AS we got out of the cars and looked around the village, it was the silence we noticed. It was as if a neutron bomb had struck, destroying all living creatures while leaving structures intact. Not a dog. Not a chicken. Not a laughing toddler.
For a village in communal lands just 20km from the city of Bulawayo, the quiet was eerie. My contacts – from the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) in the Bulawayo township of Magwegwe – were also quiet, as they went from house to house, looking for signs of life.
Eventually, in the back room of a modest brick and corrugated iron dwelling, they found an old man hiding under a bed.
He had heard the cars and hid away, because, unlike the other villagers, he had been unable to flee into town. “I thought it was the soldiers coming back,” he said.
He then stood at the edge of the village, and pointed to 14 locations where people had either been killed or buried. Fourteen. In 32 years, I haven’t forgotten that number.
He walked over to some mounds of soil which were clearly still fresh.
“That one. He is my son.” Not was, “is”.
I had three other journalists who had tagged along with me, from The Times and The Guardian in London and Reuters news agency. We didn’t ask many questions. We didn’t need to. Nic Worrall, The Guardian’s man in Harare, kept shaking his head and muttering: “Bloody hell. Bloody hell.”
The foreign journos in Harare had been slow off the mark in reporting the start of the killings in Matabeleland – which later turned out to have been carried out by Robert Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Five Brigade – perhaps because they simply didn’t believe what was emerging from Zimbabwe’s southern provinces.
Perhaps they believed that the brave, mainly Ndebele, journalists from The Chronicle newspaper in Bulawayo somehow had an axe to grind against the northern government. Perhaps they sub-consciously discounted the reporting we were doing on the then-Argus Africa News Service (AANS), believing it may have been exaggerated because it was appearing in South African newspapers.
The British hacks were shocked.
I remember the eerie quiet, but I had long since passed the point of shock.
I had been on the story for at least two weeks by then and I had seen this before – in Lupane, in Nyamandlovu, in Gwaai River. Torched villages, burial mounds, hacked and bleeding people who streamed into St Luke’s Catholic Mission in Lupane.Advertisement
And the bodies. More than I ever saw when I was a soldier. More than I want to see again. Executed with single or multiple AK rounds, bludgeoned with “sadza sticks” (the big wooden poles used for grinding maize), hacked to pieces, screaming, with pangas.
Some, I found by following my nose – like the six young men pulled off a bus on the Plumtree-Bulawayo road, marched 150m into the bush and executed. It was weeks before that taste of death washed from the back of my nostrils and throat. And it was many months before the image of a perfect row of teeth in a fire-charred skull, at another killing site, would fade.
Later, when the Zimbabwe government deported Worrall, they would accuse all of us of telling lies or spreading malicious Zapu propaganda. Most of the witnesses I spoke to were rural people. They don’t have it in them to lie. Nor do corpses…
It didn’t take long before the Zanu-PF government had me in its sights. The AANS bureau chief in Harare, Robin Drew, was summoned by an apoplectic Justin Nyoka, then the country’s information chief. We will deport him, he screamed at Robin. You can’t was the reply – he was born here.
“So then he is an enemy of the state!”
Not long after that, Robin pulled me out of Matabeleland. I went to write about farmers rescuing sable antelope in the drought-ravaged lowveld of the country, about buffalo culls, about “human interest”. I still kept in touch with contacts in Bulawayo by phone – including the brave and steadfast Bishop Henry Karlin, who opened the churches as places of refuge and gave impetus to the telling report on the atrocities which would later be compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
I didn’t go back. But I have never forgotten. Nor should Zimbabwe or the rest of the world. However, I am worried that the whole historical picture – a complex one – of Zimbabwe in the 1980s is in danger of getting overwhelmed by Mugabe-phobia among many commentators and historians. A new book is being written about the Gukurahundi massacres by Australian researcher Stuart Doran, who posted a piece on a website this week.
It included no background or context.
At the risk of being labelled a Mugabe groupie, I think it is important to sketch the historical context.
In the late 1970s, as the Rhodesian war worsened, the main guerrilla groups – Mugabe’s Zanla and Zipra of Joshua Nkomo (the Zapu leader) – were setting up for a bloody end game. In the south of the country, more guerrillas were killed by their erstwhile Patriotic Front allies than by the Rhodesians. The enmity between the two groups went way back, to the split in Zapu in the 1960s which led to the formation of Zanu.
After Mugabe and Zanu-PF triumphed at the Lancaster House-born elections of 1980, Zipra secretly began caching weapons across Matabeleland. Clashes broke out in the Entumbane township in Bulawayo in 1981 between Zipra and Zanla cadres who were being integrated into a new Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA).
As the city descended into chaos, it was the existing, white-led soldiers, policemen and air force pilots who helped save Mugabe. A heavily armed Zipra column heading for Bulawayo down the Victoria Falls road was halted in its tracks after a low, menacing pass by an Air Force of Zimbabwe Hunter jet fighter, armed with rockets and 30mm cannon.
In Bulawayo, a Russian-supplied Zipra BDRM armoured personnel carrier was turned into a flaming hulk by one shot from a 90mm cannon in a ZNA Eland armoured car. On the main road from Plumtree into the city, six senior Zipra commanders, speeding to join the fray, tried to force their way through a roadblock manned by white police reservists. The cops opened fire with rifles and all six Zipra commanders were killed.
The country teetered on the precipice for a few days. I still believe Nkomo was making a grab for power. The reality is that Mugabe was not just being paranoid about the security threats in the south.
What many people have forgotten is that, after the Bulawayo reversal, many Zipra cadres took to the bush and became guerrillas again. They carried out brutal attacks against civilians, including farmers and, on one occasion, fired at South African tourists along the Victoria Falls road. They also kidnapped six foreign tourists south of the Falls. The six were never seen alive again. I covered that story, too.
Many of the Zipra dissidents ended up being backed and armed by the then-South African military, which was engaged in a campaign of destabilisation across southern Africa. That included the sabotage of weapons and explosive stores at Inkomo Barracks outside Harare; the destruction of most of the air force in a raid on Thornhill air base; and the destruction of the oil pipeline between Harare and Beira, which caused months of fuel shortages.
There is also no doubt that Mugabe, by this time, felt he could not trust his own security forces – either the integrated ZNA with its Zipra elements, or his intelligence arms, which had a number of people who were working for the South Africans.
That lack of trust was one of the main reasons – along with his admiration for North Korea’s despot, Kim Il-sung – why he got the Koreans to form and train Five Brigade as a Praetorian guard.
Brought up on the Maoist dictum that in an insurgent campaign, guerrillas are the fish which swim in the water of the peasants, no doubt Mugabe deployed Five Brigade to dry up that water.
None of this excuses or lessens the slaughter carried out by that brigade. It was horrific. That I know because I was there. But, one thing I learnt early in my journalism career was that there is always a big picture and a context.
I’ve never forgotten what Drew told me all those years ago: “In life, and in Africa particularly, the truth is never simply black or white. It is in the shades of grey.”
* Brendan Seery is a senior journalist and travel editor at The Star.