Gukurahundi Genocide

A warning to all visitors to this page: the page contains written narratives, videos and photographs that people of nervous disposition may find upsetting. The page details the 1980s Zimbabwean State-sanctioned murderous activities in Matabeleland or Mthwakazi that resulted in at least 20,000 unarmed civilians; this is a military operation conducted by the 5,000 strong North Korean trained Fifth Brigade that President Robert Mugabe called Gukurahundi, and a Praetorian guard that would answer to him personally.

However upsetting, we have a responsibility never to let the genocide in Mthwakazi die; we must talk about it at home and abroad, and we need to understand what caused the Gukurahundi genocide or we will witness it again.

Indeed, if we are to fully comprehend the Mthwakazi grievances and the increasing political calls for autonomy today, we cannot ignore the Gukurahundi atrocities and their background. This period between January 1983 and at least April 1984 underpins the politics of Mthwakazi in the independent Zimbabwe.

Gukurahundi, a name given by Mugabe himself, is a Shona term that loosely translates to ‘the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains. This is a period in Zimbabwe’s political history when the State illegally suspended its primary duty of protecting citizens, and Mthwakazi unjustifiably felt the full force of an unrestrained military intervention executed under the guise of eliminating ‘dissidents’.

Claims of the Gukurahundi operations’ target being to halt dissident activity in the region are highly contentious, if not complete false if we consider that  as early as October 1980, about six months into his executive role, Mugabe entered into an agreement with the North Koreans to train the Fifth Brigade, a dubious military unit that operated outside the main state security forces. Quite frankly, in October 1980 there was no conceivable political justification for such a military unit to exist: this was prior to the first Entumbane uprising and at a time when ZAPU and ZANU were sitting together in cabinet.

It is no secret that Mugabe – a power absorbed individual and leader – was never comfortable with multi-party democracy. Gukurahundi and the Fifth Brigade – a military unit drawn exclusively from ethnic Shona young men was a creation of Mugabe, his allies and the ZANU’s political ideology that identified and isolated Matabeles and PF ZAPU as the problem that required addressing urgently. Gukurahundi’s ideological basis was the promise of utopia, its broader political aims were to eliminate all perceivable threat from Matabeleland as an entity, cut off and end all difference, create one truth, block any prospects of a multi-party democracy and subsequently turn Shona creed into law within the width and breadth of Zimbabwe.

What the 1980s taught us is how far evil can and will go when people are not prepared to confront it. Zimbabwe’s independence has been nothing short of a Mthwakazi oppression, and a social, economic and political disaster for not only the majority of its citizens but also the SADC region states of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland who have had to deal with its economic and political migrants.

Mthwakazi’s entire experience of Zimbabwean independence has been horrific, with the worst period being the early 1980s when an ethnic Shona dominated ZANU government sort to assert its authority over its old adversary that is Mthwakazi.

The Fifth Brigade’s mandate was to drive Mthwakazi into submission through terrorising and murdering civilians, and not dealing with dissidents as alleged by the State. In fact, it was other units from the main body of the army that carried out a stealth professional campaign against the approximately 400 highly dispersed bandits. Between January 1983 and at least April 1984 Matabeles were herded into remote sites where they were killed in cold blood by members of the Fifth Brigade.

Matabeleland civilians killed by the 5th Brigade

Exhumed bodies of Gukurahundi victims

Bodies on murdered Matabele civilians.

Bodies of Matabeleland civilians murdered in the State sanctioned operation.

The extra-judicial killings of Matabeleland nationals became the main feature of the period. The Gukurahundi operation was brutally conducted by the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade resulted in the death of at least 20,000 mainly ethnic Ndebele civilians.

An undated image of Fifth Brigade members in Zimbabwe

Members of the notorious Fifth Brigade, a Praetorian Guard formed of 5,000 ethnic Shona young men and reported directly to President Mugabe.

We decry the reality that Mthwakazi has yet to emerge from the devastation of Gukurahundi. We have a responsibility to keep Gukurahundi alive so that we are not witnesses to the same in the future. We must be loud, clear and consistent in our rejection of the fallacious narrative that Gukurahundi was a somewhat innocent security operation gone wrong. This was a deliberate, planned murder operation.

To remove any remaining doubt of State direct involvement in the Gukurahundi operation, the map below shows Zimbabwe State enforced curfew zones in 1983 and 1984 that coincided with the gruesome operations of the murderous Fifth Brigade.Zimbabwe imposed curfew zones

In the BBC Panorama documentary below, Jeremy Paxman (BBC reporter) investigates the wanton killings of civilians by the Fifth Brigade army in Matabeleland North’s Lupane, Tsholotsho and Gwayi areas. Although the arrogant President Robert Mugabe was in denial of the atrocities committed by the military, evidence of the atrocities was apparent to all who bothered to acknowledge it. Dead bodies were left to rot in the bush, some burnt bodies can be seen in the video as the army tried to conceal its criminal actions, and there are reports of bodies buried in shallow graves. Local people also reported systematic brutal beatings of civilians by the army whenever their targets were not found.

What is compelling about the Mthwakazi genocide is how the international community, including the British who had closer links with Zimbabwe due to the colonial history, conveniently ignored and forgot about it until the ZANU PF-led government of Robert Mugabe started targeting and forcibly driving away white farmers and appropriating their farms in the beginning of the 21st Century. When whites were at risk, Gukurahundi suddenly surfaced as an important human rights issue for the British government.

While we cannot accuse the British of wilful complicit in the systemic murder of Mthwakazi civilians by the Mugabe regime, we believe the response of the government of the time should have been robust. The problem with the British government’s response was that it attempted to contain the genocide by appeasing the Mugabe regime. It can be argued that for some time, the British government took a calculated approach of downplaying the Mthwakazi genocide to protect its interests in southern Africa and its relationship with the former colony’s new ruler.

The above argument is further supported by Dr Hazel Cameron, a lecturer in international relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Through her self-funded research work, Dr Cameron advances significantly interesting insights into the British response to the Fifth Brigade operations.

According to thousands of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Dr Cameron, British officials in London and Zimbabwe were ‘intimately aware’ of the atrocities but consistently minimised their scale. A policy approach Dr Cameron carefully described as one of ‘wilful blindness’. She argues thus, ‘The British government could have influenced authorities in Zimbabwe but put political and economic interests first …’

In her academic article, Dr Cameron reaffirms her belief that the British response to the Fifth Brigade operations was primarily to protect British economic and political interests, citing Robin Byatt, the British High Commissioner in Harare in the 1980s who asserts, ‘…the white farming community (a substantial portion of which is British or dual [nationality]) 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.’

Seeing from the above paragraph, it is perverse that the Gukurahundi atrocities and the lives of Matabeles did not matter in the slightest because ZANU PF and President Robert Mugabe conspicuously protected the white farming community most of whom were British or dual nationality, and other British interests in the country (a former British colony) were safe.

In the BBC Panorama documentary below, reporter Fergal Keane gives further gruesome evidence of the Fifth Brigade crimes against humanity between 1983 and 1984 in Mthwakazi. Pregnant women attending antenatal appointments had foetuses cut out of their wombs. There are reports of unprecedented torture and massacre of civilians; mothers raped in front of their children; parents closed in rooms and burnt while their children watched in horror from outside. There is evidence of State knowledge of the operations and atrocities although Mugabe repeatedly denied, the Fifth Brigade commander reported directly to Mugabe while the regular army was not allowed any contact with that unit.(Warning! Video contains scenes some people may find disturbing)

Further evidence of horrifying and dehumanising Matabele experiences of the Zimbabwean independence exposed in the video below. In the video Mugabe makes no secret of his desire of establishing a one party state, and that domineering party being ZANU PF. It is compelling too to observe the calls by ethnic Shona people for the hanging of Joshua Nkomo, largely seen as the Ndebele leader and a dissident intent on destabilising their country.(Warning! Video contains scenes that some people may find disturbing)

Mr Ian Smith, former Prime Minister of Rhodesia (pre-independence Zimbabwe), shares his candid political views (below) during the Gukurahundi barbarism. Smith saw the intervention for the political perversion that it was; according to Smith, Mugabe’s obsession with a one party state led to the betrayal of PF ZAPU by ZANU and the destabilisation of the country as evidenced by the exodus of white business people who were uncomfortable with the ZANU-led government’s political direction. Ian Smith interview

Disturbing evidence of ZANU-sanctioned massacre of Matabele civilians in Matabeleland is detailed in the video below(Warning! Not suitable for people of nervous disposition) Uploaded by Mabonakude (2007)

Below is further evidence of Gukurahundi atrocities (crimes against humanity) once described by President Robert Mugabe as ‘…a moment of madness…’ but, whose madness was it? This is the question Mugabe has not been prepared to deal with, yet it is the question Matabeleland wants answered before any real reconciliation can be considered.(Warning! Video contains scenes that some people may find disturbing)Uploaded by Mabonakude (2008)

ZANU PF and Mugabe are still not prepared to disclose the findings of inquiries they set up. Indeed we are none the wiser decades into this ‘independence’ delusion. If the Zimbabwean government is serious about moving forward, it must acknowledge the Mthwakazi genocide as such, and not ‘a moment of madness’. The State needs to hold an honest dialogue with the Mthwakazi leadership to define a common vision for the future.

Attempts to justify the Zimbabwean government’s 1983/4 illegal military operation as a necessary legal act in self-defence against dissidents lack credence as the case for Matabele dissident existence was not and has not been proven by the ZANU PF-led government; it was dismissed by the courts. In the video below, Mugabe accepts the evidence against both Lookout Masuku and Dumiso Dabengwa, ex-Zipra forces leaders was insufficient for prosecution yet his paranoid government continued to detain the men. There was no evidence of an organised illegal military effort by Matabeles to depose the Harare government. Mugabe deliberately lied to justify the illegal murders of unarmed Mthwakazi civilians.(Warning! Not suitable for people of nervous disposition)Uploaded by Mabonakude (N.D)

The moral codes, ethical values and laws guiding the expectations of the Zimbabwean regime are a reflection of unrestricted authority and political iniquities that have hampered political progress and brought most African states to their knees, never to rise up again.

The Gukurahundi genocide has succeeded in terrorising, intimidating and alienating Mthwakazi and its citizens. Now that we have evidence, a better informed comprehension of the Gukurahundi atrocities and a greater confidence in the Zimbabwean State’s direct involvement, we cannot remain silent; silence remains the best way of empowering bullies. We need to educate the next generation; knowledge will inevitably lead to an increased desire to protect the innocent Matabeles.