his cable to the FCO that “if they (Sekeramayi, Nhongo, Gava) got the impression that our main concern was our own public opinion to tackle constructively what is a major domestic security threat, they would all too easily stop listening”.

The very same week that Shortis met with Sekeramayi, Nhongo and Gava, Byatt informed the FCO: “We have received reports of the behaviour of 5 Brigade in Matabeleland from a mission doctor, who has lived in Matabeleland for 14 years and was visiting missions up to 16 February (1983). He has now returned to Britain and may well make public his evidence . . .

“His reports substantiate allegations of widespread acts of brutality throughout the communal lands where 5 Brigade are deployed. He has personally witnessed many of these acts, and most seem well-authenticated. They range from murder to torture, rape and beatings. Men, women, and children have been victims, often simply because they could not prove they had not assisted dissidents.”

The cable continues that: “5 Brigade soldiers appear to be obeying orders and to be generally under the control of their officers. Although they may be behaving more viciously than the government intend, the brutality seems systematic and is indiscriminately directed against villagers, to whom they are reported to have said ‘all Ndebele are dissidents’. The reports suggest that the number killed since 5 Brigade was deployed may well be substantially more that the couple of hundred I postulated in TUR . . . I fear these disturbing reports are reliable. I hope we get in the course of the next few days some indication whether Sekeramayi’s statement to Shortis that excesses will be curbed, and perhaps Mugabe’s reaction to the dossier mentioned in TUR, are in fact leading to improvement. It is perhaps notable that the only sentence highlighted by the FCO upon receipt of the cable is the point that the mission doctor ‘may well make public his evidence’.”

This resonates with Byatt’s concerns aforementioned that UK public opinion is of greater concern to the British government than the ongoing “major domestic security threat” in Matabeleland.

Further independent and credible information was reported a few days later to both Byatt in Harare, and the FCO in London, from a visitor who had stayed in Bulawayo in February.

The visitor noted that it was a “very sobering visit. The situation in Matabeleland seemed very unhealthy and volatile”.

However, at a meeting on February 28 between the US Assistant Secretary of State, Africa Office, Chester Crocker and his British counterpart Cranley Onslow, Onslow “characterised the situation in Matabeleland as marginally less worrisome than initial reports indicated . . . Both sides agreed on the necessity to watch the situation very carefully and to keep in close touch in an effort, as Onslow put it, “to limit damage”’.

Damage to who or what was left unsaid but a later document evidences that one of Onslow’s key concerns was “that the present unstable situation, particularly as portrayed in the press, will give rise to domestic pressures in both the US and UK for policy changes toward the Mugabe regime”.

As a result of Keeley actively seeking out intelligence regarding events on the ground in Matabeleland North, on February 26 the American embassy “learned that several foreign correspondents will be filing major stories in the next two days on the continuing violence in Matabeleland”.

One journalist was said to have “spoke(n) to over fifty people in places like Bulawayo and Lupane who gave him eyewitness accounts of atrocities committed by Fifth Brigade. He described the situation in the province as “wholesale mayhem” and a “total brutalisation” of the populace and agreed to meet with (an embassy official) for a fuller debrief Saturday morning.

On February 28, as various news reports were published laying bare the suffering of the people of Matabeleland, British journalist Jeremy Paxman arrived in Zimbabwe with a documentary film crew on a three-week visit.

Paxman’s arrival unsettled both the BMATT commander Shortis and High Commissioner Byatt to the extent that a decision was taken to visit the Minister of Defence Sekeramayi same day, to express concern “that govt (Zimbabwean) have not been successful in putting over their side of the case on recent events in Matabeleland particularly to the foreign press and media”.

During this meeting with Sekeremayi, which meaningfully employs the collective terms “we” and “our”, Byatt advised the minister that: “While we were now improving our local coverage, we were losing out on our case by default on the world scene and in particular the Reuters press release and the quote Africa unquote article. The latter incidentally is freely on sale here, did not help . . . I suggested that we needed an off the record background brief by himself (Sekeremayi) or (Emmerson) Mnangagwa followed by on the record interviews with selected journalists/interviewers to put over their case and the reasons for their actions. We had some discussion in which we agreed that we quote despise journalists unquote, but that we needed them. I also pointed out that we needed to demonstrate British support for the Zimbabwe Government in its difficulties.”

As evidence mounted, what was taking place on the ground became undeniable and indeed Byatt informed London that “according to some reports it seems that 5 Brigade brutality towards the civilian population may be continuing. The provincial health inspector told us yesterday that anyone found with a demobilisation card is summarily executed and the families beaten. Charities and church organisations are compiling dossiers and interceding or trying to intercede privately with the government, apparently to little effect as yet”.

By March 2 1983, the US Secretary of State wrote that there were numerous reports of atrocities being perpetrated by “the all-Shona brigade”, including indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, beatings and the destruction of property, “including, in several instances, entire villages”.

Shultz noted that “there are also reports that as many as 1 000 to 3 000 people have died”.

Two days later, on March 4, Shultz dispatched a further cable to US diplomatic posts in Africa advising that “Fifth Brigade’s depredations in Matabeleland are of a new order of magnitude compared to previous developments in Zimbabwe in terms of their potential damage to overall US/Zimbabwe relations, apart from their implications for future prospects for peace, stability, and development in Zimbabwe itself.”

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.

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