Africa, Headlines

ZIMBABWE-HUMAN RIGHTS: Haunted by the Ghosts of Past Massacres

Lewis Machipisa

HARARE, May 5 1997 (IPS) - It is still too early to tell if a report on atrocities perpetrated by government troops against an ethnic minority in the 1980s will achieve its stated aim of helping to heal the wounds they have left.

The report on the 1982-1987 campaign against dissidents in the provinces of Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and Midlands was co-produced by two Zimbabwean human rights groups, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ) and the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF).

The country’s eight Catholic bishops presented it in March to President Robert Mugabe but refused to release it to the public, preferring to await a response from the government. However, the document was leaked to the ‘Mail and Guardian’ newspaper in South Africa, which published a story on it in its May 2-8 edition and posted most of the report on its Internet website.

In a statement issued on May 5, the CCJPZ and the LRF stated that they “regret the publication in the media at this time of extracts from their report…”

“The intention of the Report is to document the events historically, to assist in a deep and lasting reconciliation in Zimbabwe and to redress some of the outstanding difficulties which are still being suffered by the victims and survivors of that campaign,” they said.

The report is based on testimonies gathered from more than 1,000 people and describes how the security forces, and especially the army’s Fifth Brigade — which has since been disbanded — quelled the insurrection.

For years, President Robert Mugabe’s administration had managed to put a lid on news of the massacres reportedly carried out by the Fifth Brigade, in which more than 2,000 people from the Ndebele minority reportedly lost their lives.

In the document’s preface, its authors state that they acknowledge the historical context within which the events occurred, and that the report “does not seek to apportion blame.

“It seeks merely to break the silence surrounding this phase in the nation’s history, by allowing approximately one thousand people who have approached the report compilers in the last year, a chance to tell the stories they want told.”

“It is hoped that greater openness will lead to greater reconciliation,” they added. “At the same time, the report alone cannot result in reconciliation: it is therefore accompanied by a Project Proposal, which puts forward some concrete suggestions as to how the hardship caused by the 1980s disturbances can now be redressed.”

Soon after Zimbabwe attained independence in 1980, Matabeleland became the centre of antagonism between members of the two guerrilla groups that had fought to end white minority rule — ZIPRA, the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), and ZANLA, the military arm of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

According to the report, in August 1981, 106 instructors arrived from North Korea and began training what was to be known as the Fifth Brigade, made up mostly of Shona-speaking recruits from ZANLA, to put down dissident activity and a South African- backed destablisation campaign by disgruntled ex-ZIPRA members.

Shonas constitute around three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s population, while Ndebeles, who comprised the bulk of ZIPRA’s forces, make up about 15 percent.

“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,” says the report.

“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,” it adds.

So far, there has been little public reaction to the report, which was relayed only by one small-circulation weekly here, the privately-owned ‘Standard’.

“I know the reaction of former ZAPU leadership has been one of anger as it will bring unnecessary strain on the issue of unity,” says law professor and human rights activist Welshman Ncube. “Their ZANU colleagues will also be angered as this will bring into the open their roles in the massacres.”

Under a 1987 unity accord which ended the hostilities, Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU joined Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government, in which Nkomo became one of two vice-presidents.

“When you look at the scale of the atrocities done by CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation) and army officials it is shocking,” Ncube told IPS. “But we still have those same mass murderers who perpetrated the atrocities and still have the potential to do it again occupying top government positions in the army and police.”

He noted that the commander of the Fifth Brigade was still in the army and had since been promoted.

“What we are saying is that the truth must be said so that the victims can forgive and the perpetrators held accountable in the sense that they should not be holding the positions they have in the army and police,” said Ncube.

Observers say the government should have reacted to the report by now.

“The government should apologise for the atrocities which occurred and provide compensation in one form or another,” said Reginald Matchaba-Hove, chairman of ZimRights, a local human rights watchdog.

“We note with sadness that several reports including (those of) commissions of inquiry have been presented to the executive but have never been made public,” Matchaba-Hove told IPS. He said his organisation had given the government one month from May 5 to respond to the CCJPZ/LRF report before making any further comments.

Said Ncube: “One hopes the government will acknowledge and take steps to heal the wounds. But I doubt it. I don’t think government will want the report made public because no government in the world wants to be seen to brutalise its innocent people.”

“Besides, there are some people in government who genuinely feel that by making it public, unity will be threatened and those who fear to be held accountable for the attempted genocide,” he added.

One of the reasons advanced unofficially to explain why the issue has been swept under the carpet is that the report could open old wounds and even lead to unrest. However, independent journalist Busani Bafana, who is based in Bulawayo, capital of Matabeleland North, does not believe this will happen.

“People are very bitter over the issue but I don’t think they could be spurred into taking up arms,” he told IPS. “People suffered under Gukurahundi (Fifth Brigade) and they know what Gukurahundi can do and I don’t think they would want it back again.”

“People should debate about the issue and that way, I think, it will help heal the wounds and unite the country,” said Bafana. “Let’s forget about what happened and on the same length, enable people whose lives were disrupted to go back to normalcy.”

One of the proposals contained in the report is that victims of both the dissidents — whose atrocities were also documented by the CCJPZ/LRF — and the military be granted compensation, a recommendation the government has in the past dismissed.

“Although President Mugabe has said no compensation to affected parties, I think there is need to revisit the whole subject,” said Bafana, some of whose relatives suffered at the hands of Gukurahundi (‘the rain that washes away the chaff’) as the Fifth Brigade was called.

“Some people just disappeared and have never been traced,” he added. “Their families are suffering because of that. So are we saying they should continue suffering without death certificates for their relatives, husbands wives and children?”

Because there has been no official acknowledgement of the 1982- 1987 killings and disappearances, relatives of victims have been unable to obtain death certificates.

According to Ncube, a full disclosure would lead to action to remedy the situation. He says a reconciliation trust should be set up as well as a rehabilitation centre for children whose parents were killed.

“Right now some people are paupers because their fathers, mothers, breadwinners were killed when they were five years old. There is need to help victims of this attempted genocide which should have never happened in the first place,” said Ncube.

Like the victims of Nazi concentration camps, victims of Gukurahundi massacres should be compensated, he added. “But victims should respond positively so that concrete steps to help them can be taken.”

He also stated that what happened in Matabeleland should not viewed as a conflict between the Shonas and Ndebeles.

“Rather it was government versus Ndebele thing. Just because those people who were commanding the Fifth Brigade spoke Shona does not mean that it was an ethnic conflict as some people want to portray it. A few people abused their power and not all Shonas.” said Ncube.

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